Thirteen quarterbacks were chosen before the Jets selected Pat Ryan in the 11th round of the 1978 NFL Draft out of Tennessee. None, however, would play in as many games or as long in the league as he did.
“I didn’t play much in college and so I was just hoping to get drafted,” said Ryan, who was with the Jets for 12 seasons, 1978-89. “I wouldn’t have got drafted nowadays with only seven rounds, but there were 12 back then. So, I slid in at the last minute.”
Played sparingly during the launch of his career as a backup to Richard Todd and Matt Robinson, what was Ryan’s mindset?
“Early on, I really didn’t understand what it took because I didn’t play much,” he said. “But over the years, I figured out that you better be prepared to play whether you’re getting the reps or not in practice because sooner or later the time is going to come and you’re going to be in there. And if you’re not ready to play and you don’t do the job, they’ll just go find somebody else.”
‘The time’ came in 1984, when Ryan started 11 games, of which the Jets won six. He finished the season with a career-high 1,939 passing yards with 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
‘The time’ came again two years later.
New York began the 1986 season with 11 straight victories, but that was followed by five straight losses. And while the Jets made the playoffs as a wild-card team, coach Joe Walton evidently felt they’d have a better chance of winning with a change at quarterback. He benched starter Ken O’Brien and tabbed Ryan to open the post-season against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I was kind of in disbelief, to be honest with you. That’s kind of a strange time to change quarterbacks and I had no inkling that was going to happen. And when he came to me and told me, I said, ‘Well, OK, be careful what you wish for,’” Ryan laughed.
Behind Ryan’s three touchdown passes, the Jets beat the Chiefs, 35-15. Their season ended the following week with a 23-20 double-overtime divisional round loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Playing in 141 games over 12 seasons for the Jets, Ryan may not be destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he clearly proved to be an important part of the team. What was the key to his longevity and makes him most proud of his career?
“Not having to play every Sunday. That’s as honest as I can be,” said Ryan, who concluded his 13-year NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1991. “These guys that play day in and day out for 10 or 15 years, I don’t see how they physically do it, to be honest with you. Some of the shots you take… You stay beat up and injured. I just don’t see how some of these guys make it through from week to week.
“I think the thing that I was proud of is that I didn’t play a lot, but when I did, for the most part, I did a pretty good job. I was prepared and I felt like I was a pretty fair leader.”
Now 26 years removed from the game, Ryan is still a leader. And as the owner of the Pat Ryan Construction Company in Knoxville, Tennessee, he’s a successful businessman, as well.
“I started it while I was playing. I just felt like I needed to have something to go to,” Ryan said. “I didn’t know how long I was going to play, but I didn’t want to be one of those guys that was out of the game and had no clue what I was going to do. So, I started building houses. I’d build a house every off-season and kind of figured out the business a little bit so I’d have someplace to go when it all finished.
“I still build houses, do a little commercial (construction), do a lot of renovations, big additions, kitchens, whatever. It depends on how business is. Sometimes business is real good and you can pick and choose, and sometimes it just slows down where you just do what you’ve got to do.
“I’ve always liked building. I don’t like the management aspect of it much. I’m smallish. Really, it’s me and my son, Jake, and then a whole bunch of subcontractors. So, we’re pretty much hands-on with everything. I enjoy that part of it.”
Ryan and his wife, Debbie, also have a daughter, Caitlin, who is an academic counselor in the University of Tennessee’s athletic department.