Analysis

49ers DC DeMeco Ryans a 'father figure' to players, future 'phenomenal' HC to rival coach

Let's start with his love of the game.

DeMeco Ryans should be winding down with the clock creeping past 10 p.m., but he can't turn off his mind. There is always another play to devise, another matchup to exploit, so the first-time defensive coordinator is up late putting pen to paper.

That's not surprising considering he will make his play-calling debut on Sunday in Detroit, where the 49ers open the 2021 NFL season against the Lions. But the anecdote is actually from a decade ago, when, as a sixth-year linebacker for the Texans, he spent part of the NFL lockout coaching wide-eyed kids at his alma mater in Bessemer, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham.

He would stay up late figuring out ways to put the players in the best position to succeed, filling his notebook as quickly as he used to fill running lanes. I need a blitz for this guy. I need a blitz for that guy, too. You know what? I want a blitz for everybody.

It was the first time he had ever thought about coaching. He had been too focused on his playing career, receiving unanimous first-team All-America honors at Alabama, where he earned a starting spot by the end of his freshman season, then being voted Defensive Rookie of the Year after Houston selected him in the second round of the 2006 draft.

Then his phone rang during the lockout. Dennis Alexander, a former teammate at Alabama, was on the other end of the line and in need of help. He had unexpectedly been named head coach at Bessemer City High School and needed to put together a staff ASAP. He knew Ryans was in town during the work stoppage -- which prohibited players from working out at team facilities -- and cast an invitation in his direction.

"You're here anyway; we don't know when the lockout is going to end; I know you love being around ball and the kids, who relate to you because you're from here -- so how about it?" Alexander said. "I didn't think he was going to say yeah, but he was like, 'I'd love to do it.' "

For two months that offseason, his Mondays to Fridays were like clockwork: personal workouts in the morning followed by afternoons at Bessemer, where he oversaw weight-training sessions before joining the players on the field. The hours began to add up, but the compensation did not. Final paycheck: $0.00.

He wasn't there to make money; he was there to make a difference. Initially he worked with the junior varsity, but quickly graduated to the varsity squad. He wanted to keep it simple, maybe teach them some broad, generic concepts, then move on. But Ryans has never been about doing the minimum. He excelled as a player in part because of his willingness to go beyond what was expected, in the meeting room and on the practice field. So, it came as no shock when he expanded his teachings.

"I found myself up at 10 and 11 at night, drawing up plays, thinking about ways to help these guys," Ryans said. "I probably got a notebook full of stuff; I was drawing up all kinds of things."

He stopped and laughed.

"I got drawn in," he continued. "I thought it was going to be so easy -- let the kids run a little Cover 2, you know? But I got so into it that I was like, no! I started giving the kids little tests to take home. I went all in."

***

What about his ability to connect with others?

Ryans played 10 NFL seasons, six with the Texans and four with the Eagles. During his time in Philadelphia, assistant strength and conditioning coach Keith Gray once told him: "Players don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Ryans has never forgotten the words. They are as valuable to him as any play design, which comes through when his players speak about him.

Growing up, linebacker Dre Greenlaw bounced between foster homes and boys' homes as a ward of the state in Arkansas. At 14 he was taken in by a family that formally adopted him in 2018 after seven years together. Suffice it to say he has experienced the joys and pain of life, and knows the importance of having people who care about you on a deeper level.

He first met Ryans in 2019 as a Reese's Senior Bowl participant. The 49ers and Raiders staffs were working the annual college all-star game, so they had greater access to the players than other clubs. Greenlaw immediately felt "the craziest connection" with Ryans, who saw potential in him that Greenlaw did not see in himself. Their bond has only grown deeper since San Francisco selected Greenlaw in the fifth round of that year's draft.

"He knows my background -- not always having family there, not having somebody that I can talk to," Greenlaw explained. "Every week, every day, he's asking me how my family is, how my son is, how things are going with me other than football. When I've got problems or things aren't going right at the house, that's the guy I go to because I know he's going to give me the best feedback. ... With my mom and dad not being there all the time, he's definitely like that father figure, that role model, somebody I look up to for anything, not just football." 

