MIAMI GARDENS,Fla. - Nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the Jets' first play from scrimmage, just a conventional handoff from Geno Smith to Chris Ivory and a designed run to the left. As it turned out, there was plenty of symbolism to be found, including a potential farewell gesture from coach Rex Ryan.
A few minutes after what was almost certain to be his final game with the Jets Sunday, Ryan acknowledged the deeper meaning to the handoff.
"That was a tribute to the real Jets fans out there, the ones that were around for Super Bowl III," Ryan said after a 37-24 win over Miami.
Turns out the call was identical to the one that Weeb Ewbank had Joe Namath run on the first play of the Jets' 16-7 upset of the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III at the Orange Bowl. Just a few miles from where Ryan likely ended his run with the Jets, it was Matt Snell taking a handoff from Namath and running to his left, gaining 3 yards. And so began the most important Jets victory in franchise history, a moment that hasn't been duplicated since.
If Ryan couldn't deliver the Super Bowl title he promised upon his arrival as the Jets' coach in 2009, at least he could give one final tip of the hat to Namath & Co. "That was the very first play that the Jets did for Super Bowl III," he said. "I thought it was appropriate coming down here to Miami. I told the team [the play] will work for 3 yards, but [Ivory] went for 7. Who says I don't know anything about offense?"
Vintage Ryan on his way out the door.
Jets owner Woody Johnson is expected to fire Ryan and general manager John Idzik in the biggest purge of the owner's 15-year tenure.
But Ryan wanted to drink in one last moment with his players, who still adore him despite a 4-12 season and despite the fact that the Jets haven't been to the playoffs for four straight seasons. It is a testament to Ryan's charisma and open-book personality that his players remained steadfast in their loyalty to him right up to the end.
"I think New York understands he's tough," said Willie Colon, the Jets' Bronx-born right guard. "He's not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. He believes in this organization. He believes in his players."
If Ryan is done, Colon will be sad to see him go. "He's probably the most resilient person I've ever been around," he said. "His perseverance level is amazing. He never cracked. He always kept the faith, always kept his chin up. It was an honor to play for him if he does go."
Ryan refused to make this last game about himself. His players did it for him, especially Smith, who had his finest NFL game with 358 yards, three touchdown passes and a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.
But no matter how well the Jets played Sunday, that doesn't take away how poorly this team played most weeks, and Johnson is justified in wanting to go in a new direction.
"I don't want to take away from the effort of these players. It's not about me," Ryan said. "I don't think it's the appropriate time to talk about my situation. Just understand that I'm not afraid of anything. I'm not afraid of what lies ahead, I can tell you that."
No reason for him to be afraid. Ryan will land in a good spot, whether it's on TV or as a head coach or defensive coordinator. If there's ever a person who will land on his feet, it's the effervescent Ryan. That's a guarantee for the guy who offered more guarantees than Namath, yet never came through.
Ryan paid homage to the most famous guarantee of all. But his call on the opening play, followed by a terrific performance by his players, will have to do as a farewell as a six-year run came to an inauspicious close.