SANTA CLARA, California. Not long after the Houston Texans selected linebacker DeMeco Ryans with the 33rd overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, everyone in the organization realized something special.

As fate would have it, the Texans’ coaching staff included several future San Francisco 49ers coaches. Young Kyle Shanahan was in charge of wide receivers; Robert Saleh, former Niners defensive coordinator, was defensive assistant; and Johnny Holland, the team’s linebacker coach, held the same role in Houston.

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Whenever the team practiced, Shanahan marveled at how quickly Ryans took charge, yelling game calls, lining up teammates and playing.

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“He came in and ran that defense from day one as a rookie and that always stood out to me,” Shanahan said.

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When Ryans arrived, Saleh was in his first year as an NFL staff coach and worked with linebackers. Studying the intricacies of the work, Saleh could not help but believe that Ryans was already working at an advanced level.

“I always felt that he would make a really good football coach because he prepared for the game and led it,” said Saleh.

This preparation has brought great success on the field, with Ryans receiving Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2006, a first-team All-Pro nod in 2007, and Pro Bowl berths in 2007 and 2009. From 2006 to 2009, only London Fletcher had more tackles than Ryan’s 518. Ryans ended a 10-year career with 970 tackles, 46 passes defended, 13.5 sacks and seven interceptions in 140 games.

Saleh’s suspicions that Ryan’s approach to the game would translate into coaching were also confirmed. The fact that Ryans has become one of the hottest candidates for the NFL head coach job seems like a breeze at first glance.

Ryans spent one season as quality control coach and two coached inside linebackers before replacing defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who left to become New York Jets coach, in 2021.

But Ryan’s rise to the cusp of the NFL head coaching fraternity was actually much longer in the making. His grandmother predicted this when Ryans was young, he felt it after an injury in 2010 and was completely sold at the end of his career when he accepted the role of a mentor to a player called to replace him.

Along the way, Ryans figured out how to use his playing experience to communicate with players, establishing himself as a coach who isn’t afraid to tell players when they’re not up to standard.

In Sunday’s NFC Divisional Round meeting against the Dallas Cowboys (6:30 pm ET, Levi’s Stadium, Fox), Ryans will lead a defense that, in two seasons with him as coordinator, ranks second in the NFL in points (18.9) and yards per game. allowed (305.3), fourth in Sportzshala defensive efficiency (60.7) and yards per game (5.04), and fifth in EPA defense (67.02).

Ryan’s performance earned him interview requests from the Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Texans, and Carolina Panthers—every team with a vacancy for a vacant head coaching position. He plans to interview the Broncos and Texans this week, and the rest later.

He has also received unanimous praise from those who play for him.

“Given the fact that he is a coach and a leader, he is the best coach I have ever met,” said defender Nick Boza.

ASK THOSE WHO were close to Ryan for who he is, and you will inevitably hear words like positive, calm and even-tempered. Ryans likes to tell players that “energy vampires” are not allowed, meaning no one with a negative attitude is allowed in his conference rooms.

This is a character trait that Ryans attributes to his mother, who is affectionately called “Miss Martha” in his hometown of Bessemer, Alabama. To support Ryan and his three older siblings, Miss Martha worked at the town’s factory during the day and worked as a cleaning lady in the evening, often returning home after her children had gone to bed.

“I think my mom is very quiet and reserved,” Ryans said. “She can just be fine sitting at home or being around everyone, not talking a lot and just feeling everything that’s going on. Everyone had difficult situations, but she always remained steadfast in everything. And I think I just have this calming demeanor.” from her.”

Never has this trait come in handy more than on October 17, 2010, when Ryans tore his left Achilles tendon shortly before halftime against the Kansas City Chiefs. The following spring, while recovering from an NFL lockout injury in Birmingham, Ryans faced former Alabama teammate Dennis Alexander.

Alexander became the coach of Ryan’s alma mater, Bessemer City High, and asked Ryan if he was interested in helping out as defensive coordinator during spring football. At first, Ryans decided that he would stop by Bessemer in the afternoon and be home in a few hours.

Instead, Ryans sat at his house until 9 or 10 p.m., drafting plans for a team that only had one spring game against an opponent.

