The linebacker position, particularly the middle or inside linebacker position, is arguably the most important component of a National Football League team’s defense. He must be versatile enough to be able to stop the run when needed or drop back into pass coverage, depending on a team’s particular defensive scheme.
DeMeco Ryans was one of the game’s best linebackers in recent years, and in the process, he helped a fledgling franchise get its bearings as a respectable NFL squad.
After his playing days ended, Ryans found a way to contribute significantly to the pro game by becoming a coach.
Humble Beginnings In The Deep South
DeMeco Ryans was born on July 28, 1984 in Bessemer, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham that was once known as a steelmaking hub decades ago, back when Middle America was still a major producer of manufacturing staples such as steel.
Ryans’ mother, Martha Ryans, worked at Southern Ductile Casting Corp., making automotive parts while working in harsh and even unhealthy conditions, all to help raise her son. Prior to that job, she worked two jobs 14 hours a day, and she also cleaned up her church on Saturdays.
In the South, religion is usually a big part of people’s lives and the center of most communities, and the Ryans’ were no exception. DeMeco was indoctrinated into a life of faith from an early age with the help of his mother, and it would guide and shape him for years to come.
Another important component of young Ryans’ life also came from his mother. From an early age, he saw her work hard, lifting heavy transmissions and even risking her life in order to make an honest living.
One day, when Ryans was a teen, his mom almost lost her left pinkie finger while also injuring an adjacent finger in a mishap involving a grinder.
Even though it was a big deal, requiring a trip to the hospital, it wasn’t a big deal to her, or at least that’s how she acted.
The next day, she was antsy to return to her job. It made an impression on young Ryans.
“I would vividly see images of her doing those things, and I would bust my butt,” Ryans said. “That drive fueled me. I was, like, ‘I got to get my mom out of this.’ My mom really had to grind it out.”
At first, Ryans fell in love with baseball, but inevitably the gridiron would be calling his name. While at Jess Lanier High School, he played both sports, but football turned out to be his calling.
As a senior, playing the inside linebacker position, he recorded 135 tackles, 11 sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions on the year.
It led to him being considered one of the top linebacker prospects in the nation, and it came down to a decision between Mississippi State University and the University of Alabama. Ryans chose the latter.
Riding The Tide
At Alabama, Ryans would become a major part of one of college football’s most storied programs. But he would have to earn his dues.
As a freshman, he only played linebacker off the bench while also filling in on special teams. For his sophomore season, head coach Dennis Franchione was replaced by Mike Shula, a former quarterbacks coach with the Miami Dolphins and the son of Don Shula, the team’s former legendary coach.
Ryans would show gradual improvement under Shula, and by his senior season, he was an indispensable member of the Crimson Tide.
That year, he had 76 tackles (41 solo) and five sacks while helping Alabama to a 10-2 record. His stout 2005 campaign earned him first-team All-SEC honors, as well as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award.
We don’t talk about DeMeco Ryans greatness enough. pic.twitter.com/ioLPC93hwr
— KD ➐ (@notkdk3) July 25, 2021
Ryans also started to flex his leadership muscles. He would urge his teammates to pick up after themselves and throw their own garbage away to make things easier on janitors and equipment managers.
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region that fall, Ryans pledged his per diem for the season opener to help with the response to the storm, and his teammates would follow suit.
It’s no wonder that Ryans also won the Lott Trophy that year, named after legendary defensive back Ronnie Lott, which is given to
The Crimson Tide made it all the way to the Cotton Bowl Classic, where they defeated Texas Tech 13-10. Ryans was named the game’s defensive MVP, as he helped hold the Red Raiders without a touchdown until the final three minutes, while their QB, Cody Hodges, only managed to complete 15-of-32 passes.
Off the field, Ryans bucked the stereotype of most college football and basketball players by excelling in academics. He graduated with honors and earned a degree in management while finishing his coursework a semester early.
A Terrific Texan
Ryans’ performance throughout the 2005 season and his great game in the Cotton Bowl helped raise his draft profile, and he was taken by the Houston Texans with the 33rd overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
At the time, the Texans were still a new franchise. Having entered the league for the 2002 season to fill the void left when the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee in the mid-1990s, the Texans hadn’t made the playoffs or finished with a winning record in their four years of existence.
They had just hired Gary Kubiak as their new head coach. Kubiak had cut his teeth over the past decade-plus as an offensive assistant, first as a quarterbacks coach for the world champion 1994 San Francisco 49ers, then as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Denver Broncos, who won back-to-back Super Bowls during his time there.
Ryans had been an outside linebacker in college, but he played so well during the preseason that Kubiak moved him to middle linebacker, a position that carries greater responsibilities than outside linebacker.
But the rookie proved he was up to the task. In the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, he had 12 solo tackles, which was a league-high.
Before long, he was a force to be reckoned with. In two other contests that season he would have at least 13 solo tackles, and on nine occasions he had at least 10 combined tackles.
