FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - As Rex Ryan flew to Hawaii to attend last season's Pro Bowl, his mind still tortured by the Jets' late-season meltdown that dropped them out of playoff contention, he took out a yellow legal pad and started scribbling down his thoughts.
He divided his ideas into two columns: problems on the left, solutions on the right.
Upon his return to the team's training complex, he brought the list into a meeting with general manager Mike Tannenbaum, and together the two men began the painstaking process of reformulating the team.
The contents of the list remain between Ryan and Tannenbaum, but they have attempted ever since to correct the wrongs that doomed last year's team.
That process has taken several twists and turns and now is complicated by unforeseen developments that threaten to do further damage to a season that could hang in the balance in the coming weeks. Yet the two men soldier on in hopes of revitalizing a team that began with such promise in the first two years of their partnership.
That partnership remains strong, although some of the easygoing moments from earlier years have been replaced by the stresses of a regular season in which the Jets are 2-2 heading into tomorrow night's game against the 4-0 Texans.
They are without their two best players, wide receiver Santonio Holmes and cornerback Darrelle Revis, both out with season-ending injuries. Quarterback Mark Sanchez, the first cornerstone player from the draft that the Ryan-Tannenbaum partnership settled on, continues to raise nagging questions about whether he is good enough to win a championship. Linebacker Bart Scott, the centerpiece free-agent acquisition of 2009, has slowed down considerably and is fighting a toe injury. Ryan's defense, usually one of the NFL's best, is ranked 31st against the run. The Jets' running game is ranked 24th.
With a lack of depth now becoming more evident, there are suggestions that Tannenbaum's job might be on the line, especially if the Jets flounder in the absence of their key players. But the two men continue to work amid the doubts swirling around the team, and despite occasional differences of opinion, Ryan and Tannenbaum are convinced that the Jets still can have a meaningful season.
"We do whatever it takes to try to win," Ryan said. "I've never seen a guy work as hard as Mike T. does, trying to help you get the players you need to win. Are we the same people? No, but we're the same competitors."
Ryan said there are times when he doesn't agree with Tannenbaum on personnel issues, although he declined to name any specific instances. On most big decisions, however, such as the acquisition of Tim Tebow in a trade with the Broncos, the two are on the same page.
"There are times when you have a difference of opinion on a guy, do we pay him or not, that kind of thing," Ryan said. "But I can honestly say since I've been here, there's probably one or two times where we haven't been in complete agreement 100 percent with things."
Ryan said Tannenbaum's exhaustive studies on players are reflective of the general manager's preparation. "He's got all these books that are this big," said Ryan, opening his thumb and index finger about three inches wide. "He'll read every work. I'm like, give me the Reader's Digest, one or two sheets. He knows my strengths and weaknesses and I recognize his. He's so thorough."
Tannenbaum is equally effusive about working with Ryan.
"He's been great, really been inspiring," Tannenbaum said. "Rex has been a great partner to work with. [Team owner Woody Johnson], Rex and I communicate every day, and we always come out and make the best decisions for the Jets."
The overall body of work has been commendable, but in a league and in a market in which the pressure to win is intense, a precipitous drop-off this year could result in changes, both on the roster and in the front office. And that could include breaking up the Ryan-Tannenbaum partnership, with Tannenbaum being the odd man out.
Ryan hopes it doesn't come to that. "At the end of the day," the coach said, "I'm happy as hell that he's my general manager. I'm happy for that and I'm lucky for that."