Rex Ryan was brimming with confidence when he was introduced to a primarily tristate-area audience as the Jets' new head coach last month. But would he temper his tune when he took a national stage?
The answer is no. Ryan's first question during his news conference this morning at Lucas Oil Stadium during the NFL Combine workouts was to talk about what he's up against in the AFC East.
"I'd rather focus on what they're up against," he said.
Ryan stressed that he understands and respects the toughness of the division and the conference, but he wasn't backing down from any questions, in particular about how long it would take for the Jets' defense to begin performing at the level of his perennially top-five Baltimore Ravens defenses of the previous four seasons.
"I think next year," he said. "I think next year if we bring in the kind of players that we're talking about. We only need to add maybe one or two guys, but the foundation's already there. I just think that maybe the mentality that we're going to play with, maybe the style of play we're going to play with, it's going to help the guys we already have.
"The proof'll be in the pudding. But you know me. I'm not one to shy away from expectations. I think we'll be terrific and i think we're going to have a defense that our fans can be proud of."
He extended his high hopes to the other side of the ball as well in defining the kinds of players he wants, players, he said, that "play like a Jet."
"That's going to mean something. That's going to mean they're physical, tough, passionate-type people, and that's what we're looking for," Ryan said. "In the past we've always tried to build our defense that way in Baltimore. We're going to try to build our team that way with the Jets. We're going to look for the same kind of players with the Jets moving forward. I think we've got a great start on it right now."
He stated the strength of the Green & White team he's taken over is his offensive line. He praised his two Pro Bowl running backs in Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, and he likes his receiving corps as well.
"To me it looks like we're pretty well set over there," he said.
Even with a post-Brett Favre three-man QB depth chart with just eight pro starts among them? Ryan still wasn't flinching as he analyzed the competition ahead among Kellen Clemens, Brett Ratliff and Erik Ainge.
On Clemens: "We won against Kellen Clemens in Baltimore [in 2007] and he almost beat us. ... He has some run ability and I think he has the arm to be a good one."
On Ratliff: "All he did was lead the AFC in passer rating in the preseason last year. ... I think it was 122.5, and if he can do that in the regular season, we can win a lot of games."
On Ainge: "He has the size. He has led a Tennessee team for a long time and obviously in that family the bloodline looks pretty good."
Asked if he is considering adding a veteran free agent to the mix, he said he already has — in his quarterbacks coach.
"What I look for is if I can bring in a guy with 16 years' NFL experience and, let's just say, two Super Bowls, I'd bring that guy in," he said. "And that's what I did in hiring Matt Cavanaugh. We have a veteran quarterback presence right there, so I'm very comfortable with Matt being the mentor for these young quarterbacks."
In fact, Ryan sounded a theme that he has mentioned before, that he really loves the first coaching staff he's put together as an NFL head coach, with holdovers from the previous staff plus the coaches he's brought in from the Ravens and around the league.
"It's going to be a great staff and I feel very fortunate," he said. "I'm about as confident a guy as there is, and I'm confident in my abilities, but I'm a lot more confident in the abilities of these men. ... It's our collective efforts that will lead this team."
And now the Green & White is a team that will be adding players in the coming weeks and months according to Ryan's specifications. He declined to speculate on any Ravens he might like to bring in when the unrestricted free agency signing period begins — "I'd rather just hold onto our draft picks right now," he said about the NFL's tampering rules — but he knows what he's looking for.
"I think it starts, regardless of position, you want smart, athletic, tough, competitive, relentless-type guys. Gym-rat-type mentalities is what you're looking for. As far as a pass rusher, we had a guy named Michael McCrary in Baltimore. He only weighed 230 or something, he had a bunch of knee injuries, his feet went sideways. But I know one thing — he found a way to get to the quarterback. If he had to dig a trench to get there, he was going to do that. And I think that's the way you rush the passer. You have to have that kind of mentality."
As for the players he's seeing this week at the combine workouts, some of whom will end up on his team, he asked some rhetorical questions:
"Do guys want to be a Jet? Are they going to understand what we're trying to get accomplished? Are they the kind of players we're looking for, the kind of team players we're looking for? And those are guys that sometimes they might not be rated as high as other guys, but those are the kinds of winners you try to surround yourself with."