Here are Rex Ryan's Jets, off to a 4-3 start with a rookie quarterback and coming off a win over the Patriots that has them within a game of first place in the AFC East. The playoffs still are a long way off, but the fact that we're even considering the idea that the Jets might play into January was almost inconceivable just a few weeks ago.
And the reason the Jets are even in the conversation is largely Ryan, who is doing what might be his best coaching job in his five seasons with the team. And that's saying something, considering he went to the AFC Championship Game his first two years on the job.
But Ryan demurs when you ask him if he thinks it's his best work. In our conversation at the Jets' training facility this past week, Ryan talked more about the job his coaching staff as a whole is doing.
"I just think I got a great staff, and I think collectively we've done a great job of teaching and I think that's what it's about," he said. "When you come into this year, you have seven new starters on defense, five rookies starting, it tells you the type of teachers we have, what the guys that coach with me are doing. It's about teaching."
But it's also about believing, and Ryan has always believed in his teams and in himself. Which is why he harbors no doubt that despite what appears to be a tenuous situation, he will be here beyond this season. For a long time beyond this season, in fact. "Absolutely,'' he said. "I've always thought that."
He says this despite the fact that he's in a situation that is potentially uncomfortable because he has inherited a new general manager in John Idzik. Recent history has not been kind to coaches in similar situations, with the Bears' Lovie Smith, the Packers' Mike Sherman and the Browns' Eric Mangini getting fired a year after a new general manager was hired. But Ryan is convinced he'll buck that trend, mostly by ignoring it.
"I'm just focused on the job at hand and I think that's where my attention is," he said. "I don't think about that one bit, not one bit. I just know if I do a good job, everything will work out."
Besides, he likes Idzik and feels a certain kinship with the first-time general manager. Both men are sons of coaches, Ryan the son of former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator Buddy and Idzik the son of former NFL assistant (and one-time Jets offensive coordinator) John. And both the coach and general manager played college football.
"The fact John and I have similar backgrounds professionally is good," Ryan said. "I know. I see how competitive he is and how he wants to win and how he's trying to build this football team, and so I feel good with it. I feel comfortable."
He should. Idzik has done a masterful job of plugging holes and dealing with a bloated salary cap, giving Ryan a competitive roster in the process. The trade for Darrelle Revis has worked out just fine. In return, the Jets got a first-round pick and took defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, arguably the best rookie this season. Cornerback Dee Milliner has dealt with injuries but looks as if he'll develop into a fine player. Idzik traded for running back Chris Ivory, who pounded the Patriots' defense last weekend. And he took Geno Smith in the second round; the quarterback has shown plenty of promise.
The Ryan-Idzik duo has worked out better than expected. The fact that Ryan finally got it right with his offensive coordinator, Marty Mornhinweg, only adds to the sense that the Jets' turnaround is legitimate.
"Marty has been there and done that consistently through the years," Ryan said. "He doesn't need to put a square peg in a round hole. He's flexible enough. He can take what he has and use it, and I think that's something I've really been impressed with. We've got [Santonio] Holmes down, this guy down, that guy down, but he still finds a way to move the football efficiently. He's supposed to be a guy that throws the ball every down, but he'll take what we do best at a particular time. That's very impressive."
Ryan also made a smart move by getting back to calling plays on defense. There are few men more qualified to do so in the NFL, and Ryan's expertise already has paid dividends. The Jets figure to get better on that side of the ball, although big challenges lie ahead Sunday in Cincinnati and at home next Sunday against the high-flying Saints.
But Ryan isn't getting ahead of himself. Nor is he about to start puffing his chest publicly about his team. He's already learned that the guarantee stuff can backfire on him.
"I think I've learned publicly that that's probably the best thing and most prudent thing to do, now, is not make guarantees," he said. "Now, privately, I end up being very similar to what I've always been with my guys. Inside the building, you might see a different guy if you were in here. It might be more of the same, but publicly, I've learned that there's no sense trying to put more pressure on my players. I don't want to add pressure on my players by any stretch of the imagination.
"Before, I thought it would just put pressure on me," he said. "Pile on me. That's one of the reasons I did it. As it turned out, it wasn't just coming down on me, which it was, but it was coming down on my players, too."
Besides, he's unwilling to say this is a playoff team yet.
"We're so far away from that," he said. "We have to improve by leaps and bounds before we ever even think about that. We have to improve by leaps and bounds to win this game . That's where the challenge is."
No need to do any more talking than is necessary. What his team is doing on Sundays says all you need to know about the job Ryan has done. And the job he believes he'll be doing for many more years ahead.