Rob never drew as good a hand anyway. At Ohio State in 1988 he unloaded Burger King trucks in the middle of the night before heading to work as a graduate assistant in the morning. At Tennessee State he oversaw the running backs for three seasons, a position he knew nothing about. Back on the defensive side at Oklahoma State in '98, when the Cowboys were tied with 27-point favorite Nebraska midway through the fourth quarter, he told coach Bob Simmons, "Don't worry. We've got this." The words weren't even out of his mouth and a Nebraska punt returner was racing past him for a game-winning touchdown.
Rob finally scored his upset in 2000, chosen over more pedigreed candidates to be the Patriots' linebackers coach after an interview in which he spent six hours scrawling coverages on a grease board for Bill Belichick. Rob won two Super Bowls with New England and banned Rex from the family card games for lack of a second ring. He also became an NFL defensive coordinator a year before Rex, in '04, but to do so he moved to Oakland while Rex stayed with the Ravens. As a coordinator and a head coach, Rex has never had a defense that finished outside the top six. Only one of Rob's has finished better than 22nd. Rob's players challenge the significance of that statistic, since he was working with units that lacked depth and were left on the field by weak offenses. When Rex joined the Jets, he adopted a package Rob used in Oakland and called it Raider Coverage. "We play it better than you," Rex told him.
The Ryans are sons of the 46, genetically bound to the blitz, but their styles differ slightly. Rob likes to blitz more on first and second down, Rex on third. Rob sticks almost exclusively to the 3--4; Rex sometimes shifts to the 4--3. Rex is able to sustain pressure the entire game, protected by a security blanket like Revis, considered the best corner in the league, while Rob sometimes backs off.
The two discuss these and other matters almost every day, communicating in a language they call "twin talk." They were together when Rob met his wife, Kristin, on a flight home from the scouting combine in Indianapolis. "Babe here," Rob told Rex, about the pretty blonde across the aisle. The two families vacationed together in Hawaii this summer, but that was not the trip the brothers originally planned. Rex acquired a weather-tracking device so they could chase storms across Oklahoma. Said Rex, "I want to see how far I can hit a Wiffle ball in a tornado."
The NFL's nutty uncles are among its premier motivators and strategists. Two years ago Rob flew to Indianapolis to help Rex prepare for the Jets-Colts AFC Championship Game. In 2010 the Jets and the Browns happened to be the only teams to beat the Patriots in the regular season. Last week, though, Rob and Rex treated each other like double agents. After the Jets signed safety Andrew Sendejo off waivers from Dallas, Rob changed elements of his plan because he feared Sendejo would relay details to Rex. In fact, the Ryans were raised to be suspicious of anyone from Dallas. Buddy once said of the Cowboys, "I want all their quarterbacks on the ground." He wrote in a game plan about Tony Dorsett, "Lay some Riddells on him and he'll cough it up." In the strike season of 1987 Buddy accused the Cowboys of running up the score against his Eagles with players who crossed the picket line. Philadelphia won the rematch easily, but in the final seconds Buddy ordered quarterback Randall Cunningham to fake taking a knee and to throw deep. Former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson later accused Buddy of putting bounties on Cowboys players, including their kicker.
Days after Rob shook hands with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones last January, Buddy called frantically—the Eagles were looking for a coordinator and were supposedly interested. Rob could have played the two rivals off each other, but he has never been interested in office politics. He and Rex share a management philosophy they call KILL, which sounds like an invention of Buddy's but is actually an upbeat acronym: Keep It Learnable and Likable. Rex predicts a Super Bowl victory for his team each year; Rob started his first meeting with the Cowboys' defense by telling them, "We're going to be great." Never mind that they had 10 starters back from a unit that had franchise worsts last season in points and yards allowed.
Rob engenders such affection in the Cowboys' locker room that a player who knew him for only three weeks offered to put him on the Jill Lane nutrition program for the next six months, picking up the tab for a diet that Rob says will cost $16,000. The desk in his office is now littered with vitamins. His minifridge is stocked with carefully wrapped salads and protein bars. His weight and body-fat percentage are on display in the meeting room. He instructs his players to knock sodas out of his hand and promises to donate $500 to a kangaroo court if he gains any weight. In his first six days on the program he dropped six pounds.
"The fat jokes really hurt me," Rob says. "No, I don't actually give a s--- about that. But I think the players looked at me and thought, 'My God, he's going to explode on us.' I don't want to let them down. And I definitely don't want to do the whole lap-band thing." He is taking another jab at his twin brother, who wears the sweater vest, cuts his hair close to the scalp and sometimes even thinks before he speaks. "Rex tells me he's got a sweet live ass Polo shirt," Rob says. "I don't have any designer clothes."
The modern NFL is not so different from old Stevenson High, crowded with coaches who look and talk like CPAs. Jets owner Woody Johnson hired Ryan even though he was 45 minutes late to the interview. The question is whether other owners, who have witnessed the Jets' success, will be as bold. "There are so many coaches in the NFL who say one thing to the media and another behind closed doors," says Pool, the Jets' safety, who also played under Rob in Cleveland. "Guys don't want to play for phonies. We want to play for coaches like the Ryans. I don't know why the rest of the league hasn't figured that out yet. Maybe they aren't smart enough."
Rob runs his fingers through his hair, a process that takes several seconds. "Look, if I have to cut it to become an NFL head coach, then I'll cut it," he says. "But I'll be pissed about it."