In all, Ryans finished the 2006 campaign with an NFL-high 126 solo tackles, to go along with 13 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
The Texans still weren’t world-beaters, as they registered just six wins, but the rest of the league took notice of Ryans, as he was named to the All-Rookie team and received the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Ryans’ rookie year was no fluke, as his 2007 campaign was also strong with 98 solo tackles and two sacks, earning him his first trip to the Pro Bowl. With him manning the middle of the field, the Texans started to show signs of improvement, finishing 8-8 on the season.
Over the next two years, Ryans continued to make believers in Southeast Texas and across the nation. He tallied 86 solo tackles in 2008 and 93 solo tackles in 2009, earning a second trip to the Pro Bowl in ’09.
Meanwhile, the team around him was improving. Ryans teamed with star defensive end Mario Williams to give the Texans a solid front seven. After finishing near the bottom of the league in defense year after year, Houston ranked 17th in points allowed and 13th in yards allowed for the 2009 season.
At the same time, its offense became respectable, led by ascendant quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson.
But the road to success is littered with cracks and potholes, and the 2010 season would be a setback for Texans, and in particular Ryans.
He had 54 tackles (32 solo) through the first six games of the season, and the Texans held a 4-2 record, which included wins over eventual playoff teams such as the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs.
But in that victory over the Chiefs, Ryans ruptured his left Achilles tendon, forcing him to sit for the rest of the season.
When the injury occurred, there were no histrionics. He was placed on a cart and taken out of the stadium for treatment, a type of reaction to a catastrophic injury he must’ve learned from his mother.
Without Ryans, the Texans’ defense fell apart, ranking 29th in points given up and 30th in yards allowed, and they won just six games.
Getting ahead in the NFL, especially as an expansion franchise, is very hard, and the Texans were experiencing just that in real time.
Fortunately, help was on the way.
The Texans struck oil in the 2011 NFL Draft, taking defensive end J.J. Watt with the 11th overall pick. Watt would become a star right away, and he would take some of the pressure off Ryans.
As a result, his numbers went down. Despite bouncing back from his Achilles tear to play a full 16-game schedule, he put up 64 tackles (44 solo), considerably less than in his first four years.
But this Texans team was exactly that – a team, with everyone pitching in on both sides of the ball to, pardon the cliche, make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Thanks to Ryans, Watt and numerous other contributors, Houston became one of the NFL’s best defensive teams in 2011. Five times that year it held its opponents to 10 points or less.
It all resulted in a 10-6 record, the best in the club’s history, and a first-place finish in the AFC South. As a result, the Texans got to host the wild card round of the playoffs, which proved to be a red-letter day for the embattled Houston sports scene.
Over 71,000 jammed Reliant Stadium to watch their team host the Cincinnati Bengals. Early on, the Bengals took a 7-0 lead, but Texans running back Arian Foster responded by moving the chains and scoring a touchdown to tie the game.
Once Houston took a 17-10 lead before halftime, it would simply run down the Bengals en route to a 31-10 victory. With Ryans’ help, Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton threw zero touchdown passes and three interceptions while getting sacked four times.
In the divisional round, the Texans would play the Baltimore Ravens, a team that had posted a 12-4 record in the regular season. Houston promptly fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter, only to catch up and pull to within four points by intermission.
Ryans had seven tackles (two solo) on the day, helping to hold Baltimore without a touchdown in the second half. But Houston’s offense couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain, and it fell short, 20-13.
By now, the Texans had a glut of defensive difference-makers. Brian Cushing had become an emergent star inside linebacker in his own right, and in March 2012 the team traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles.
“DeMeco is a proven Pro Bowl linebacker in this league and we’re excited to be able to plug him into the middle of our defense,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said. “He’s been the signal caller and a leader on a very good Texans defense for the last several years. He’s a tough, instinctive football player and he’ll be a great fit for our team.”
At the time, the Eagles were a decent team, but they needed some help defensively, as they had some trouble stopping the run. In Philly, Ryans would have more responsibilities than he had in his latter days in Houston, and he would shine brightly in the City of Brotherly Love.
In the 2012 season, he recorded 113 tackles (86 solo). It was a frustrating season for Philly, as a promising 3-1 start turned into a 4-12 finish, partly due to an injury to starting QB Michael Vick, but Ryans had established himself as a franchise cornerstone.
*59 days until #Eagles football!
— Days Until Eagles Football: Now (@EaglesCountdown) July 16, 2021
The Eagles’ poor showing in ’12 resulted in Reid, their longtime coach, getting axed and replaced by Chip Kelly, who had previously coached the University of Oregon to prominence.
With his help, Philly rebounded in 2013, and Ryans played a considerable role with 127 tackles (102 solo), four sacks and two interceptions, his best overall showing since he was a rookie.
The team finished with a 10-6 record, which was tops in the NFC East and took it back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Philly fell behind 3-0 in the second quarter of the wild card game against the New Orleans Saints, and after its next drive resulted in a punt, it seemed the team was in trouble.
But Ryans intercepted a Drew Brees pass, which led to a touchdown by Eagles wideout Riley Cooper and a 7-6 halftime lead. It was Ryans’ first interception in the playoffs.
Through a back-and-forth second half, Ryans’ defense kept the Eagles in the contest. He would finish with 10 tackles (eight solo), and with 4:54 left in the fourth quarter, tight end Zach Ertz scored a touchdown to put Philly up 24-23.
