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Houston Texans coach DeMeco Ryans proving to be ‘transformational’

Former All-Pro linebacker directing the NFL’s most impressive turnaround in his first year as head coach

Talk with veteran NFL people about rookie Houston Texans coach DeMeco Ryans, and one phrase often comes up: natural-born leader.

In any walk of life, there are some whom many rally around eagerly. Among those in coaching at football’s highest level, Ryans already is at the front of that line. Only 12 games into his head coaching career, Ryans is directing an impressive turnaround deep in the heart of Texas. Relying on his upbeat personality and indominable spirt as much as his keen knowledge of X’s and O’s, Ryans has guided Houston into playoff contention.

With an outstanding rookie class that’s topped by star quarterback C.J. Stroud, the future (finally) appears bright for the talented Texans. And there’s no debate that they’re following the right guy.

Long ago, Charley Casserly envisioned it all.

Formerly a longtime NFL scout, assistant general manager and general manager, Casserly played key roles in constructing three Super Bowl-winning teams during his 23-year career with the Washington Redskins. In his second act as a roster architect, Casserly was the first general manager of the expansion Texans.

In that role, Casserly selected Ryans in the second round (33rd overall) of the 2006 draft. The 2005 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American linebacker for Alabama’s Crimson Tide, Ryans didn’t disappoint as an NFL player, either.

In 2006, Ryans was selected the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 2007, the AP chose him as a first-team All-Pro. While with the Texans, Ryans also was a two-time Pro Bowler.

On both the player and the person, Casserly nailed it.

“Instincts. As a player, that’s what he had,” Casserly told Andscape in a phone interview this week. “He could find the ball, and the most important factor for a linebacker is instinct.

“And everything was positive about him. He was a leader, smart, high-character guy. Work ethic was good. All that stuff was innate.”

Philadelphia Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans stands for the national anthem before the game vs. the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field on Dec. 15, 2013, in Minneapolis.

Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty Images

Traded to the Philadelphia Eagles before the 2012 season, Ryans remained productive for the final four years of his 10-year playing career. While with the Eagles, Ryans burnished his credentials as a leader, setting a positive example on and off the field and inspiring his teammates through his words and deeds.

Then-Eagles coach Chip Kelly was so impressed with Ryans that he nicknamed him Mufasa, after the wise, brave and strong king in Walt Disney Pictures’ 1994 blockbuster animated feature film, The Lion King. A fitting sobriquet, Casserly said.

Even during his playing days, Ryans was “a big-picture guy,” Casserly said. “He was one of the few guys you talked to who could see the big picture. The big picture of building a team, building a culture and uniting the building. And he obviously has charisma. I mean, he has it. The name Chip Kelly had for him … you understand it.”

In Houston and Philadelphia, Ryans’ teammates gravitated toward him because “he’s a natural leader,” Eagles All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox told reporters last season. “Playing with DeMeco taught me a lot, taught me a lot about how to be a pro, how to approach things, and DeMeco was always one of those guys if I had problems, I would go to him.

“If I had problems at home, I would go to him to lead me in the right direction because that’s the type of guy he was. He wanted better for, it didn’t matter who it was, a rookie, [a] second-[year player], third-[year player], it could be a [longtime] vet, he just always wanted the best for whoever. I just looked at him as a natural leader.”

Clearly, coaching was the next step for Ryans.

As a coach, Ryans climbed the ladder quickly with the San Francisco 49ers under coach Kyle Shanahan, starting as a defensive quality control assistant in 2017. After defensive coordinator Robert Saleh left San Francisco to become the coach of the New York Jets before the 2021 season, Shanahan elevated Ryans, the team’s inside linebackers coach, to run the entire defense.

No-brainer move, Casserly said.

“I connected with him throughout his coaching career, and what [he learned from their encounters] was that [Ryans] had the DNA to be a head coach,” Casserly said. “He didn’t have a tremendous amount of experience coaching before he got the head job, but he clearly had the DNA to do it.”

During Ryans’ two seasons as the 49ers’ defensive playcaller, they finished third and first, respectively, in the league in total yards per game. In the 2022-23 season, San Francisco also gave up the fewest points in the league.

“As a defensive coordinator, when you talked to him, he could figure out what a player could do and couldn’t do, and then adapt to that player,” Casserly said. “Now that’s easy to say, but it’s not as common for coaches to do that as you might think. … And he can identify coaches, too. Again, that’s not as common as you think. OK? So I see all of that.”

Houston Texans defensive back Jimmie Ward (left) and coach DeMeco Ryans (right) celebrate after Ward made an interception in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at NRG Stadium on Dec. 3 in Houston.

Sam Hodde/Getty Images

The Texans needed a leader of Ryans’ caliber. Rudderless at the highest levels of club management for years, they have been a hot mess.

During the previous three seasons, Houston went 11-38-1. Ryans’ two most recent predecessors in the job were each fired after only season. Immediately, Ryans set out to convince Houston’s players that they needed to let go of the past and embrace a new path. As has been the case throughout Ryans’ football life, the players lined up behind him.

At 7-5, the Texans already have four more victories than they did last season. They’re tied for second in the AFC South, one game behind the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Outstanding from the season’s start, Stroud, whom the Texans picked second overall in the 2023 NFL draft, is the overwhelming favorite to be selected as the NFL’s AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. Starting left defensive end Will Anderson Jr., the draft’s third overall pick, also has had an impactful rookie season.

The loss of standout rookie wide receiver Nathaniel “Tank” Dell, who suffered a season-ending injury last week, is a blow to the Texans’ bid to reach the postseason for the first time since the 2019-2020 season. But under the indefatigable Ryans, the Texans are flooring the accelerator in pursuit of their goals.

Far away in the league’s New York headquarters, top officials are pleased about Ryans’ positive effect on the rising Texans.

“Coach Ryans’ experience as a former player gives him a good feel on how to communicate with the modern-day player,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, wrote to Andscape in a text message.

“And his situational football knowledge, simplification with quarterback play and understanding how to get off the field defensively are key ingredients to his coaching success. Beyond what we see on the field, Coach Ryans has contagious positive energy and the ability to inspire and motivate as a leader of men.

“We also don’t talk enough about having his players having fun. The combination of all these qualities, at the right time and place, are transformational.”

Yep. At only 39 (he turns 40 in July), Ryans is already crushing it in his newest leadership role.

And he’ll only get better at it, Casserly said. Count on it.

“The guy will adjust and learn,” Casserly said. “Smart guys who are flexible and leaders learn and grow.”

And if Casserly continues to be proven correct about Ryans, the Texans’ top leader just may wind up becoming the talk of the league for a very long time.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.