This past offseason, 49ers inside linebacker Fred Warner experienced the stress of a mega-contract negotiation. Players always want the deal done sooner than later, but top-tier deals take time. The sides ultimately reached an agreement on a five-year, $95 million extension that included $40.5 million in guarantees, and afterward Warner credited Ryans for helping to keep him steady.

"It was extremely important (to have backing) from a guy who has my best interest at heart, who has been there and played at a high level and been in the same situation," Warner said. "I lean on him for a lot of things, but especially in a situation like that, which was new to me. He knew I was the best at what I do and he was telling me I've got to enjoy the process even though it is kind of a stressful situation. He knew I wanted to get that out of the way so I could play ball. I will forever be grateful for him being there during that time."

Kansas City Chiefs center Darryl Williams was on the Bessemer team that Ryans worked with in 2011. He was familiar with Ryans at the time because Ryans held an annual football camp in town during the offseason, and like many of his teammates, he was in awe of having an active pro player on staff during spring ball. But when he reflects on those moments, football brings up the rear in the conversation.

"I was getting a lot of letters from colleges and he actually sat and talked to me," Williams said. "He told me 'pick a school that you feel comfortable with, that's going to get you the right education and teach you to not only be a great football player but a great man.' He would always come home and give his time with his football camp, but nobody actually got to sit and talk to him and get to know him as a person outside of football."

At Alabama, some teammates nicknamed him "Coach" because he demanded accountability from them for seemingly trivial things. One such moment occurred after several players left the tape they cut from their ankles and wrists on the locker-room floor. To Ryans, this was a sign of disrespect to both the locker room and those responsible for its upkeep. He challenged the players to do better. They took the words to heart, but not before joking that he was acting like a coach.

Thing is, the respect that others had for Ryans was due to the fact that he never asked something of them that he did not ask of himself. Like being a good teammate in difficult times. For instance, during his final season in Philadelphia in 2015, the Eagles drafted inside linebacker Jordan Hicks in the third round. It was implicitly understood that Hicks was being brought in to replace Ryans -- sooner if not later. Such transitions can be awkward, with the veteran refusing to train someone to take his job, but Ryans immediately began teaching Hicks everything he knew, to the point that there was no significant drop-off when Hicks filled in for an injured Ryans in the middle of the season before the rookie suffered an injury of his own.

Fast-forward to this offseason and the Cardinals drafting inside linebacker Zaven Collins in the first round, presumably to replace Hicks, who is now in his third season with Arizona. Bill Davis, who was the Eagles' defensive coordinator when Hicks was drafted, currently is the linebackers coach with the Cardinals. He knew it could be an uneasy conversation with Hicks about what Collins' addition could mean, but things could not have gone more smoothly.

"He told me, 'Even though I was there to take DeMeco's job he helped me every day and I'm going to do the same thing with Zaven,' " Davis said. "Imagine that. DeMeco is influencing my room today and I haven't been with him for five years."

***

Will the moment be too big for him?

Ryans was relaxing on the couch with his wife last January when their TV time was interrupted by a phone call from 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. It's not uncommon to receive random calls from Shanahan, but this was different for several reasons: it came at 10 p.m.; the coaches had been given time off after a difficult season; Shanahan was attempting to FaceTime him.

"Hey, dude," Shanahan said. "You ready to do this?"

No explanation was necessary. With Robert Saleh taking the head job with the New York Jets, Shanahan was in need of a new defensive coordinator. He had never guaranteed to Ryans that he would be next in line, but it seemed the logical progression considering he had met with Ryans throughout the 2020 season to discuss defense and personnel and was known to favor promoting from within.

"Am I ready?" said Ryans, who had spent the previous three seasons as the inside linebackers coach, following one year as a quality control assistant. "For sure. Let's rock it out!"

His excitement was matched only by his humility. It was surreal to him that just five years after retiring as a player and only four years after the official start of his coaching career he would be running an entire unit. But dive into the deep end of his journey and it's clear his arrival at this moment was predestined.

