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We aspire to learning from the mistakes of our elders, but mainly we just repeat them. My strong suspicion is that Rex Ryan’s lot as head coach has already been cast. Just as his father came to despise the mainly brilliant play of his flamboyant quarterback Randall Cunningham, it is only too easy to imagine what will happen now that the Jets have invested multiple high draft picks in talented, pretty boy Mark Sanchez. Consider the dynamics. With Ryan’s faux-longshoreman machismo and Sanchez’s preening self regard, this quarterback/coach mismatch is a slow moving train wreck. Both will demand the spotlight, polarize the media and accept disproportionate amounts of credit for wins and losses alike. You couldn’t contrive a more predictable, prepackaged drama if you were casting the Real World.
Then there is the matter of Ryan’s verbal baiting of fellow coaches and opposing players. In professional football this is never a winning gambit. Rex should know this, because it is precisely the same behavior which wrecked his father’s coaching career. In 1990, his intimidating Eagles defense were not content to merely beat their NFC East rivals, they had to mock and taunt them in the manner of authoritarian bullies. That year, during a regular season Monday Night Football game, Buddy Ryan’s Eagles savaged Joe Gibb’s Washington Redskins with such cruel abandon that a total of eight players, including two quarterbacks, were carted off like cadavers. The excess carnage was not lost on the Eagles players, who with class characteristic of any Ryan coached team, gleefully shouted at the injured players: “You guys need any more body bags?”
The Body Bag Game quickly became perhaps the single most infamous moment in DC sports history, and as anyone remotely familiar with the concepts of karma, hubris, and the NFL could immediately anticipate, it would be the last important win of Buddy Ryan’s Eagle’s coaching career. Eight weeks later, the enraged Redskins pounded the Eagles during a humiliating home playoff loss. Three days after that, the Eagles owner Norman Braman, tired of riding herd on this bellicose asshole, dismissed Buddy Ryan. Around the league, no tears were shed. It was like someone had cut the head off Grendel. The remainder of Buddy’s coaching career was a farcical death spasm. He punched Kevin Gilbride when both were assistants for the Houston Oilers, because he didn’t like his play calling. He was given a final chance at being a head coach, by the desperate Arizona Cardinals and haughtily declared “You have a winner in town!” before going 12-20 in two seasons.
And now the belligerent mantle falls to his son. It is amusing to consider that prior to having coached even his first exhibition game, Rex Ryan has already essentially sealed his own demise. Just like his father, having bragged and bullied and berated his way to the top of so many Enemies Lists, it becomes a kind of parlor game to consider how long he can possibly last. Buckle up for high comedy and momentous disaster. A press box wag who served as Eagles beat reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer during the Buddy Ryan era (Ok — it was my mentor in professional sports writing, Phil Sheridan) once ingeniously characterized Buddy Ryan as “the guy with the shotgun at the end of Easy Rider.” It’s an absolutely perfect descriptor for the evil, withered old gnome. Now that it’s the Rex Ryan era in New York, the guy with shotgun looks a lot like Bill Belichick.