CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Rex Ryan said nobody should feel sorry for him or his New York Jets, and I don't. But they're in a difficult and unenviable position. They not only have to win now, they have to win big -- and, yes, I'm talking Super Bowl.
Because if they don't, they're failures.
Of course, that's what happens when you keep telling people you're the team that's going to the Super Bowl. Correction: That's what happens when you keep telling people you're the team that will win the Super Bowl.
Usually, nobody makes that prediction until January -- if they're bold enough to make it at all -- but Rex Ryan must have missed the memo. So he put it out there this summer, telling his team, the media and the millions of viewers who tune in to HBO's Hard Knocks series that the Jets are the team to beat.
And maybe he's right.
But if he's wrong? Uh-oh. Then he and his team become targets the size of the Chrysler Building, with disgruntled fans, cynical reporters and triumphant opponents taking aim. It's one thing to challenge yourself, but it's another to go public with it and defy opponents to prove you wrong.
"Do I know how hard it is to get to the Super Bowl?" said Ryan. "I mean, please. But we're not afraid to say, 'These are our expectations.' If we don't get there we don't get there. But it's not going to be because of the fact we don't believe we're going to get there. We believe we belong."
But what if they don't?
"I've got broad shoulders," he said. "I can handle it. It's my job to get this thing done."
That job, however, is enormous. Let's forget about winning a Super Bowl for a moment, and let's just talk about getting there. First, there's that little matter of playing in the AFC East. In case you forgot, the New England Patriots and Tom Brady are there, and the last time I checked when Brady is healthy the Patriots are numero uno.
And Brady is healthy.
Then there's the Darrelle Revis situation. Revis is the team's best player and the NFL's top cornerback, but he's not here because of a contractual dispute. Ryan has said "we have everything we need on defense," but he's wrong. They need Revis. And they don't have him.
What they do have is a star-studded locker room that includes a passel of marquee veterans like former MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes and former Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor. People rave about the Jets' new talent, but I'll take chemistry over talent, and if the chemistry isn't there this season look out -- with the 2000 Washington Redskins called as witnesses.
Last, of course, is that Ryan and the Jets are hitched to a second-year quarterback who should be better than he was last season but may not be good enough to take them to the top. Not yet anyway. All of that depends on how he develops, and developing franchise quarterbacks takes time. But time is something Mark Sanchez may not have with all this talk about the Super Bowl now.
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QB: Mark Sanchez (141st Overall)|
RB: Shonn Greene (16th); LaDainian Tomlinson (83rd)
WR: Santonio Holmes (116th); Braylon Edwards (122nd); Jerricho Cotchery (143rd)
TE: Dustin Keller (152nd)
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"This should definitely not be a reflection of Mark," said Ryan. "If we don't make it, it should come down on my shoulders; not on Mark's shoulders. Hey, Mark is just going into his second year in the league. How many second-year quarterbacks actually go and win the Super Bowl?
"This is my responsibility, and it comes down on my shoulders. You almost feel like [Yankees manager] Joe Girardi a little bit because we do have a lot of talent, and we do expect to win. And it's my job to make sure we do win."
Until then, Ryan has taken it on himself to promote his team whenever and wherever he can. He's on HBO. He's on the big screen at Times Square. He's on a stage in downtown Cortland. He's everywhere, and everywhere the message is the same.
"Our whole mantra this year is: It's all or nothing," said tackle Damien Woody. "We expect to be in the Super Bowl this year, and that's not lip service. We really do feel we should be in the Super Bowl.
"We understand nothing is going to be handed to us. The one thing we've done is put a bull's eye on our backs, and anytime you can put a bull's eye on your back you're going to get everyone's 'A' game every week."
But that's what I mean about being in a difficult and unenviable position. A year ago, what mattered to fans was that their team reached the playoffs, then went deep into them. But this year the playoffs are expected, and what matters is the Super Bowl. In fact, that's all that matters.
But has anyone out there taken a look at the team's first three games? The Jets open with Baltimore, New England and Miami, and it's not a stretch to think they could lose two of them. A slow start will test Ryan and his young quarterback. I don't worry about the head coach, as much as I do Sanchez, who looks sharper, more confident and more poised this summer -- but who needs the time he may not have to grow.
"I feel like Rex and I kind of do this thing together," said Sanchez. "Since the first call I got on draft day he said, ‘Hey, you and me, babe; 10 years at least.' And that's the way we feel.
"I'm so fortunate to be in an organization where I have that leadership role and shoulder that role with him and not feel like I'm on my own. Sure, is it my team? Yeah. That's the way I feel. I want to take ownership and lead these guys. But I never feel like I'm on my own. So he shoulders that burden as well."
And a burden it could be. There is not time for much of anything to happen except for the Jets to deliver on Ryan's promise. A sluggish start -- a stumble like those three-game losing streaks that bogged down the club a year ago or a five-interception game for Sanchez like last year's loss to Buffalo -- all will invite criticism and ridicule. And then ... then we may find out who these Jets are.
"Most guys in your profession would never dare say what you have," I reminded Ryan.
"[That's because] they're afraid to do anything," he said. "People take head-coaching jobs and they're like, well, sign a five-year contract -- take as many years as you can -- and say 'Look, we're just going to try to implement our systems and all that kind of stuff; get things going in the right direction and all that.
"Man, that's a crock. That is a crock. It's a level playing field [for teams] from a monetary standpoint. So how can you sell that to your fans? I think that's a joke.
"A guy coaches for 10 years, has maybe one winning season, massages the media enough and stays under the radar. That wasn't my intention when I came here. My intention was that I wanted to win a championship, and I came in here to do it. Whether that was the first year or the second year or whatever we're working toward that goal."
I get that. But I also get the enormous pressure that Ryan and his club are under, and it could have an impact on what's down the road. When Ryan was up for the Baltimore opening in 2008 people close to the organization said that while he was loved and respected by his players, the club would not hire him as its head coach -- and the reason was that people there weren't confident he could shape up a locker room that needed discipline.
So the Ravens hired John Harbaugh, and Ryan moved on to the Jets a year later. We all know what happened then, and what happened was that Ryan put the Jets back on the map.
But that was then, and this is now, and now Ryan has a new team with new personalities -- with only one thing expected of them. Could it work? Absolutely. But it could blow up, too, and heaven help Rex Ryan and his New York Jets if it does.
"I can handle any locker room in the NFL," Ryan said. "You know why? These are mighty men, as we call them, and for whatever reason I can relate to these people. And that's it. I'm not afraid of expectations. I'm not afraid of these players have come from this system or these guys have this reputation. They're New York Jets now. They're us.
"These are great guys pulling in one direction for one goal, and that's to win a Super Bowl. It's not about individual success. It's all about team success. And everyone came here with that in mind."
Now, nothing else will do.