Cowboys' Ryan has swagger of a head coach, if not the title

IRVING, Texas -- Rob Ryan expected to be an NFL head coach by now, just like his twin brother Rex and their father Buddy before them.

It didn't work out that way, but Rob's not complaining. He figures the teams that haven't picked him have made a mistake, and that the Dallas Cowboys are lucky to have him as their defensive coordinator.

Of course he thinks that. He's a Ryan.

Big, loud and proud like Buddy and Rex, Rob also keeps up the family tradition with a variety of innovative, attacking defenses. Another common trait is being his usual, boisterous self when talking to reporters -- especially this week, with his first game in charge of the Cowboys' defense coming against Rex and the Jetsin prime time on Sunday night.

"I've been an assistant coach of the year in pro football and in college football, so apparently I'm pretty good," Rob said. "No one else believes it, but they all will after this game."

Rob is only 48 and going into his 25th season as a coach, meaning he's spent more than half his life working on the sideline. And the majority of that time has come in the NFL, this being his 14th season.

He and Rex broke into the NFL in 1994 as assistant coaches on their dad's staff in Arizona. They were all swept out following the 1995 season, and Rob had to work his way back up to the NFL. After a year at a community college, then three more at Oklahoma State, he was hired by Bill Belichick in New England. He was the linebackers coach on two Super Bowl championship teams before becoming the defensive coordinator in Oakland. He spent the last two years coordinating Cleveland's defense under Belichick disciple Eric Mangini.

The Raiders and Browns made big improvements under his watch. With his pedigree, what else would you expect?

"(Buddy) brought us in the world of defense and I was fortunate enough to get with Bill Belichick, who's fantastic -- it's like getting in there with Vince Lombardi," Ryan said. "You're going to learn something if you're smart and I am. I've been around the best defensive coaches to ever coach the game in those three, and I don't know what the order is, but when you've got Buddy Ryan, Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick, those are a pretty good three."

Rob's chances of becoming a head coach have been hurt in part by how lousy the Raiders and Browns were, overall. The last six years, he's never been part of a team that won more than five games.

The Cowboys weren't much better last year, winning just six. The defense was a huge reason Dallas failed to live up to preseason talk of reaching the Super Bowl, allowing the most points and yards in franchise history. But listen to his assessment of the talent he inherited: "We've got seven Pro Bowlers over there on defense, so (it's) pretty (expletive) good."

He's sticking with the 3-4 scheme that Bill Parcells installed and Wade Phillips tweaked. He's also adding to it. A lot.

His system is so extensive that it fills three playbooks to hold. Inside linebacker Bradie James joked that he needed an extra suitcase during training camp to hold it all.

"I was overwhelmed," said outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who has led the NFL in sacks two of the last three years. "I was like, `What are we doing?' The thing is, once you learn it, it's all about the same stuff, but just changing little pieces."

Players love the system almost as much as they love the wild man behind it.

Ware said the first time he met Ryan, "I didn't know if he was a defensive coordinator or a Harley-Davidson motorcycle rider." That's because of Ryan's enormous belly and his mop of long, stringy, gray hair.

Add in his salty language and jovial nature, and it's easy to forget the most important thing: This guy really knows what he's doing.

"He's serious and he's intense, but at the same time, he is loose and he cracks jokes and has fun," inside linebacker Keith Brooking said. "I've been around a lot of characters and coaches with great personalities who weren't very good football coaches. But when you're around him for a very short period of time, you see his knowledge."

And his confidence.

When the Philadelphia Eagles were loading up on big-name players -- including outbidding the Cowboys for former Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, whom Ryan calls perhaps his favorite player he's ever coached -- Ryan won over Cowboys fans with this retort: "I don't know if we win the all-hype team. That might have gone to someone else, but we're going to beat their (behind) when we play them."

Ryan said it's easy to be so confident "in stuff that I'm good at," adding that he, his brother and his father "got just enough arrogance to be good at this job."

Are you listening, NFL owners in need of a coach? Because the way Rob Ryan sees it, the only question is when someone is smart enough to give him a chance, not if.

Until then, he's going to keep doing things the Ryan way.

"It took my dad 25 years to be a head coach in this league and that's not just what drives me," Rob said. "I want to win another Super Bowl. I've only won two. I want to win a third and keep doing that. When I get an opportunity to be a head coach, I'll be ready."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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