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DeMeco Ryans Has the Juice

The former linebacker is helming the best defense in football and has quickly become 2023’s hottest head-coaching candidate. Those who played and worked with him aren’t surprised.

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This is a story about predictions. They’re made in the NFL all the time. Talking heads hop on the television every week from September to February to plant their flag on who will win that Sunday’s games, only to hop right back on in March to predict who will go to which team in free agency, in April to predict which team will draft which player, and in the summer to predict who will win the upcoming season’s Super Bowl and awards. Players and coaches get in on it, too, making promises of performances and victories to come.

Since this is a story about predictions, let’s start with a recent one. In January 2021, when San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh left to become the head coach of the New York Jets, the 49ers promoted linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans to the defensive coordinator vacancy. At a quick glance, it seemed a bold stroke: Ryans was hired as a defensive quality control coach just four years prior in 2017; he was only six years removed from playing football. But head coach Kyle Shanahan had no qualms about the fast track: Before Saleh even took the Jets job, Shanahan had a prediction for Ryans.

“It’s a matter of time before DeMeco is a coordinator in this league,” Shanahan said of Ryans, then just a linebackers coach. “It’s a matter of time before he’s a head coach.”

Shanahan was right. Ryans took an interview with the Minnesota Vikings during the 2022 head coach hiring cycle, unlocking another achievement in one of the quickest climbs of the coaching ladder we’ve ever seen. This, after just one year of coordinating the 49ers defense; after a shaky start to the season ended with a late-season surge and an NFC championship game berth. This season, there was no shaky start: The 49ers defense is the best in the league by DVOA, points per game allowed, points per play allowed, and expected points added. Offseason departures and injuries have not hampered them; young stars like second-year safety Talanoa Hufanga and second-year corner Deommodore Lenoir have stepped into starting roles; linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, both drafted and developed while Ryans has been on San Francisco’s staff, got All-Pro votes along with star edge rusher Nick Bosa, Hufanga, and cornerback Charvarius Ward, a free agent acquisition. While the offense has cycled through three starting quarterbacks and injuries of its own, one thing has remained constant: Ryans’s defense.

The NFL was already interested in Ryans—now, teams are desperate for him. Ryans has interviews lined up with four of the five teams currently in need of a head coach; a fifth, the Carolina Panthers, is still waiting to get on the schedule. Ryans is such an attractive head-coaching candidate that ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted this in early December:

The confidence is not misplaced. This is a story about predictions, and I’d like to make one of my own. It’s not a particularly bold or fresh one—in fact, it’s one that everybody’s making: DeMeco Ryans has the juice. He’s going to be a head coach in 2023. And he’s gonna be a darn good one.

Ryans has always had the juice. From the day he became a professional football player, Ryans was the leader of the Houston Texans defense. “I never had a player who was that young and was that smart,” says Richard Smith, Ryans’s defensive coordinator in his 2006 rookie season. Smith, now the linebackers coach for the Indianapolis Colts, has been coaching college or NFL football for the past 35 years. Smith recalls times when Ryans would suggest in-game adjustments to the defensive game plan that Smith and his staff had not considered. “Usually you would get that out of a veteran—a guy that’s been in the league four, five, six years,” Smith says. “This guy was a rookie.” Ryans went on to play every game at middle linebacker in that 2006 season and won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with 126 solo tackles; the second-best rookie number in league history.

The middle linebacker is often called the quarterback of the defense. The job is more than just relaying the play from the coordinator to the huddle: it’s breaking the huddle with the play call, ensuring that everyone is aligned correctly, and then changing the call live on the field if and when the offense changes the picture with presnap motion. This was particularly critical in Houston, where Ryans’s first snaps as a pro came against Gary Kubiak’s offense in training camp. Kubiak’s offense was a predecessor to the modern Kyle Shanahan offense, with all of its presnap bells and whistles; on Kubiak’s staff was not just Shanahan, but future Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel and future 49ers and Jets offensive line coach John Benton.

Ryans was a two-time Pro Bowler in his six seasons with the Texans.
Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Ryans cut his teeth on the same offense that today makes most linebackers’ heads spin—and he wasn’t the least bit perturbed. Quarterback Sage Rosenfels recalls the experience of trying to practice against Ryans as a rookie.

“DeMeco was one of those guys who, right off the bat, immediately knew what call they should go to to solve the problem,” Rosenfels tells me. “There’ll be scenarios where the linebacker gets to make their own call—[the offense] goes empty, and they get to choose ‘Well, do you check to Cover 2 and play it safe? Do you go all-out blitz? Do you try to check to man?’ … A lot of times, rookies aren’t making that initial diagnosis of what the offense is doing and how the defense should respond. DeMeco felt like he had been there for three years, even though he only showed up a couple weeks earlier for summer OTAs.” Much like he would be later as a coach, DeMeco Ryans the player was ahead of schedule—way ahead of schedule.

