On the campus of the State University of New York at Cortland, 215 miles northwest of Manhattan, rookie Jets coach Rex Ryan has exactly what he wants in a training camp—privacy, mostly, and the ability to mold his team in his likeness. That includes fighting.¬∂ The f word. Some coaches abhor the training-camp fights that inevitably erupt during the long, hot practices of summer. Tony Dungy would tell his teams in Tampa and Indianapolis that fighting during practice would help a prospect earn a ticket out of town. San Francisco coach Mike Singletary forced his entire squad to run punitive wind sprints after one practice last week because tight end Vernon Davis broke Singletary's no-fighting rule, mixing it up with linebacker Marques Harris. The Giants had a 20-player brawl on Saturday night, forcing coach Tom Coughlin to stop practice and scream at his players. Coughlin's mantra: Chippiness is fine, but fighting only creates hard feelings.
Ryan is different. One day last week during a full-pad, full-speed contact drill, Jets running back Thomas Jones collided with safety James Ihedigbo, whose forearm came up into Jones's chest. Jones started swinging, and within seconds 40 players were jousting. Nearby, Ryan looking on, grinning.
When he took over the Jets last winter, Ryan watched tape from 2008 and saw at least two instances when in his eyes opponents went over the line physically and Jets teammates didn't defend their mates. It made his blood boil. So when New York opened camp late last month, Ryan told his players the rules of engagement: If and when there is a fight, offensive players should pull defensive players off the pile and vice versa; never should an offensive players grab another during a fight, because that could give a defender a chance to get a free shot in when his foe was being held. Units needed to develop pride, Ryan preached. The team wouldn't come together until the offense was one and the defense was one. Players didn't need to fight to make that happen, but if they did, they should do it with unit solidarity in mind. I've never heard of a coach who gave his players rules for fighting—never mind rules for fighting with each other.
A couple of hours after the scuffle, in his cramped temporary office on this rural campus, Ryan reviewed some video of the practice and showed why he was happy: Jones, the star running back, blasted into Ihedigbo, the anonymous safety, and one after one, players got involved. "Watch," he said. "Offense pulling off defense. Defense against offense. Before you can have pride in your team, you have to have pride in your own unit. You have to go out there Sunday knowing the guy playing next to you has your back. It bonds you. With a new team, that's one of the things I'm trying to get across."
The message seems to have sunk in—even with rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, who during the fracas ran to nosetackle Sione Pouha, grabbed his waist and tried to pull him away from the pile. Pouha, who outweighs Sanchez by 100 pounds, shook the QB off, but the point was made. "Hey, I tried," Sanchez said later, laughing. "I'm going to stand up for our guys."
"It's good," Ihedigbo said. "If this is how you go against your teammates, we're going to have that much more of an edge against our opponents."
That's Ryan's hope. The players like his from-the-gut approach—he spoke to the offense for 35 minutes on the first day of camp without notes. Ryan has toiled for 21 years as a college and pro assistant, and he's not going to hold anything back. "When he talked to us in that meeting," says wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, "you could just feel his passion. I looked around the room, and it was like, 'We want to go out and practice right now.' We're juiced to play for this guy."
The Jets will need one of their quarterbacks—the winner of the Sanchez--Kellen Clemens camp battle—to play well to have a chance to upend the Patriots or the defending champ Dolphins in the AFC East. But as Ryan said during the spring, they're not going to kiss Bill Belichick's Super Bowl rings. "I'll make this promise: We're going to be a team nobody wants to play," he said. Judging by the tape rolling on his video monitor last week, he'll keep that promise.
Now on SI.com
Training camp postcards and exclusive video from Peter King at SI.com/bonus
Who has impressed me during the first two weeks of my camp tour?
1. Ray Rice.
The Ravens RB (below) made the best play I've seen so far, a one-handed snare of a Joe Flacco fastball in the flat. Rice could pass incumbent Willis McGahee on the Baltimore depth chart.
2. Percy Harvin
The Vikings are working hard to get the speedy first-round WR ready to be an impact player by opening day. Says corner Antoine Winfield, "If he gets even half a step on you, he'll beat any corner in the league."
3. Matt Cassel
The Chiefs QB has been taking command of the offense the way he needs to while showing proper deference to his older teammates. He's also been very sharp throwing the ball.
WILLIAM PERLMAN/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PRESSWIRE
GANG-UP GREEN When a scuffle broke out at Jets camp last week, players followed the how-to rules Ryan had laid out earlier.