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Who is Rex Ryan's Sensei?


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Rex Ryan’s quest to take back his team began Jan. 1, in the galley of a 757 team charter homebound from South Florida.

His Jets, in his third year as head coach, had just imploded — collapsed upon themselves from within, in the truest sense — in a drama-filled season-ending loss to Miami. Sickened by his team missing the playoffs for the first time in his tenure, Ryan began sifting through the rubble for answers.

He pulled the second-longest tenured Jet, right guard Brandon Moore, into the cramped kitchen area as the flight attendants drew the curtains shut. For the next 20 minutes, Ryan was endearingly “wide open,” Moore recalled. He needed to know what happened to his team, even if he knew the answers would sting.

“I’m sitting there, talking in front of the team, selling, ‘Team, team, team,’ like I always am, and I did not know we had a rift in our team. How was I not aware of it?” Ryan said months later in his Florham Park office. “I was mad. I was upset. I was mad at myself, because you’re either coaching it or allowing it to happen, and I’m not going to do either.”

In the months since that nadir, Ryan has embarked on a regeneration of sorts in anticipation of a new season, which officially starts when training camp opens this week in Cortland, N.Y. He publicly took responsibility for the sub-standard 2011 season, and has privately taken measures to ensure 2012 is different.

His approach has been humbling and painstaking, including a reckoning with a yellow pad of paper in Hawaii, a frank speech to the entire football operations staff in February and consultations with a secret “sensei” — his word — whose identity he promises to withhold until his redemption campaign is complete.

As he shed a remarkable 106 pounds (and counting) from his physique, Ryan was reshaping himself as a head coach, too, desperate to turn the defeat of an 8-8 season into opportunity.

“He’s revived,” owner Woody Johnson said. “It’s a different Rex in a way, because I think Rex is evolving into the job. He was almost to the Super Bowl two years in a row, coming right out of the gate, so it’s hard to change your attitude. … He took (last season) personally, and I just think you’re going to see more of an intense focus.”


Ryan, a man of ritual, has made a habit of unwinding from each season with a getaway to the Pro Bowl. Before he left for Hawaii this winter, general manager Mike Tannenbaum handed Ryan a yellow pad of paper.

“Put all the problems on the left-hand side,” Tannenbaum told him, “and put your solutions on the right.”

The afternoon after the season-ending loss to the Dolphins, Ryan made the admission to reporters that he “lost the pulse” of his team. But his evaluation process would go on for weeks, as Santonio Holmes’ Week 17 benching and players’ public descriptions of the locker-room disharmony cast a pall over his club.

Ryan continued to poll his players and assistant coaches, making a simple plea: “I need help.”

All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis had been asleep on the flight home from Florida, so Ryan called him a few days later. He also met with linebacker Bart Scott and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and secondary coach Dennis Thurman, the men who had believed in Ryan since his days as an up-and-coming coordinator with the Ravens.

Each confirmed what Ryan was realizing on his own: He had strayed from the very traits that had once set him apart, being hands-on and teaching the game of football and having fun. He had tried to take the next step as a head coach, but instead, in Pettine’s words, “isolated” himself.

“I just told him that we need him in there,” Scott said. “He should come back in and give us more of his gifts. Teach us. Nobody really teaches like him.”

By the time Ryan returned from Hawaii, he had filled pages and pages of the yellow pad. In return, Tannenbaum shared that he had tucked away in his top right desk drawer the aqua-colored band used to tag his bag at Sun Life Stadium — a daily motivator to avoid another season bitterly expiring on New Year’s Day.

Seated in Ryan’s office, they were ready to move forward.

“Let’s go,” Ryan told Tannenbaum. “We’ve got to get better, and it starts with me.”


To prioritize his responsibilities as a head coach, Ryan visualizes a four-quadrant grid. In the top left are tasks that are urgent and important. The bottom right has items that are not urgent and not important. The other two boxes are where he’s making a change.

Ryan realized he was bogged down last year with things that were urgent but not important, managerial-type tasks that kept him in the head-coaching chair, figuratively and literally. He has vowed instead to focus more on what is not urgent, but important — like spending time with his players.

In other words, it’s football first.

“He’s admitted it, he lost sight of that,” Pettine said. “Football is the dog, not the tail.”

The staff received its first taste of the renewed Ryan when it gathered in the cafeteria in mid-February, the entire football operations department from the front office to the new coaches to the groundskeepers.

For 45 minutes, he and Tannenbaum spoke of the direction of the team, of each person being a stakeholder in its success, of communicating better so small problems don’t become big ones. But Tannenbaum most noticed Ryan’s humility, the way he pointed the finger only at himself, which has had a trickle-down effect.

This offseason, Ryan became the head coach who set up hour-long tutoring sessions with new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, but usually stayed nearly twice as long. Players swear he is in every meeting, grilling cornerbacks on the nose tackle’s responsibilities during a defensive install.

First-round pick Quinton Coples was shocked when Ryan stopped him in the hallway one afternoon — “In the hallway!” Coples exclaimed — to show him a different counter-move to the jump-set Coples had seen from an offensive lineman in practice that morning.

Ryan changed his daily schedule to allow more time to watch film with his assistants, and his colleagues have noticed that his itinerary is now much more regimented. Meeting times and calendars are set, no longer as free-flowing.

What drives Ryan is what he once took for granted on his teams: Everybody pulling in the same direction.

When the players returned for the offseason program in April, Ryan showed a PowerPoint slide in the team meeting with examples of anonymous quotes in the media that undermined the team last season. Since unity starts from the top, the coaching staff went off-site to a farm in June for an exhausting day of team-building and leadership drills, led by a former Army Special Forces operator and a pair of combat-wounded veterans.

“Just because you build something doesn’t mean you will take off from where you were,” Ryan said. “You have to go back to the ground floor, and start again.”


Ahead of the Jets is a season with much to prove: That last year’s playoffs miss was an aberration, and that QBs Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow can work in synergy, for starters. Perhaps for many reasons, Ryan has enlisted the help of a mysterious mentor he calls “my little sensei,” the Japanese word for a “wise teacher.”

The sensei’s identity is intriguingly guarded within the walls of the Jets facility. He is male and does not work in the building. He and Ryan speak a few times a month. He offers advice and perspective, and “really has me look at myself,” Ryan said. But other details are scarce.

Asked if the sensei is a former coach, Ryan says, “He’s a coach of mine.” Thurman, one of Ryan’s most trusted confidants, pretends not to know about the sensei before jumping up from the interview table. Tannenbaum squirms similarly, offering only that the sensei is a “special person who has bettered all of us.”

“After we have the season that we’re going to have,” Ryan says coyly, “I’ll mention his name.”

What kind of season is that? That mildly confident intimation is as close as Ryan wants to get these days to his once-ubiquitous Super Bowl guarantees. Toning down his brashness was part of Ryan’s redefinition this spring, and in its place, Thurman describes “more of a hard-line, straight attitude” to work toward winning a championship rather than talking about it.

Ryan’s aim is not to change who he is, but rather to be the best, most successful version of himself. He refers respectfully to Tom Coughlin, coach of the Super Bowl champion Giants, kindly guessing his counterpart “probably doesn’t make a mistake” decades into his coaching career. But being able to learn from mistakes is one of the reasons Johnson hired Ryan.

To Ryan, last season was a mistake, his mistake. He’s determined to be the opposite for his team this year.

“For some coaches, it’s about hanging on,” Ryan said. “That’s not who I am. I want to be great. Maybe that sets me apart from others, but I’m not worried about the security. I came here to be special, and that’s what I want to be.”

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