But from where exactly did the precocious Ryans get all of this football intelligence? To Rosenfels, it seemed the product of Ryans’s climb to the NFL despite his lack of elite athletic traits. Ryans entered the league as a 6-foot-1, 235-pound middle linebacker—a fine size for 2023 football, but worryingly small for the 2006 game. But Ryans had been undersized for his entire football career—he showed up at Alabama at 6 feet and 210 pounds—and had been thriving in spite of it. “I think being slightly less talented than the Hall of Fame–type linebackers makes players more detailed in their work, in their craft,” Rosenfels says of young Ryans. “He wasn’t just like, memorizing pass patterns, but actually understanding ‘when we’re in this coverage, this is what offenses like to do; when we’re in this coverage, this is what offenses like to do.’ And you just don’t see that out of rookies very often.”

Beau Allen knows all about what rookies can—and, critically, can’t—do. A rookie defensive tackle with the Eagles in 2014 when Ryans was a veteran in Philadelphia, Allen recalled on Green Light with Chris Long how Ryans helped him in particular: “When you’re a rookie, you don’t know what the hell’s going on. You don’t know what you don’t know about football.” Allen, clearly, never met rookie DeMeco Ryans. “We’re playing the Giants, and DeMeco goes ‘Hey Beau! Lead weak! It’s coming right at you. You’re getting a double-team!’”

Remember, this is a story about predictions—this is one of many correct ones that Ryans made that day and in every day of his career. “That whole day, he knew every single play that Eli [Manning] and the Giants were running,” Allen said, “and he had the wherewithal on the field to make all the calls, all the adjustments, and realize ‘Hey, I got this rookie nose guard who doesn’t know what the hell’s going on,’ … so DeMeco Ryans? I would literally die for him.”

Allen later continued with his own prediction: “I think that he’s gonna have a really good head-coaching job somewhere.”

Allen’s story emphasizes how obsessed Ryans is with the whole picture. Not just his role on the defense, but the role of every player on the defense. As Ryans told Matt Maiocco in August 2018 when asked why he decided to become a coach: “For me, playing, I was always helping other players who I played around, getting everybody lined up. I always took the challenge of knowing what all 11 guys had to do on the defensive side, so I always had that strategy, that mindset about the game of football.”

More than that, Ryans didn’t just want to know the role of every player on the defense—he wanted to know how the offense worked, too. Another former Texans quarterback, Matt Schaub, remembers being hounded by a young Ryans for clues into what the offense was trying to achieve: “In the locker room, in the meal room, on the field, on the side, when our reps are over,” Schaub says, recalling Ryans’s questions. “‘Hey, I saw this formation. Is this something we should look for off of that—like a play-action or something?’ … He always wanted to visualize, because defense looks at things from offensive formations.”

Because Ryans was so focused on the offensive side of the football, he started to catch and call out tendencies in the offense, in Schaub himself. He could predict when Schaub was handing the ball off, and when he was faking the handoff for a play-action pass, by the behavior of Schaub’s off hand. It was this sort of behavior that made former Texans nose tackle Shaun Cody tell me, “Ryans was basically our coach.” Cody’s Texans team nicknamed Ryans “Cap” for his role on the defense: their captain, their leader. Ryans’s Alabama teammates had another nickname for him: “Coach.”

Ryans began his second career as a defensive quality control coach for the 49ers in 2017.
Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

It’s a cliché to call a player a “coach on the field,” but with Ryans, it was unimpeachably true. Ryans’s defensive coordinator in Philadelphia, Bill Davis, told NFL.com’s Jim Trotter that he would build two defensive game plans for each week: one that the defense could run no matter what, and another that they could only run if Ryans was on the field. Davis would also give Trotter his Ryans prediction: “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.”

Davis’s boss in Philadelphia, Chip Kelly, has one-upped Davis in his predictions for Ryans. In 2016, as the head coach of the 49ers that would hire Ryans one year later, Kelly filled out a series of questions for his coach bio. Favorite food, favorite movie, best football nickname. Under “Player (former or current) that would make a great head coach,” Kelly put “DeMeco Ryans.” A few years later, Kelly would tell The Athletic: “It wouldn’t surprise me if DeMeco became president.”

