New York Jets coach Rex Ryan did me a favor this summer and I haven't gotten around to thanking him, so perhaps there'll be an opportunity today when his suspiciously explosive football team visits Heinz Field for the Steelers home opener.
This was around the beginning of training camp, and I was planning a column on the top defensive minds in the game, a column in which I might even attempt to rank them based on some formula that would effectively quantify consistent long-term offense-stifling achievement.
In other words, actual work actually loomed.
But suddenly, maybe you remember, there was no need.
"When you look at it," Ryan said in a radio interview just about then, "there is no comparison."
How about that?
Apparently, when you look at the top defensive coaches in football, Rex Ryan is, in his own words, "the best defensive coach in football."
Tremendous, I thought. Saves me a lot of trouble. I simply moved on to another topic that hot day, which I'm sure was equally as riveting. Others weren't so fortunate, however.
Mark Kriegel, the industrious NFL Network analyst, example, flouted Rex Ryan's authority and ran some statistical comparisons, even after Rex Ryan told him there is no comparison to Rex Ryan.
The Jets coach said he'd based his own analysis on yards allowed per game, but (you'll never guess) in the course of Kriegel's research, it turned up that since Ryan first became a coordinator in 2005 with Baltimore, his Ravens and Jets defenses have allowed 281 yards per game, whereas Dick LeBeau's defenses over the same period have allowed 277.4.
Must be some mistake.
There is no comparison.
LeBeau smiled that simple Midwestern smile when I asked him the other day if he was surprised to hear Ryan anoint himself the game's reigning defensive laureate over the summer.
I left out the no-comparison part.
"I don't pay any attention to that kind of thing," said the Steelers coordinator, Hall of Fame Class of 2010. "But I think Rex does an excellent job of coaching defense."
That kind of response is from a generally archaic interpersonal tradition known as comportment, commonly known as humility, one fairly scarce element among newsmakers in an NFL where chest-thumping extends from the middle of the field sometimes all the way to the headsets.
LeBeau, at 75, still longs for a game that was simpler in a culture where self-aggrandizement was more a sin than a talent. For all his adaptability, you can still hear that in his comments.
"Any NFL team can score 40 points on you; it doesn't matter what they did a week before and it doesn't matter what they did the last three weeks," LeBeau said. "That's every week. You grin and bear it because every defensive coach is in the same situation. They play by the same rules in Los Angeles as they play in New York, so it's all the same.
"I kind of like the old days when they used to run it 80 times a game."
Others do as well, probably including some in Los Angeles who have noted that they're really not playing by any rules at all out there anymore.
The larger point is that LeBeau continues to look at the league in a totally un-self-conscious way rather than in the post-modern 24/7 house of mirrors. It's true that Ryan, in his "best in football" comments had the minimal grace to mention people like LeBeau and New England master Bill Belichick as possessors of defensive minds perhaps similar in capaciousness to his own. It's also true that nobody has put together defenses that finished in the top six in the league every year since Ryan first became a coordinator, as has Ryan.
But it's interesting that Ryan continues to be the Jets' defensive identity in his fourth year as head coach while Mike Tomlin, in his sixth season, has all but had his own defensive curriculum vitae hidden behind LeBeau.
"When Mike first came here [in 2007], he and I spent a lot of time together exchanging thoughts and discussing defense," LeBeau said. "The role of the assistant coach is do just that, assist. I've always thought my job was to give Mike the defense he wants. He's allowed me to have some input, but if it wasn't what he wants, we wouldn't be doing it."
It's been 10 years but it might be worth remembering that when Tampa Bay won its only Super Bowl, its fabulous secondary picked off four passes against the Oakland Raiders that day and returned two of them for touchdowns. The secondary coach was Mike Tomlin. When Tomlin got to be a coordinator in Minnesota, he fielded the NFL's 8th-ranked defense, a unit that did not allow a 100-yard rusher all season, and that got him an interview with the Rooneys.
In Tomlin's five years as head coach, the Steelers ranked No. 1 in defense three times and No. 2 another time. He retained LeBeau, who at the time was just two years removed from skunking four of the league's top five offenses in an unprecedented Super Bowl run.
Tomlin and LeBeau won another Super Bowl in the second season of collaboration.
Ryan's best Jets team, I forget if it was Super Bowl Express I or II, broke down on a late January day in Pittsburgh, partly due to difficult defensive terrain, partly because the best defensive coach in football couldn't get Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown off the field during a fateful, clock-swallowing, AFC-title-clinching drive.
Ryan might be right that there is really no comparison on this matter, because LeBeau could live to be 150 and never say the kinds of things Ryan says. There's something called comportment.
"There's something good to be said about that, too," LeBeau said about Rex. "You've gotta believe in yourself."
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