A prime-time season opener that features two of the NFL's hardest-hitting defenses — both built by Ryan — escalated into something else this week when the New York Jets coach and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis exchanged barbs.
When Ryan's past — he was defensive coordinator with the Ravens from 2005 to 2008 — squares off against his current team in New Meadowlands Stadium on Monday night, the resulting collision promises bad blood if not an uncivil war.
"It should be a war like no other," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said on Friday. "You hate to see the hostility and people get [bleeped] off."
Under Ryan, the Jets have become the most talked-about — and talkative — team in the NFL. Ryan and the Jets speak openly about winning the Super Bowl. Still, Ryan was revered for those same qualities in Baltimore, although he was less public in his statements as coordinator. Several Ravens say they owe Ryan a debt of gratitude for helping their careers here.
In a week filled with rhetoric, the flashpoint arrived Thursday, when Lewis ripped the Jets for, essentially, putting words ahead of actions. When the second-year Jets coach made an unflattering comment on HBO's "Hard Knocks" about Lewis not handling play calls in a preseason game, the iconic Raven came loose at his hinges.
" … [W]hen you talk about what I can't do, we're talking about a decade of stuff I've done," Lewis told reporters on Thursday in a long diatribe. "[Ryan should] coach Mark Sanchez, coach your Jets. You understand? My name should not come out of Rex's mouth unless you're telling somebody to come block me, which is going to be a very hard damn task come Monday night ."
Johnson believes the bad feelings grew out of ongoing dialog on Hard Knocks, where the Jets were portrayed through training camp as a brash-talking, swaggering team.
Whether those bad feelings are enough to invalidate what had been a strong relationship between Ryan and his former players remains to be seen.
"It's unfortunate because we've had such a [good] relationship through the years, and we all are where we are now because of our past and all being together," Johnson said. "It's unfortunate to lose that over a bunch of words and talking [bleep]."
Is that relationship lost? "I hope not," Johnson said.
Ryan was instrumental in the development of several players after joining the Ravens in 1999 as a defensive line coach. (He became defensive coordinator in 2005.)
It was Ryan who took Johnson through an improbable switch, from an undersized defensive lineman to play-making linebacker.
It was Ryan who insisted the Ravens add a roly-poly defensive tackle — Kelly Gregg — to their Super Bowl-bound team in 2000, and helped him evolve into one of the NFL's best nose tackles.
And it was Ryan who helped restore defensive tackle Trevor Pryce as one of the league's best inside pass rushers in 2006 after he had been beaten down mentally with the Denver Broncos.
"He instilled the confidence in me that I lost for a couple of years," Pryce said. "He rejuvenated me. That's the thing about him. That why guys like playing for him because he makes you feel like you can beat the world. His confidence is beyond anything I've ever seen in a human being. It really is."
When Pryce signed with the Ravens after being released by the Broncos, he produced a career-high 73 tackles and tied his career high of 13 sacks. He also led the Ravens with 73 hits on the quarterback.
"He basically makes you feel like you can beat the world," Pryce said. "He makes you feel bigger than you are … and hopefully you play to that size."
Listed at 6-feet and 320 pounds, Gregg could appreciate that more than most. Out of Oklahoma, he was downgraded for lack of height and short arms. And he spent abbreviated time with two NFL teams before Ryan talked him off the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad to join the Ravens in 2000.
Even when the Eagles offered to double his practice-squad salary, Gregg jumped at the chance to come to Baltimore with Ryan, who had been his defensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
"He doesn't care what you look like," Gregg said. "He was the one that believed in me. He did a lot for me. I'm very grateful."
More than that, Ryan could often see skills other coaches might miss. In Johnson, he saw a player who had the ability to go from the middle of the defense to the perimeter. In 2007, Ryan moved Johnson to the spot vacated by Adalius Thomas, and he delivered 94 tackles.
Johnson said he wouldn't have had the success he's had here with another team.
"Rex has a real interesting outlook, where he always sees the best in every player," Johnson said. "We have had some guys who had a reputation, where maybe they weren't good against the run or whatever. Rex always saw the positive in them, and he would take that and build that up. It's a rare quality because it's so easy just to discard players."
Ryan was coy in a teleconference with Baltimore reporters this week when asked about his influence with certain players on the Ravens' defense.
"I probably had no effect on them," he said.
Asked to elaborate, he responded: "No, I think you guys figure it out. I mean we [the Ravens] were 22nd in the league before [he became coordinator], and we went to No. 1. So I think we might have some effect. Coaching may make some difference. I don't know."
Ryan did not retreat even when confronted with Lewis' remarks. He told New York reporters Lewis was the best linebacker he had ever coached.
"I've got a lot of respect for Ray," he said. "It doesn't matter what he says in a negative light. I still respect him, but we are going to try to smash him. I can tell you that much."
The Ravens know what to expect Monday night.
"Like Rex says, he's putting that target on their back because they like it that way," Johnson said. "And that's fine. That's how he is. He believes everything he's saying. He's not blowing smoke. … But you still got to go out and prove it. That's one thing about him — he's going to come out swinging."
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