Rex Ryan has been known to take his enthusiasm to heights rarely seen from NFL coaches, but at least the Jets' sixth-year coach has some empirical evidence behind his latest bit of hyperbole.
Shortly after arriving in this cozy, upstate college town for the start of training camp, Ryan gushed about the team's physical preparedness for what lies ahead. For the first time since taking over in 2009, every one of his players passed the Jets' pre-training camp conditioning test.
"Two things are going to happen. You're either going to get better, or you get worse in that month before you head to camp," Ryan said in advance of Thursday's first day of training camp at Cortland University. "That's all on the players. There's nobody else. It's 100 percent on the players. Every one of them came back in phenomenal shape. It's hard not to get excited."
OK, so maybe it's partly a function of Joe McKnight not being on the roster any longer. The former Jets running back was routinely out of shape, and watching him wheeze his way through the early days of training camp last year was painful. He could barely do a wind sprint without having to take a knee. But Ryan truly believes he now has the makings of a special roster. He thinks it's a collection of players good enough to enjoy a special season and perhaps get back into the playoffs for the first time since the Jets went to their second straight AFC Championship Game after the 2010 season.
Ryan wasn't making any proclamations just yet -- he got out of the guarantee business a couple years ago when he realized his near daily we're-going-to-the-Super-Bowl decrees grew tired and put a gigantic bull's eye on the Jets. No, Ryan was tempered on Wednesday when given the chance to predict an outcome to the season.
"I've talked about the positives I see with this team, the excitement I have for this team," he said. "We understand there are so many steps we have to take to get there. We have to improve as a football team. We know that talking won't get it done. We have to earn it and take every step, and [Thursday] will be our first step. I look forward to it."
Ryan has expressed confidence about this being a playoff team, and many of his players have chimed in in recent days about making it to January. Wide receiver David Nelson even took it a step further this week, suggesting the Jets weren't just good, they were Super Bowl good. But the coach is right about this much: Talking won't get it done. Having a good team with good players will get you where you want to be, and right now, the Jets can at least be in the conversation about getting into the tournament with the group they head into camp with.
Yes, there are still legitimate questions about whether Geno Smith can be the kind of consistent quarterback you need to make a playoff run, let alone a Super Bowl run. But he showed last year he could be functional in the right circumstances, and the addition of playmakers Eric Decker, Chris Johnson and rookie Jace Amaro to the offense will help. And if Smith can't handle it, then Michael Vick offers a quick fix from a veteran who has been to the playoffs.
Ryan's defense looks formidable up front, with one of the best collections of defensive linemen in the game to go with sure-tackling inside linebackers David Harris and Demario Davis. The secondary is young, but second-year cornerback Dee Milliner and first-round safety Calvin Pryor are quality players to build around. The signing of veteran pass rusher Jason Babin on Wednesday was another solid acquisition, especially on a team that can't have enough quality pass rushers.
But a lot has to happen for the Jets to be in position to grab a playoff spot and compete with the Patriots. Training camp optimism must be transformed into regular-season success, and that doesn't always happen, even with talented teams. Just ask Vick, the quarterback of the Eagles' "Dream Team" in 2011. That group vastly underperformed, finishing just 8-8, while the underrated Giants won the Super Bowl.
"You've got to be able to toe the line between confidence and arrogance and I think this team has felt for a long time like they can get it done," Ryan said. "That's the right mindset and that's how we feel and that's how we want to approach this season. I don't think it's any danger in having confidence. I think that's an emotion that we all have and we all want to exude at some point. This is the time to do it."