By Rich Levine
Two episodes into this season of Hard Knocks on HBO, and I've got myself a little problem.
Actually, it's a big problem.
One big, fat, obnoxious, foul-mouthed problem:
It's Rex Ryan.
But the funny thing -- ironic funny, not Antonio Cromartie trying to name all his kids funny -- is that my issue with Rex has nothing to do with his language, brashness, or booming aesthetics. The problem's that I can't get enough of him. It's that I'm becoming a Rex Ryan fan.
Again, this is a problem.
First and most obviously, Ryan's the coach of the Jets. He's the leader of New England's fiercest rival. He's the single biggest (man, it's gonna be hard to lay off these fat jokes) threat to the Patriots' divisional dominance. He's the anti-Patriot. Any Ryan success will be predicated by Belichick failure.
God, here's a guy who -- since the day he took over -- has gone out of his way to antagonize New England, belittle the Pats and, in the process, put together a pretty damned dangerous team. And I'm buying into his shtick, laughing hysterically every time he opens his mouth and texting my friends every five minutes with things like: " 'His nuts dropped right in front of us' !?!"
The New Englander in me feels dirty.
But after two hours of Hard Knocks, the football fan in me has taken over. They say you can't choose who you love, and for better or worse, I love Rex Ryan.
If you've watched the show, you understand why.
Sure, you can be offended by his language (sorry, St. Dungy), annoyed by his cockiness, or just overwhelmed by the fact that he never ever shuts up. By themselves, those are all hate-worthy traits. But in this case all those ridiculous qualities, and countless others, morph into a larger-than-life cartoon character. The classic comedic fat guy with the passion of the world's biggest football fan and the schooling of a defensive mastermind, all squeezed under a green Jets hat.
The fact that the hat's green is unfortunate, but Ryan's appeal is undeniable.
There are guys who might love coaching as much as Ryan does, but none of them wear it so blatantly every second of the day. It doesn't matter if it's the first whistle of morning practice or the moment after his last curfew check, Ryan waddles around that complex with a grin that says, "Really, these suckers are paying me millions a year to do this?"
He talks about football the way a pothead talks about HD Discovery. It's like every defensive shift, hard hit or crushing block is the most magical thing he's ever seen. He's completely high on football. And regardless of where his intentions lie, and how those might affect the Patriots, me, or anyone in New England, it very hard to take at least a little joy in watching a guy do something he loves so much.
Hell, I can watch him do anything. Even the way he eats M&M's -- slovenly leaning back his chair, aggressively firing them into his mouth from a couple inches away -- cracks me up. Or the way he flings a tennis ball around meeting like he's killing time in his freshman dorm. Or the way he laughs at the commenters who make fun of him on ESPN.com . . .
OK, I think this column just got weird.
So let's get back to the important question: How big of a problem is this love affair with the coach of the Jets? Is it all right for a Patriots fan to have anything but contempt for the leader of their most-hated rival?
For reasons not entirely unselfish, yes, I'm going to allow it.
And it comes down to this:
Sports fandom has changed.
You know how all the older, retired athletes are constantly criticizing today's superstars for their lack of competitiveness? The way Barkley, Magic, Michael and Larry all spoke out against the new Big Three in Miami?
Well, just as today's athletes have ever-so-slightly taken their foot off the competitive pedal, so has today's fan.
Ever had Peyton Manning on a fantasy team? Ever rooted for one of your fantasy players in a game against the Pats? Would you take Shonn Greene if he were still available in the fourth round of your draft?
I'm guessing that's a yes, yes and yes. (If "no" on that last one, I hope you're in my league)
Over the past 15 years or so, with the insane popularity of fantasy sports and, to a lesser extent, video games, we've been constantly forced into situations where it's OK to root for another team, or another player, without surrendering your loyalty to your team. If it's the fourth quarter and the Pats are up 30-3 on the Bills, it's all right to give a fist pump when your flex guy Fred Jackson breaks a 75-yard touchdown. It's an accepted and understood part of being an NFL fan.
Twenty years ago, fans would have beat you silly over the idea that it was reasonable to cheer for a Jet or Dolphin. That would have sounded crazier than Magic signing in Boston to play with Larry. But now we do it every Sunday.
So, if it's OK to appreciate other NFL players, why not an NFL coach? Why not the coach of the Jets?
Being a Rex Ryan fan doesn't make you a Jets fan. It doesn't make you any less of a Pats fan. It doesn't mean you'll be wearing a green helmet and a Sexy Rexy t-shirt to Gillette on December 6.
It just makes you a fan of big, fat, obnoxious, foul-mouthed football coaches.
Which might be a problem of a different (deeper) kind, but as far as the Pats go, you're in the clear.
Well, great. I feel better now.