INDIANAPOLIS - A period of postseason self-examination has led to this epiphany for Jets coach Rex Ryan: Fewer guarantees. More fun. On Thursday, Ryan faced the media at the NFL Combine. A year ago, in the same room at Lucas Oil Stadium, Ryan said, "This is the year we win the Super Bowl. I thought we'd win it my first two years. I guarantee it this year."And this year? Ryan was blaming his guarantee for a season that ended with the Jets out of the playoffs. "I think my comment hurt us," Ryan said toward the end of a 15-minute session. "I don't think there's any doubt. It put pressure on guys that, quite honestly, never needed to be."In the next breath, Ryansoundedthe horn for extra fun at Florham Park. "And I'll say this about our team, we're gonna have as much fun as any team in there. 'Cuz that's how we do business," he boasted. Fun's awesome. In my experience -- and I'm sure in Ryan's as well -- successful teams have a lot of fun.But the fun drips away when the team is rudderless or fractured or has some real miserable players who are self-centered and have been built up to believe they are better than they really are. And that's what the 2011 Jets were. When Ryan ran off at the mouth last February, I asked Ryan if his persistent and hollow guarantees might backfire. The coach who cried "Super Bowl!""I don't care about people taking it seriously," Ryan shot back then."We made it to the AFC Championship two years in a row whenI think people predicted we'd win six games. So, I don't care what people think. I care what our orgainzation believes and what our fans believe. "So, empty promises...I know we got to the same place (the AFC Championship) last year, it might not appear we got better, butI thinkwe got a lot better last year. If we can improve a little bit more, then why not us? We did beat the team with the most wins in the playoffs at their place (New England). We came (to Indianapolis) had a great win against a great team. We're the only team to make the final four the last two years, so why wouldn't I be positive? (Should I say), 'Hey guys, I'll be happy if we're 8-8.' That's the wrong guy standing in front of you."I'm always gonna say the same thing," Ryan concluded. "I believe we can be champs and why wouldn't I believe it. Somebody tell me whyI shouldn't believe that we don't deserve to be champions."Self examination led Ryan to conclude on Thursday, "I tried to put the (pressure) on myself to take it off our team. I don't think I accomplished that this season."Ryan was asked if he really believed words in February caused a his team to "fall off the rails" in December. "I don't see us as completely getting off the track," Ryan said, warming to the metaphor. "I think we got in the gravel a little bit. We just gotta right it. And we can't kneejerk react it or we'll roll it the other way. There's ways of handling these things. I think our football teamis a little closer than people give it credit for."It's interesting, for a guy as open, honest and genuine as Ryan is, he spends an awful lot of time thinking about playing head games with his message. Too much time, it seems. So much that he seems tangled up in who exactly he wants to be sometimes. Asked how he plans to exhibit the verbal self-control that's eluded him since 2009, Ryan said, "It's not just self-control. I'm gonna have fun. I have fun with the opponents media. Opponents players. Opponents coaches. This is not life or death. But one thing I'm totally serious about is winning. And if I think there's something that I say or a comment that I'm gonna make pulls us away from that mission, then I'm not gonna say it. But will I always be myself. Of course. I am gonna have a great time."Party. Hats.
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With decidedly Boston-sounding names and thoroughly familiar faces, given their resemblances to their ex-Bruin dads, it might have been easy to overlook Ryan Donato and Ryan Fitzgerald and focus on the truly little-known prospects at Development Camp earlier this month.
But on the ice, their brimming confidence, their offensive skills and the maturity to their all-around game was impossible to ignore.
When it was over, general manager Don Sweeney singled out Donato, who plays at Harvard, and Fitzgerald, from Boston College -- along with Notre Dame forward Anders Bjork and former Boston University defenseman Matt Grzelcyk -- as players who have developed significantly.
“[They're] just comfortable in what they’re doing,” said Sweeney. “I mean, they’ve played at the college hockey level . . . two, three, four years with some of these kids. They’re very comfortable in their own skin and in what they do.”
Donato, 20, is actually coming off his first season at Harvard, where he posted 13 goals and 21 points in 32 games. He looked like he was in midseason form during Development Camp, showing off a scoring touch, skill with the puck on his stick in tight traffic, and the instincts to anticipate plays that allow him to beat defenders to spots in the offensive zone. He’s primed for a giant sophomore season with the Crimson, based on his showing at camp.
“Every year is a blast," said Donato, son of former Bruins forward and current Harvard coach Ted Donato. "You just come in [to development camp] with an open mindset where you soak everything up from the coaches like a sponge, and see what they say. Then I just do my best to incorporate it into my game and bring it with me to school next year.
“One of the things that [Bruins coaches and management] has said to me -- and it’s the same message for everybody -- is that every area of your game is an important one to develop. The thing about the NHL is that every little detail makes the difference, and that’s what I’ve been working on whether it’s my skating, or my defensive play. Every little piece of my game needs to be developed.”
Then there's Fitzgerald, 21, who is entering his senior season at BC after notching 24 goals and 47 points in 40 games last year in a real breakout season. The 2013 fourth-round pick showed speed and finishing ability during his Development Camp stint and clearly is close to being a finished hockey product at the collegiate level.
“It was good. It’s definitely a fun time being here, seeing these guys and putting the logo on,” said Fitzgerald, son of former Bruins forward Tom Fitzgerald, after his fourth Development Camp. “One thing I’m focusing on this summer is getting stronger, but it’s also about just progressing and maturing.
“I thought . . . last year [at BC] was a pretty good one, so I just try to build off that and roll into my senior season. [The Bruins] have told me to pretty much continue what I’m doing in school. When the time is right I’ll go ahead [and turn pro], so probably after I graduate I’ll jump on and make an impact.”
Fitzgerald certainly didn’t mention or give any hints that it could happen, but these days it has to give an NHL organization a bit of trepidation anytime one of their draft picks makes it all the way to their senior season. There’s always the possibility of it turning into a Jimmy Vesey-type situation if a player -- like Fitzgerald -- has a huge final year and draws enough NHL interest to forego signing with the team that drafted him for a shot at free agency in the August following his senior season.
It may be a moot point with Fitzgerald, a Boston kid already living a dream as a Bruins draft pick, but it’s always a possibility until he actually signs.
In any case, both Donato and Fitzgerald beat watching in their respective college seasons after both saw their development level take a healthy leap forward.