Some Ravens fans took exception to Rex Ryan's comments last week about rookie linebacker-defensive end Paul Kruger's wearing No. 99 this season, but few in the Ravens organization were offended. Those types of wisecracks are what made Ryan endearing to his co-workers and the players over at the Castle.
His players loved Ryan, the former Ravens defensive coordinator, because he was an extension from the locker room into the front office. What set him apart from some assistant coaches was his ability to get players to play exceptionally hard for him.
We love to throw around the words "team chemistry" in sports, so much in fact that the phrase has become undervalued. But it is the most important ingredient in building a team from the recreational to the professional ranks.
And that's why Ryan, now the New York Jets' head coach, was special here, maybe the most popular assistant coach in the history of Baltimore sports. Ryan could draw up exotic blitzes and overloads with the best of them, but that lovable, laughable, down-home personality made his players go the extra mile.
It was no big deal when Ryan criticized the Ravens for giving Kruger No. 99, the former number of Ravens Pro Bowl defensive end Michael McCrary. Ryan's big mouth is hereditary, straight from his tough guy daddy, Buddy.
The responses were interesting. The Ravens declined to comment because it was just Ryan shooting off again. Yawn. Then Kruger called Ryan's comments "childish," which was a mistake. To criticize Ryan in the Ravens locker room is sacrilegious. Kruger later backed off those statements, which means a couple of the veterans probably told him to muzzle up.
Nice move, rook.
But those statements last week from Ryan told you a lot about him, and how his ties run deep with his players, past and present. That starting defensive line in 2000 of ends McCrary and Rob Burnett and tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams was, and remains, extremely close.
Ryan's ties are just as strong with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and even a transplant such as defensive end Trevor Pryce, who spent nine seasons in Denver before playing the past three in Baltimore.
"You build unit pride before you build team pride," Ryan said. "In Baltimore, I wanted to have the tightest defensive line unit when I was coaching that position, and then it spreads to the defense and then over to the offense. We want to work it that way in New York as well."
Ryan will always be one of the guys. He hangs around with his players. He has a swagger and talks trash like them. When other coaches wear the official sponsored sports gear, Ryan sports an old sweat shirt with his baseball cap on backward, complete with sunglasses.
And how many times have we laughed at training camp when Ryan was playing inside linebacker or trying to provoke a fight?
"Rex emphasized having fun," McCrary said. "He tried to make practices fun all the time, and that's difficult to do during a 16-week regular season. He wanted us to realize that football is still a game, that it is a business, but you had to have some fun playing it. That's why he had little games he'd play like the brown paper bag sack game. He never took the game or himself too seriously.
"With the media, Rex is never going to give you the standard line. He's going to say some crazy stuff at times because he wants to have fun, or he is trying to take the pressure off his team."
Ryan's other major strength is that he listened to others around him. When Cam Cameron became the Ravens' offensive coordinator, Ryan asked him to scout his defense and point out any tendencies. Ryan has taken suggestions from general manager Ozzie Newsome and, most importantly, his players.
"He treated us like men. He was a player's coach," McCrary said. "By that I mean if you felt he was wrong about something, you could articulate to him what was wrong, and he would change the play. That ego never got in the way when it came to major decisions."
We all knew Ryan's mouth would get him in trouble in New York. His predecessor, Eric Mangini, had the personality of a mummy, and now New York has Ralph Kramden.
I loved it when Ryan said he didn't take the Jets job to bow down to Bill Belichick, and it was funny when he talked about the Miami Dolphins' Channing Crowder and his tattoos.
Ryan is playing this perfectly in New York. If he wins, he'll become the most popular Jet since Joe Namath. If he loses, he goes back to being one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the league.
You didn't expect Ryan to change, did you? If he were going to take on a new personality, it would have happened at the end of the 2007 season when Brian Billick was fired as the Ravens' head coach. Ryan was turned down for several head coaching jobs because the NFL had gone corporate.
Once he returned as the Ravens' defensive coordinator, Ryan lost about 60 pounds and had extensive dental work, or as former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said, "he imported a new grill."
That lasted for about eight months before Ryan said thanks, but no thanks. He went back to his old self, the one wearing the sweat shirt and the person we affectionately called "Sexy Rexy" over at the Castle.
I've always liked that Rex Ryan. I hope he never changes.