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Lee Jenkins
September 19, 2011
They're big, they're brash, and they live for the game. The Ryan twins—Rex of the Jets and Rob of the Cowboys—set the tone for the NFL season with a wild opening-week showdown
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September 19, 2011

Oh, Brother, What A Start

They're big, they're brash, and they live for the game. The Ryan twins—Rex of the Jets and Rob of the Cowboys—set the tone for the NFL season with a wild opening-week showdown

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The father of the 46 defense sat in the front row of a luxury box at MetLife Stadium, looking down at the field through wire-rimmed glasses, a brown blanket draped over his shoulders. He held up a championship ring from Super Bowl III, rattling off the names of every one of his Jets defenders who forced a turnover in that game. You can tell Buddy Ryan has mellowed a bit because he constantly says he doesn't want to see any players get injured. Ryan, 80, is starting his fifth round with cancer, set for surgery on Friday in Kentucky. But it would have taken some serious blitz pickup to keep him from the Sunday night opener in New Jersey. Ryan may be remembered as one of the NFL's classic curmudgeons, a reputation built over nearly three decades as a defensive assistant (Jets, Vikings, Bears, Oilers) and head coach (Eagles, Cardinals), but he improbably sired two of the game's great jesters, and they even crack up the patriarch of punishment. "Those boys," Buddy says, "are as fun as the '85 Bears."

On one sideline Sunday night was Jets coach Rex Ryan, the tabloid fixture who guarantees Super Bowl wins and once, in the media, challenged former Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder—and Crowder's father—to a fight. Rex has guided the Jets to the past two AFC Championship Games, provided enough one-liners to keep Bartlett's working overtime and covered his right calf with a tribal tattoo. He is by far the most animated head coach in the NFL, but he's not nearly the most animated person in his own family. Hard as it is to believe, Rex is the understated brother.

Meet Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Rex's 48-year-old twin, hidden for the past seven seasons in Oakland, Cleveland and his brother's substantial shadow. Rob casts quite the silhouette himself at 305 pounds—"All belly," he says, giving it a quick pat—with bulging blue eyes, an unkempt gray goatee and a tangle of shoulder-length locks the color of the Cowboys' helmet. He stalks the sideline in workout pants, play card between his teeth, pausing to whip himself with his baseball cap after big plays. He looks as though he arrived at the stadium by Harley, on three hours' sleep. The cover of the Cowboys' defensive playbook features a picture of Rob napping under his desk, with cornerback Terence Newman standing over him.

If you don't like Rex because he's too burly and brash, you'll hate Rob. He talks to opposing receivers, once asking veteran Isaac Bruce, "Old man, what are you doing? You can't run anymore." His favorite expression is sweet live ass, which he uses mainly as an adjective and term of endearment. Buddy is a sweet live ass dad. Rex is a sweet live ass brother. Ace of Spades is a sweet live ass champagne. Rob hands out bottles of the bubbly for impact plays. As the Browns' defensive coordinator he would show Eastbound & Down clips in meetings and ask rookies, "What's the nickname for McDonald's?" When they responded, "Mickey D's," he hollered, "Deez nuts!" "Rob Ryan could put the Family Guy out of business," says Cowboys safety Abram Elam, who played for him in Cleveland the past two years. Rob once compared Rex to a turkey because of his pronounced jowls, wore a weightlifting belt around his midsection after Rex underwent lap-band surgery and last week addressed certain videos linked to his brother that popped up on YouTube last year. "My wife, she's got everything," Rob says. "She's got great feet too. She's got everything nice. What the hell?"

Rob was understandably beloved in Oakland's Black Hole and Cleveland's Dawg Pound, but Browns coach Eric Mangini, under whom he worked in 2009 and '10, muzzled him in front of the media. "I've been banned again!" Rob would say. Last winter he moved to Dallas, where for the first time he has playoff-caliber talent and a national audience. The NFL now has a Ryan brother in two of its most prominent markets, an alluring or appalling notion depending on your point of view. "People don't think anybody talks more trash than Rex," says Jim Ryan, the third brother, a St. Louis lawyer who is six years older than the twins, "but they don't know Rob." To prepare for the Jets, Rob scrawled 12 new defensive pressures on the grease board in his office, which he termed the Dirty Dozen. He then assembled clips from the 1967 Lee Marvin movie of the same name, spliced with footage of Dallas defenders. "We've got some sweet live ass calls this week," he said.

For most of the night the calls worked, as the Cowboys sacked Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez four times, stifled the running attack and allowed just 10 points through the first three quarters. But it was Rex and his staff who made the decisive defensive call—Jets Mike Mix—with 59 seconds left and the score tied at 24. Jets safety Brodney Pool inched toward the line of scrimmage as if he was going to blitz, then dropped into coverage behind All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo spotted receiver Dez Bryant one-on-one against Revis and let fly. But Revis knew Pool was behind him, jumped the route and made his first interception since January 2010. Nick Folk, the former Cowboy, drilled a 50-yard field goal, and on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, New York's team beat America's team. Rex edged Rob. Again.

Rex was born five minutes ahead of Rob, forever the big brother. When they climbed trees as kids, Rob was the one who fell out and broke his arm. When they played hockey, Rob was the goalie, and Rex knocked out his front teeth with a slap shot. When they played night golf, Rob was the flagstick, and Rex hit him in the head with a drive. During a backyard football game featuring mandatory cheap shots, Rob slid over the back of a snowbank and into a moving car.

The Ryans are fraternal twins, but everyone figured they were identical. At Stevenson High outside Chicago they wore mullets, high-topped turf shoes and Bears warmups while classmates were in oxford shirts and khakis. "It was a very conservative, very preppy environment," says Bob Mackey, who coached the twins in baseball and football. "Then here come these two good old boys trucking down the hall, full of life." Rex led the baseball team in home runs; Rob led in being hit by pitches. Local umpires grew tired of his leaning into fastballs and started calling them strikes. Rex once got ejected from the bench for arguing on his brother's behalf.

The brothers were so close they shared contact lenses, and in college at Southwestern Oklahoma State in the 1980s they had one wallet between them—whoever got the date got the wallet. The boys were slender then, 6'2", 215-pound defensive ends, and if they grew their hair below the helmet line, coach Bob Mazie said he'd cut it off. The Ryans won almost as many bar fights as football games, defending friends and the family name. Buddy would send money to bail them out of jail, and the twins were back in Mazie's office the next morning deconstructing defenses. They decided in second grade that they would be coaches, and though they weren't the most bookish students, they could see the football field in sharp relief, every player with just one glimpse. "Rob was more serious about it than Rex," Mazie says of the boys' joint career goal. "I thought he would make it first."

Rex got another head start. His first job, in 1987, was at Eastern Kentucky, a Division I-AA dynamo, while Rob went to Western Kentucky. Rex was at Oklahoma when Rob was at Oklahoma State. They both worked under Buddy with the Cardinals in 1994 and '95—"Frankly, they were out of their league then," says former Cardinals center Ed Cunningham—but Rex made it back to the NFL before Rob, as the Ravens' defensive line coach in '99. When Baltimore won the Super Bowl a year later, Rex told Rob he couldn't participate in family card games without a championship ring.

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