New Yorkers are not easily astounded.
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The Jets play at Indianapolis on Sunday. It will be the first time two rookie head coaches meet in a conference championship game. The boisterous Rex Ryan is 46. The low-key Jim Caldwell turned 55 last Saturday. The game is about validation. For Ryan, to prove that beyond the humor and bold statements he is an elite coach. For Caldwell, to show that he is his own man despite the shadow of Peyton Manning.
Until their postgame handshake after the Colts gift-wrapped the Jets’ victory in Indianapolis last month, they had not really engaged each other. But in a football context, Caldwell and Ryan have lived in a parallel universe for years.
Caldwell is an offensive mind. Ryan is a hardnosed defensive wizard. When Ryan became the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive line coach in 1999, Caldwell was in his sixth season as the Wake Forest head coach. Ryan, the quintessential coach. Caldwell the low-key professor.
Ryan is a favorite of the news media. Ryan makes them laugh. He has the great one-liners, thinks of compelling slogans and makes brash predictions. Ryan said he was flabbergasted that his team was such a heavy underdog to reach the Super Bowl.
“I was shocked, I really was shocked, when they came out and said that we were the longest long shot out there at 50-1 or something,” Ryan boomed.
Pointing out that the tried-and-true formula for championship football is great defense and a great running attack, Ryan said: “I’m sorry and I don’t care who it offends, but our defense is the best defense in the National Football League, and we can run the ball better than anybody in the National Football League. For me, to just take it in and accept the fact that we should be the biggest long shots in the tournament was ridiculous, and I still feel that way.”
Ryan’s bluster was necessary to restore confidence and change the perception of a franchise whose charm had become its heat-seeking genius at finding innovative ways to bungle.
For Caldwell, who followed Tony Dungy, the challenge was quite the opposite. He had large shoes to fill. “I’m really just kind of building upon what Tony had established here,” Caldwell said. “I’ve been here for seven years. It was fairly easy for me to have a good understanding of what worked well, and the things that I thought we needed to adjust and change we changed.”
While Ryan simply has to win to earn validation, Caldwell’s predicament may not be cured by winning. In fact, winning might exacerbate the situation. Like Dungy, Caldwell has coached in Manning’s shadow. Whenever the subject of the coaching elite arises, someone invariably says, “Who couldn’t be successful with Peyton Manning at quarterback?”
Caldwell and Ryan have battled each other as assistants since 2001. Caldwell joined Dungy in Tampa Bay in 2001. Ryan was the Ravens’ defensive line coach. Tampa Bay defeated Baltimore that season, 22-10.
In 2002, Dungy and Caldwell’s first season in Indianapolis, the Colts defeated the Ravens, 22-20. In 2004, the Colts trampled Baltimore, 20-10. In 2005, when Ryan was promoted to defensive coordinator, the Colts beat Baltimore, 24-7.
In 2007, the Colts won again, 44-20, and last season, Ryan’s first season as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, the Colts won in a rout, 31-3.
Before the Jets’ victory over the Colts last month, Ryan and Caldwell had never really spoken. Ryan defended Caldwell’s decision to pull some of his starters.
“I have a funny feeling that Coach Caldwell knows a little more about his football team than anybody else, or the so-called experts,” Ryan said. “The expert is Jim Caldwell. He earned that right, he put his team in that position. He earned the right to manage his team anyway he wanted to and that was it.”
After winning his debut in September, Caldwell was asked how it felt. “All it tells you is that we won’t go 0-16 this year,” he said.
Indeed. Thirteen games later, Caldwell would hold the N.F.L. record for the best start by a rookie head coach. By season’s end, however, rather than basking in the glow of a 14-2 record, Caldwell was answering questions about why he didn’t go for perfection.
Was the Jets’ victory a Colts gift or an omen of things to come?
To paraphrase the Colts’ sentiment, we’ll find out on Sunday.