Many of the predictions that came out of Ryans’s nucleus in Houston have much to do with his football acumen, his play style, his demeanor on the field—but the predictions that came from Ryans’s contemporaries in Philadelphia have much more to do with his leadership and his personality. When Davis made his prediction about Ryans’s future as a head coach, he said nothing about football intelligence and focused instead on respect. “He’s got a natural quality about him that he’s a good listener and he’s a good decision-maker. He treats people with respect, therefore everybody respects him.” As Kelly told radio host Jim Rome last offseason, “He’s special. He’s got a unique leadership to him, he’s got a unique demeanor to him, he’s extremely well thought-out, very detailed … the first time I was around DeMeco, you could just tell that he was special.”

The Eagles’ contingent of Ryans forecasters focused on his leadership because that’s what they got when they traded for him in 2012. Ryans became more than just the savvy veteran who called out plays for Beau Allen; he became the defensive leader of the team. In 2014, when Ryans ruptured his Achilles tendon, Kelly gave Ryans his newest nickname—Mufasa, the leader of the animal kingdom in The Lion King; in 2015, the Eagles drafted a “Simba” in rookie Jordan Hicks, whom Ryans took under his wing and developed as his eventual replacement. During his rookie season, Hicks was asked what he learned from DeMeco: “What haven’t I been learning from DeMeco?” was his response.

When I ask just what kind of a leader Ryans is, everyone has a slightly different answer. Smith, the defensive coordinator who watched Ryans take command of a defensive huddle as a rookie, calls Ryans “quiet and reserved”—something he worried about, because middle linebackers typically need to be “loud and abrasive.” But once the defense realized that Ryans could get them into the right calls and positions and checks, he earned their trust and respect—and suddenly, his volume didn’t matter as much.

Schaub saw more energy in Ryans—then, as a player, and now, in the players that he coaches. “I see his style of play coming out of the [49ers] defense. His energy, his passion, his excitement and enthusiasm,” he says. Schaub recalls Ryans during summer practices in Houston—full pads, triple-digit temperatures, live contact—grinning ear to ear. Fred Warner calls San Francisco’s defense “a direct reflection of [Ryans] … fast, physical, violent.” This image is familiar to the one on the 49ers sideline after a third-down stop, a critical sack, or a turnover.

There’s talking, there’s energy, and then there’s the actual thing itself: leading with action. Here, Ryans was unquestioned. N.D. Kalu, another of Ryans’s Houston teammates, recalls Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew taunting a few Texans defenders that he bowled over on a particularly destructive run. Ryans returned to the huddle and didn’t even call a play. He just said, matter-of-factly, “I’ve got him”—then he lined the defense up, found Jones-Drew, and “laid his ass out.”

Descriptions of Ryans’s leadership vary because Ryans himself is a chameleon. He knows that different situations demand different tones. Nick Bosa—the 25-year-old All-Pro who predicts Ryans is “gonna be an unbelievable head coach”—describes Ryans’s balanced approach like this: “I see how he is every week in meetings, how he addresses the young guys … how hard he is on us, but how much he congratulates us and is positive at the same time. I think he’s just really figured out how to perfectly push us, but not push us too hard, not give us too much credit. It seems simple, but it’s really not.”

It seems simple, but it’s really not. That’s because anybody can be hard when they think they should, and congratulatory when they think they should—anyone can push their group a little bit, but dial it back when they think they should. But not just anybody can be right in all of those little assumptions, those small but meaningful predictions. When do you demand more from that young player whose confidence has been shaky? When do you dial up that blitz at the risk of giving up a big completion behind it? When do you get loud, when do you get quiet, when do you let it be fun, and when do you get serious?

It’s a gut thing. You can’t learn it, transfer it, put it on a play card and teach it to a defense. But it’s been all over DeMeco Ryans’s career in football: as a rookie, as a veteran, and now as a coach. It’s intuition, and Ryans has it in droves. He’s had it since the day he entered the league, and he’s been honing it ever since.

The funny thing is this: everyone has a little bit of intuition. Intuition is what we use to make predictions—and this is a story about predictions. Our brain has collected the raw data of our lives, conscious and unconscious, and used it to form an instinct—an instinct that tells us, as longtime football watchers, that this plucky underdog shouldn’t be counted out; that this young player is going to develop into a star. We all have a little bit of a gut feeling, and we use that gut feeling to make predictions.

That’s why there’s so many predictions about Ryans—why everyone who’s ever met him has some one-liner about the future head coach he’s going to be. Figuring out exactly who is going to be a good head coach is hard, and figuring out exactly what components make up a good head coach is even harder. It’s a “know it when you see it” sorta thing. You know what leadership looks like, and when you see it, you want to follow it; you know what intelligence looks like, and you want to learn from it. You know when a guy has just got it, and when he does, you want to bet on him being one of the greats.

And DeMeco Ryans has just got it.

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