Go back to his time as a player. During the three seasons Davis was with Ryans as defensive coordinator of the Eagles, he regularly had two game plans each week: one with Ryans on the field, and one without him. For Davis, Ryans was his defensive equivalent of quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, someone who could grasp the entire playbook and fit everyone into it.

"I felt like I always had too much in the game plan for the other players," Davis said. "However, because I was dealing with a DeMeco -- who was a coach on the field -- the whole playbook was available to me."

Richard Smith was the Texans' defensive coordinator during Ryans' first three seasons with the team. He was accustomed to rookies coming in and painting by numbers. In other words, they would attempt to do exactly what they had been taught to do but struggle if something went off script. It wasn't until they went through those moments of uncertainty, until they built up enough scar tissue, that they were able to adjust on the fly. Not so with Ryans. He was wise beyond his years.

"The thing I loved about him is that he thought like a coach," Smith said. "I was shocked that he could adjust so quickly as a rookie. He'd come off the field and say what he saw and suggest something we could do. And I'd say, 'You know what? That's a hell of an idea.' "

During the break between the unofficial end of the lockout and the start of training camp, teams could not have contact with players, so it was left to players to coach themselves. Ryans and quarterback Matt Schaub took the lead with the Texans, gathering the players and assuming the roles of defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively.

Ryans' responsibilities were particularly important because the Texans were preparing to install a new defense after hiring Wade Phillips as coordinator. Ryans' ability to learn the playbook and translate it for teammates during workouts gave them a head start once formal practices began. Playing the role of translator was nothing new for him. Coaches sometimes speak in a language that coaches understand, but Ryans understood how to break it down into a language that players could decipher.

"That was always my approach, even with the rookies I played with," he said. "I took it upon myself to always help those guys out. Let me try to explain it a better way. Let me see if I can break it down to layman's terms so they can get it and go play fast."

***

How will Ryans be different from his predecessor?

It was one of the most discussed questions of the 49ers' offseason, and for understandable reasons. Saleh oversaw a unit that was among the league's best when healthy, and his presence was magnified by television cameras that repeatedly broadcast his intensity and emotional displays on the sideline. 

Ryans has been asked to the point of fatigue whether he will be as demonstrative as Saleh, and the response is always the same. He will be himself; those who know him contend that he will be a steady, even-keeled guy with no qualms about showing his emotions when the moment commands.

He is a young man with an old soul. His mother worked multiple jobs for a cleaning service at local plastic and steel plants, and his father made a living as a mechanic. There was nothing fancy or conspicuous about them. Ryans calls them "hard-working people kind of grinding through to make sure we had what we needed."

The description is appropriate for Ryans as well. The defense will be the same yet different under his direction. He has reduced some of the verbiage so the players can play even faster, and he's likely to utilize more pressure packages.

"He's taken ahold of this defense and put his own culture, his own taste, to it," Warner said. "When you turn on the tape in practices right now you see that we are a direct reflection of him, wanting to play a fast, physical, violent style of football. He knows exactly what he wants. I feel like as he has done throughout his career here, and I've been a player and kind of watched him go through it, he just becomes more and more confident. He's real black and white with what he wants. That's what I really appreciate about him: He eliminates all gray area, which allows us to just go out and play fast."

Ryans has an ego, like anyone talented in a given field, but he's not a prisoner to it. He knows the game is bigger than him and approaches each situation with a set of core beliefs but an open mind.

"He's got a natural quality about him that he's a good listener and he's a good decision-maker," Davis said. "He treats people with respect, therefore everybody respects him. I don't know how long he'll be a coordinator. DeMeco's so talented he will go to the next level and be a phenomenal head coach in this league because of the way he handles himself on a day-to-day basis."

Ryans is not thinking that far ahead. He is locked in on the moment, though guided by a principle that was cured during his brief coaching tenure at Bessemer.

"It's easy for guys to forget the fun side of it," Ryans said. "Oh, I get it -- it's a business. But the business takes care of itself. When we're out there on the field, don't make it bigger than what it is. Have fun. As I continue to coach, that's the one thing I want guys to understand and never lose sight of, that it's a football game. So have fun doing it."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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