This was Ryans’ first experience in coaching, although long before that he had been predicted that someday this would become his passion.

“My grandmother always told me that you would probably be a coach someday,” Ryans said. As it turned out, that one game that Bessemer City won was enough for Ryans to see the difference his football knowledge could make.

“To see how excited, how excited these kids were to see the look on their faces, like they were part of it, just training them and putting them in position to play, I thought, ‘Wow, that was cool. It’s always stuck in my head.”

THE NEXT SIX SEASONS with the Texans, Ryans moved to the Philadelphia Eagles after a trade in 2012. When the Eagles hired coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis in 2013, the duo relied on Ryan to lead.

In the spring, after setting up his defense, Davis said the Eagles were about halfway through training camp when he realized that Ryans was quickly learning the defense. By the end of the season, Davis was ready to demand more from Ryan than from any player he had ever coached, with the exception of Hall of Famer Sam Mills.

In this game, Davis passed two calls – one if the quarterback was in the center and one if he was in the shotgun – with multiple fronts and covers to Ryan. Ryans had to determine the lineup, keep an eye on any shifts, moves or potential checks, and line up his teammates properly to match the challenge.

“I’m looking back at some of my game plans and I think I wouldn’t even think about it right now,” said Davis, who spent 2022 as the Cardinals’ linebacker coach. “But precisely because I had DeMeco, I could.”

As Ryans neared the end of his career in 2015, the Eagles selected linebacker Jordan Hicks in the third round with the idea of ​​making him Ryans’ replacement. Ryans never shied away from helping young players, but for the first time he came face to face with his football mortality.

Ryans did not hesitate to show Hicks the way. The pair have been so inseparable since the day Hicks was drafted into the army that Kelly dubbed Ryan “Mufasa” and Hicks “Simba”, a nod to The Lion King where Mufasa is a wise old lion teaching a young lion cub how to drive. behind you. .

Hicks watched Ryans closely, noting everything from the way he took notes to the way he spoke. And while he realized how much Ryans had helped him at that moment, it was only very recently that he realized the true impact of Ryan’s leadership.

In 2021, the Cardinals selected Zaven Collins over Hicks. Hicks was so outraged by this move that he initially asked for an exchange, but upon reflection said he couldn’t help but think back to the time he studied with Ryan.

“He was about as good a leader as it gets,” said Hicks, who currently plays for the Vikings. “I’ve actually channeled it many times… I’ve tried to take it into account in every scenario, every situation, every year… and tried to share that light and spread as much knowledge as possible.”

AFTER ANOTHER ACHILLES In 2014, Ryans began building his post-football career. During his final season in 2015, former Eagles running back Duce Staley was on the Kelly staff. He and Ryans started talking about the pros and cons of coaching.

Ryans heard the downsides too—long hours and the constant opportunity to move with his family. Ryans also realized that all those who spoke badly about the profession were those who were not in it.

Staley, who is now an assistant coach for the Detroit Lions, shared positive feedback and advised Ryan to get into it as soon as possible while he is still known in the league. About a year after retiring, Ryans and his family had just moved into a new home in Houston when the phone rang.

It was Saleh, Shanahan’s new 49ers defensive coordinator, asking if Ryans was interested in coaching. It did, but any insecurities he had were alleviated by Holland, the newly appointed linebacker coach for the Niners, who told Ryan to give it a try to see how he liked it.

“I know he made some money as a player, so I never knew if we could get him out of Houston and bring him in here for quality control here in California,” Shanahan said. “But he was really passionate about coaching and loved football, and once he decided to get into it, around the middle of the year, we realized that he was not going to be in quality control for a long time.”

This realization coincided with an important lesson that Ryans learned from Saleh. Saleh says the transition from playing to coaching is usually difficult, but Ryan had “a relentless mindset and a passion for doing things right.”

In theory, Ryans knew everything there was to know about playing as a linebacker. He soon realized that this meant little when it came to coaching. Each player comes from a different background and trains differently.

As Davis told Ryan, he needs an answer to every question every player can ask. Holland told Ryan that he needed to understand the learning process that would take a player from a level 100 class to a Ph.D. It won’t happen overnight, and every player…