Mark Brunell: Quarterback question far from unsolvable for Rex Ryan - The Buffalo News

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Mark Brunell: Quarterback question far from unsolvable for Rex Ryan

The New York Jets' most glaring weakness under Rex Ryan was insufficient quarterbacking.

That's pretty much a fact.

How much of that was Ryan's fault, though?

One veteran quarterback with inside knowledge doesn't necessarily accept the narrative that Ryan is a failure at handling the NFL's most critical position.

"If there's anything he should have learned from his time with the Jets," retired quarterback Mark Brunell said, "is that you've got to have a guy back there who can play at a high level or your chances of winning football games is going to be limited.

"Now more than ever he ought to realize that's got to be his focus. He's going to have to find a kid he can develop or an established one who can help them win right now."

Ryan admitted at Wednesday's introductory news conference he has grown since becoming a head coach for the first time six years ago. Brunell is sure that's true, especially when it comes to quarterback philosophies.

"He's a great motivator and a brilliant defensive mind, but that's not enough," said Brunell, an ESPN analyst. "Coaches from year to year and job to job learn and develop just like a player does.

"I'm sure Rex's most important task after he hires his staff and gets settled is finding out who the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills is going to be. That's paramount."

Before the Jets, Brunell was a three-time Pro Bowl selection for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He began his career behind Brett Favre with the Green Bay Packers and won a Super Bowl as Drew Brees' backup for the New Orleans Saints.

Ryan's first two seasons with the Jets coincided with the last two seasons of Brunell's 19-year career. Ryan added him to the roster as a quasi quarterbacks coach for Mark Sanchez. In their two seasons together, Sanchez helped the Jets reach consecutive AFC title games.

But Sanchez flamed out with the Jets. He became an easy target for ridicule. The low point was the infamous Butt Fumble folly. Sanchez tried to salvage a broken play, ran into the backside of right guard Brandon Moore, fumbled and watched the New England Patriots return the loose ball for a touchdown.

Butt Fumble became the symbol for the Jets' recent quarterback woes. The others to play for Ryan weren't any better: Greg McElroy, Tim Tebow, Geno Smith and a washed up Michael Vick.

"Mark didn't develop at a pace they were hoping he would," Brunell said, "but every effort was made to make sure that Mark was coached well. He was in a good system. He was surrounded by decent players.

"But I would argue that Mark didn't have enough around him, and for a quarterback at that time in his career he needed some top-notch receivers. He needed that running game to continue. I don't think they really built around Mark."

Although the Jets routinely sent offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl, zero skill-position players were honored while Ryan was coach. Much of that -- and an inability to identify a quarterback -- falls on the front office. Both general managers Ryan worked for also were fired.

Brunell remains a Ryan fan and called the addition of offensive coordinator Greg Roman "a great hire."

Brunell played for Super Bowl champions Mike Holmgren, Tom Coughlin, Joe Gibbs and Sean Payton. But Brunell never has seen anybody like Ryan.

"Not everyone knows how to connect with the players," Brunell said. "Rex has that ability to connect, that ability to get his players to believe that you're all in it together.

"The best coaches are the ones who makes the players know, 'Hey, this guy believes in us. He's going to fight for us. He's going to fight with us.' It goes beyond the rah-rah stuff. He loves his team."

The best examples of Ryan's appeal shined through for Brunell the night before each game.

For a Sunday game, the team traditionally gathers on Saturday night. The coach stands in front of the team and delivers a 10-minute talk to crystallize the week of preparations and to give the players some key thoughts to sleep on.

"I've been through a lot of team meetings where you think, 'Man, can we just get through this?' " Brunell said. "But I looked forward to Rex Ryan talking to the team.

"After that meeting -- and I'm an 18-year, 19-year veteran -- I wanted to go out there and play the game. I wanted to compete. He would get my old ass fired up.

"He'll yell. He'll cuss. He'll crack jokes. You just don't know what you're going to get, but everything you do get is fascinating. You're going to be entertained and inspired."

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