Rex Ryan was on the short list of short-timers. He was doomed.
His New York Jets were coming off a 6-10 season, had a new general manager — one who didn't hire Ryan as coach — had traded their best defensive player in cornerback Darrelle Revis and had a mess of a quarterback situation.
The clock was ticking on Ryan, and few people would have been shocked had he lost his job within the first month of the season. This was a team that should have won maybe four games.
After seven games, Ryan is at least in the early conversation for coach of the year. Yes, Kansas City's Andy Reid is the front-runner, and there's no denying Kansas City's U-turn has been remarkable. But what Ryan has done with the 4-3 Jets is likewise astounding, particularly in the afterglow of a 30-27 victory over New England.
Rookie quarterback Geno Smith, though inconsistent, has shown he's got touch on deep passes, is a decisive runner when he needs to be and can come through in pressure situations. He has directed four game-winning comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime, and no rookie quarterback in the modern era has matched that in his first seven games.
"He's not playing like a deer in the headlights," said Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis, whose team plays host to the Jets on Sunday. "And when you watch how he played a week ago, he doesn't necessarily look like a rookie quarterback."
This could all unravel quickly for the Jets, of course, and they have a tough challenge against the Bengals. As well as he has played in certain situations, Smith has frequently looked young and inexperienced against the blitz. The defensive front of Cincinnati (5-2) can generate more pressure than most defenses Smith has seen this season.
What's more, the Jets haven't won two in a row since Weeks 13 and 14 of last season, so they have a chance to show Sunday that they can handle success. This is the most difficult stretch of their season — last week's game against the Patriots, at Cincinnati, then at home against New Orleans, followed by a week off.
In the second half of the season, however, the Jets have a relatively soft landing, with just one of their seven games against a team that currently has a winning record (Carolina).
Ryan's specialty is defense, and the Jets' defense has done its job. Equally impressive is the job first-year offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has done with a unit that's conspicuously bereft of standout skill-position players.
The next two weeks could tell us a lot about Ryan's future with the franchise. His contract, which pays him about $3 million per year, runs through the 2014 season. If the Jets beat the Bengals, the Saints, or both, don't be surprised if team owner Woody Johnson makes extending Ryan's deal a front-burner issue and gets it done in the coming weeks.
Across the pond
San Francisco players weren't too impressed with the mushy practice field they were afforded for Sunday's game against Jacksonville at London's Wembley Stadium. The 49ers spent three days practicing at the Grove, where the grass was green but the mushy footing unsure.
"That field — I wouldn't say I'm fond of it," linebacker Patrick Willis said, according to the Sacramento Bee. "Soggy and slippery and everything that a guy that's trying to get over a groin [injury] doesn't need."
No wonder San Francisco leads the league in rushing touchdowns. Fourteen NFL teams have rushed for four touchdowns or fewer this season.
New England receiver Danny Amendola said Friday he felt good to go for Sunday's game against Miami, after sitting out last week's game while recovering from a concussion. The Patriots listed him as questionable, leaving open the possibility that team doctors won't clear him for the Dolphins game.
"I've done pretty much everything they've asked me to do. I'm healthy and I'm ready to play," Amendola told reporters.