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On shaky ground with Jets, Rex Ryan manages to maintain swagger

PHOENIX -- God bless Rex Ryan. The man will never change. And I, for one, am thrilled by that.

He may have been humbled by the Jets' often spectacular failures in 2012, and he certainly seems to have quelled the bluster, but as he met the media for an hour at the AFC coaches breakfast during the league meetings in Arizona on Tuesday morning, you just knew there was a Super Bowl boast or two itching to get out. He still almost couldn't help himself.

A realist Ryan is not, as all logical attempts to assess his team leave most reasonable people to concur that the Jets will be in the running for the first overall pick in 2014, and that Ryan is in the unenviable position of being a lame-duck coach who is presumed to be out at season's end, if not sooner.

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What Ryan is, however, is an eternal optimist, a man who refuses to concede how bleak the Jets' near-term future is, with their exodus of talent amid a cap-crisis still quite possibly to include star corner Darrelle Revis. (Ryan categorically denies he is aware of any attempts to shop Revis, which is true, but this reveals how much is going on within the organization these days that is above his head.)

But the coach will not be defeated, at least not in spirit and never publicly. Frankly, I find it endearing. Heaven knows there is enough madness and negativity swirling around the team. New general manager John Idzik is also enthused with an overwhelmingly positive spirit that will be required given the severity of the challenge he is taking on in this post-Tannenbaum era (not quite post-Apocalyptic, but close enough from a football standpoint).

So, while not exactly trying to goad Ryan into another Super Bowl boast, I couldn't help but ask the man if despite all the tumult if he thought the Jets could reach the playoffs.

"That's not my goal," he shot back.

Um, so, you're thinking Super Bowl again this season, coach?

"I'm not saying -- I'll leave that to you guys' imagination," Ryan said, scanning around to a table filled with about 10 reporters, decidedly fewer than the throngs that awaited him at these meetings in years past when Ryan seemed capable of saying -- or guaranteeing -- anything at any time, and the Jets were must-see TV for more than just their foibles.

Ryan, who is in great shape these days and appears primed to meet head-on what could become his defining season, was adamant that no one in upper management advised him to tone it down -- "not at all, not at all, I've got to be myself" he said.

He is, candidly, essentially the same guy he's always been. He admitted he was "humbled" by last year's six-win campaign (which didn't come as a surprise to talent evaluators who assessed that roster), but then quickly got over it and reclaimed his swag. ("Nope, it sure didn't," Ryan responded when asked if last year's outcome kept him down for long). And he would like a "do-over" if possible on the Super Bowl guarantee thing. ("That still comes back to haunt me.") Otherwise, this is Rex being Rex, just a wee bit more restrained.

Ryan also was unflinching in his appraisal of his own prospects for keeping his job beyond 2013 despite the poor odds for success and the fact that Idzik will be empowered to blow up the coaching staff if he deems fit after this season of transition in New York.

"I'm not afraid of my situation," Ryan said. "I'm looking forward to my situation. I know how my team is going to play."

Unfortunately for Ryan, his owner Woody Johnson -- whom he praised extensively Tuesday -- would like to get value for Revis, the Jets' best player, and move on. Ryan is diametrically opposed to any such thought, which helps explain his lack of knowledge of the inner workings of his organization on this matter, but the Revis decision is being made at the ownership level. Period. And Tampa remains interested.

And the Jets still don't have anything resembling a proven bona fide NFL quarterback, much less a winning one, with Mark Sanchez now a full reclamation project, David Garrard having last played football in 2010 and Greg McElroy a developmental guy. The Jets remain in the market for a quarterback, with Kevin Kolb and Jason Campbell in the mix.

Ryan gave Sanchez the most milquetoast of endorsements possible when asked if the incumbent starter had a leg up on the rest of this motley quarterbacking crew.

"A leg up?" Pause. "Somebody has to take the first snap," Ryan deadpanned, refusing several opportunities to endorse Sanchez to even a pedestrian degree.

He continued that refrain repeatedly, emphasizing that "competition" -- the buzzword with the Jets these days -- will lead to a capable quarterback rising to the top. Not exactly a scenario that engenders great confidence as March rolls into April and with OTAs creeping closer. The coach is also keeping his fingers crossed that receiver Santonio Holmes, the closest thing he has to a weapon on offense, will be healthy by opening day, though there appear to be no assurances at this point.

And matters are complicated by the fact that the Jets lacked the ability to really compete to retain their own free agents, and as much as Ryan wanted to continue having Mike DeVito help anchor his defensive line and LaRon Landry as an enforcer in his secondary, they are gone.

"That one hurt a little bit," Ryan said of Landry's departure to the Colts.

Tight end Dustin Keller is gone as well, though Ryan, for all the holes in his roster, believes recent draft picks like Quinton Coples and Kenrick Ellis will make strides and in general feels good about his offensive and defensive lines.

As for the current vacancies at outside linebacker, secondary, etc., he's expecting quick gains from this upcoming draft class and more development from recent ones that to this point have been busts.

"You just have to coach them up," Ryan said, sounding surprisingly like Steve Spurrier of all people, hardly his doppelganger in appearance or demeanor.

But don't call this a rebuilding team. Ryan would disagree with that assessment, and he still very much talks as if his team is in win-now mode. And, for the record, he's excited about the direction of his football team; all the usual coaching clichés still apply here. As a coach's son, and a man with a healthy amount of self confidence, that's never going to change. And should this whole head coaching thing not last beyond this year, well, like his twin brother, Rob, Rex would be in ample demand as a coordinator, so he's not going anywhere.

Personally, I have a hard time imagining the Jets not going deeper into blowing-up-the-building mode in 2014 and extending into the coaching staff. This wreaks of a housecleaning half done. But shed no tears for Rex Ryan. He doesn't want your sympathy and isn't wired for concession speeches.

And, true to form, he has a message for the rest of the NFL:

"I can coach, I'm not worried about that," he proclaimed. "I think people should be worried about us more than they are."

Ah, Rex, Don't ever change. I love ya just the way you are.

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