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"Hard Knocks": HBO seizes on Rex Ryan's cursing for story line

Just as HBO suspected when it chose to feature the Jets in "Hard Knocks" and to elevate Rex Ryan to star status, the Jets' coach is proving his worth as a surefire lightning rod. Episode Two aired Wednesday night, and already HBO's early focus on Ryan's cursing has taken on a life of its own to provide the kind of controversial story line that attracts viewers.

HBO didn't even mention the name of Tony Dungy, but it didn't have to because the former Indianapolis coach's criticism of Ryan's cursing in the first episode caused a sensation on Monday before the Jets took on the Giants that night in their preseason opener. "Hard Knocks" included two conversations involving Ryan that made direct references to the controversy that ensued after the devout Dungy said he wouldn't hire someone who cursed as much as Ryan does.

First, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer tells Ryan that his father, Marty, used to get criticism for using the F-word when he was an NFL head coach. Then, on the field before kickoff against the Giants, Jets owner Woody Johnson offers Ryan his unqualified support in the wake of Dungy's criticism.

"In the parking lot, we asked [fans], 'Does he curse too much?'" Johnson tells Ryan. "They said, 'No, it's just right.' I love it."

Ryan then responds, "Be myself, right?"

"Whatever you're doing," Johnson says, "keep doing it."

Ironically, Ryan didn't drop a single F-bomb in Episode Two, though he cursed about 10 times. Considering Ryan's revelation earlier Thursday  that he called Dungy and left a message inviting him to visit Jets training camp, the subject is almost certain to resurface again next week in Episode Three.

The crazy thing is that Dungy did more for "Hard Knocks" with his criticism of Ryan than a hundred publicists could have done. It's no secret there's cursing in football. It would be more shocking if there weren't. But I can almost guarantee HBO's producers prepped everyone on the Jets by telling them not to hold back around the cameras when it comes to cursing. Remember, it's a "reality" series.

If Dungy accepts Ryan's invitation for a visit, it will be like a self-fulfilling prophecy sparked by HBO's production decisions. If Dungy stays away, the whole thing will die down quickly, and the focus will return to football, which is plenty interesting in its own right.

Episode Two offered several slices of Jets life, including a look at special teams coach Mike Westhoff and his battle with cancer that left him with a metal prosthesis in his left leg connected to his real hip and knee joints. There also was a nice vignette in which  Ryan expresses his faith in underachieving defensive end Vernon Gholston. Ryan says Gholston volunteered to take a pay cut this season to help sign other players, and the coach takes special delight when Gholston gets into a fight with teammate Robert Turner and shows some combativeness.

For those who wonder why 40-year-old Mark Brunell was brought in to mentor 23-year-old quarterback Mark Sanchez, there's a revealing exchange when Sanchez comes off the field after throwing an interception on the opening series against the Giants. Sanchez says, "Heck of a way to start the year," and Brunell responds, "It's not the year. It's a preseason game." Sanchez thanks him and bounces back to have a strong game.

Earlier in the show, there was a cute moment when Brunell says he has a daughter who's only five years younger than Sanchez. Somebody asks Brunell if his daughter will meet Sanchez, and the old vet says, "Not happening. She already thinks he's cute. I like the kid [Sanchez], but that's not happening." As the father of three young adult daughters who admire Sanchez, I certainly can relate.

Ultimately, "Hard Knocks" has to come back to the most important theme of the Jets' training camp -- the holdout of cornerback Darrelle Revis. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine tells his players before the Giants game, "We've got to make a statement. Can this defense get it done without No. 24? Was he the reason they were No. 1? That's the challenge."

During the first half, Pettine gloats about his defense "whipping [the Giants'] ---." But after the backups yield three touchdown passes to free-agent wide receiver Victor Cruz and lose to the Giants, 30-16, Ryan expresses his disappointment. Getting very real, the coach reaches for the salty language to emphasize the depth of his unhappiness with the second-teamers in particular.

"You've got to be a bad __," Ryan tells his players. "I'm especially talking to the defense. That ain't good enough. I thought we had a better group of twos. That's__. unacceptable."

That ought to bring the viewers back for more next week. One thing about Rex Ryan -- either you love him or you *&%$#@ him. But you can't get enough of him.

New York Sports