All the Eagles needed to do was rely on Ryans and the rest of their defense. But they couldn’t prevent New Orleans from getting into field goal range, and as time expired, Shayne Graham, its kicker, hit a 32-yard field goal to break Philly’s heart, 26-24.
The 2014 season got off to a promising start for the Eagles. The team won six of its first eight games, and both of those losses were by five points or less.
The team’s 6-2 record gave its fans hope that it may be on its way to contending for the Super Bowl. Instead, disaster struck at mid-season.
In Week 9 against the Houston Texans, Ryans’ former team, he intercepted a pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick, only to suffer an injury and fumble the ball.
The extent of the injury wasn’t known until after the contest, when it was announced that Ryans had torn his Achilles – again.
This time, unlike a few years earlier, it was his right Achilles. Ryans’ season was over, and without him, the Eagles slipped.
The game against the Texans was a disastrous one overall for Philly, as it would also lose its starting QB, Nick Foles, to a collarbone injury.
Without Ryans and Foles, the Eagles won only half of their remaining games. Although their 10-6 record was identical to the record they had the previous season, they missed the playoffs, as the Carolina Panthers, who had a worse record, won their division, thus leaving the Eagles home in January.
Ryans’ Achilles injury was the beginning of the end for him. Although he returned for the 2015 season and appeared in 14 contests, stating in 13 of them, he wasn’t the same player.
His numbers (49 combined tackles and 32 solo) were well below his standards. After the Eagles won just seven games that season, they released Ryans, making the end of his NFL playing career.
Ryans apparently felt that if he hadn’t torn his Achilles in 2014, he would’ve been able to play another five seasons in the league. As a result, he filed suit against the NFL and the Texans in 2016, citing the composition of NRG Stadium, the Texans’ home arena, as the cause of his injury.
“The lawsuit states that, on Nov. 2, 2014, ‘there were points where the seams between the Modules intersected appeared to look like holes filled in with sand. The surface of the field was also inconsistent as some of the Modules were soft, some were firm and the Modules did not fit together well,'” wrote ESPN.com.
According to the suit, other players also suffered major injuries in the same arena and felt that the field was the culprit.
After multiple rulings about whether the case would go to court or arbitration, both parties dropped the case in the summer of 2021, and Ryans hinted that perhaps he had reached a settlement.
A Promising Second Career
Some former NFL players take up golf, some attempt to become a broadcaster, some become entrepreneurs and some seemingly just fall off the face of the earth.
But Ryans managed to remain a part of the game that was so good to him for years.
In Feb. 2017, just months after the Eagles had released him, Ryans was hired by the San Francisco 49ers as a defensive quality control coach. The move wasn’t exactly surprising, as Kelly had recently identified Ryans as someone who had coaching potential.
In the 2016 NFL Info guide, Chip Kelly named DeMeco Ryans as a player who would make a great HC. Now, he's on the next 49ers staff. pic.twitter.com/TGx0cfDr3c
— Dave Zangaro (@DZangaroNBCS) February 21, 2017
The move reunited Ryans with Robert Saleh, the former defensive quality control and assistant linebackers coach for the Texans, who was now the Niners’ defensive coordinator.
The team was in rebuilding mode in early 2017. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had led the team to the Super Bowl a few years earlier, had been released, and Kyle Shanahan, the former offensive coordinator of the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons and son of former Niners offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, had just been hired as its new head coach.
San Francisco had ranked dead last in points and yards allowed in 2016, and it was in desperate need of some defensive muscle. Ryans would be part of an overhaul of the team and organization that would take it back to its rightful place.
At first, there wasn’t any optimism in the Bay, as the Niners started the 2017 season 0-9. But once they acquired promising QB Jimmy Garoppolo, they won five in a row and six of their final seven games, giving fans lots of hope.
The next season, Ryans got promoted to the position of inside linebackers coach, allowing him to pay it forward and impart his knowledge, wisdom and experience towards a new group of players.
By 2019, the Niners had become an elite team on both sides of the ball. Their defense and running game took them to the Super Bowl, and although they lost to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, they competed hard and made them earn their world championship.
After an injury-riddled 2020 season, the Niners were back in the playoffs in 2021. With Ryans now stationed as their defensive coordinator, they scored a thrilling win over the Dallas Cowboys and secured an upset of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field before falling to the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game.
San Fran’s success made Ryans a desired commodity across the NFL. The Minnesota Vikings interviewed him for their head coaching position, and such an opportunity would be very tempted for any defensive coordinator looking to advance his career.
But Ryans is a loyal man, and he turned down the opportunity so that he could remain with a Niners team that is loaded with talent and has plenty of potential in the near future. Shanahan was impressed about the decision Ryans made.
“I’m proud of him for doing it,“ Shanahan said. “Minnesota is a great place but DeMeco is a stud. DeMeco is going to be a head coach. He’s too good not to be, whether it’s this year, whether it’s next year, whether it’s any time.”
The 49ers have a bit of a quarterback controversy to solve for the 2022 season, but if it gets solved, they could end up hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February of 2023.
If, or when, that happens, Ryans will be a major reason why.