San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans traveled to Houston on Monday, arriving for his significant meeting Tuesday with the Texans.
Ryans, 38, is meeting with the Texans’ search committee, including chairman and CEO Cal McNair, foundation vice president Hannah McNair and general manager Nick Caserio. A former Texans Pro Bowl linebacker, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and defensive team captain, Ryans has emerged as the frontrunner and favorite to be named the sixth head coach in franchise history, barring any unexpected contractual snags, according to multiple league sources.
“We know he’s gone,” a 49ers source said of Ryans. “Great coach, great man. Will get done this week.”
Beyond his deep knowledge of the game, leadership skills, strategy and coaching acumen, Ryans could assemble a strong coaching staff. That could include 49ers passing game coordinator Bobby Slowik as an offensive coordinator possibility, 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek as a defensive coordinator candidate and New York Jets safeties coach Marquand Manuel, who’s also a candidate for the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator position. Another 49ers assistant linked to a possible Ryans staff is safeties coach Daniel Bullocks.
Ryans zeroed in on the Texans’ job over other suitors, including the Denver Broncos, and the hiring process is expected to move fast, according to several league sources close to the situation.
Should Ryans, the boss of the 49ers’ aggressive, top-ranked defense ultimately land the job, his return to Houston would coincide with several ringing endorsements from around the NFL. That includes those who know Ryans well from his time in Houston as a punishing tackler, intellectual extension of the coaching staff on and off the field, and as a high-character individual in the locker room and community.
“Unbelievable coach, very sharp guy, DeMeco is special, I think he’s going to do a hell of a job,” said Richard Smith, the Indianapolis Colts linebackers coach who was the Texans’ defensive coordinator when Ryans was drafted in the second round out of Alabama in 2006. “I think it would be a smart hire from Cal and that organization. Several people have called me on his behalf. He came in as a rookie as the starter, and he made great adjustments. He would turn to me on the sidelines and say, ‘Hey coach, how about we do this?’ And he would be right about that adjustment.
“No highs and lows with him, he has an even-keel sense of confidence in him. I’m so excited for him. I’m excited for Houston that Cal is looking to bring back someone who’s part of the family and bring some stability to Houston. I think it will happen. I like that Cal has jumped out on it. Bob McNair, his father, would feel the same way. I’m so happy for DeMeco. It’s really exciting.”
Ryans would definitely be a popular choice. He interviewed virtually previously during a wide-ranging conversation that included McNair, Caserio and other team officials in an interview that went “extremely well,” that built “strong mutual interest,” per sources.
The Texans also have a strong opinion of Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, according to sources, and he was regarded as a good fallback option. Gannon, though, has already signaled to Philadelphia reporters that he intends to remain with the Eagles. “Philly is keeping me,” Gannon said. “Good bad or indifferent I’m staying here.”
After delivering punishing tackles and timely defensive audibles on the fly during a highly decorated NFL career spent primarily with the Texans, Ryans could now run the team as the replacement for Lovie Smith who was fired after a 3-13-1 season.
The 49ers ranked first in the NFL in total defense and scoring defense, allowing 300.6 yards per contest and 16.3 points per game.
“I think DeMeco would be great,” former Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “He was the captain of the team when I came here and he’s a smart guy. I’m not surprised he’s a really good coach. Some players adapt to it, some don’t. He’s one that did very well.”
Why has Ryans moved up so fast? The former Texans team captain checks a lot of boxes.
“He’s a great teacher,” a 49ers defensive player told KPRC 2. “He’s a great coach, great person. He’s different than your typical coach. He played the game at a very high level and he’s able to relate that to his players. Yes, he’s special. He’s a great leader.”
Ryans agreed to interview with the Texans after contemplating initially whether to grant the request. In 2016, he filed a lawsuit against the Texans and the stadium authority for over $10 million after he tore his Achilles tendon at NRG Stadium. That shortened Ryans’ career, which ended with the Eagles.
“DeMeco thought about everything that went on, and he decided that’s in the past,” a source said. “Life goes on, and it’s a different time now for him and for the Texans.”
Ryans, who finished his decade in the NFL with 970 career tackles, 13 1/2 sacks and seven interceptions in 140 career games, has him poised to potentially run his own team. A year after Mike McDaniel was hired by the Miami Dolphins as head coach off Kyle Shanahan’s staff, Ryans could be next.
“He’s gonna be an unbelievable head coach,” said Bosa, an All-Pro defensive end and NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate.. “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. Just the way he is as a coach and a leader, he’s the best coach I’ve been around.”
Promoted from quality control coach to inside linebackers to his current post running the defense, Ryans has built a defense that reflects his playing style: aggressive, composed and quick-striking.
“He’s the ideal coach,” said retired former Texans and Eagles linebacker N.D. Kalu, Ryans’ former teammate and a radio host on Sports Talk 790. “He’s young enough to relate to the players, but so much of a leader they’re going to follow him. He was the guy you knew would be destined for great things on and off the field. I know I’m a little biased, but he’s been my No. 1 choice for the last two years to be the next head coach. Hopefully, it will be here. It would certainly be popular in Houston.
“It wouldn’t just be popular with fans because he’s a great player and a great person, but you hear how emotional the 49ers players like Nick Bosa are about DeMeco, how he relates to them. That’ the kind of guy you need leading your team. We called him ‘Cap,’ as a rookie because of how he carried himself. From Day One, you knew this guy was a leader.”
As the 49ers’ defensive boss, Ryans has made a meteoric rise to emerge as a top head coaching candidate. One year after withdrawing his name from the Minnesota Vikings’ coaching search before they hired Kevin O’Connell, Ryans is in the thick of this hiring cycle.
The Texans also interviewed Detroit Lions coach Ben Johnson, who withdrew his name from head coaching searchs and remained with his crrent team on a lucrative raise, Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, Gannon, former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, a candidate for the Broncos and Arizona Cardinals’ jobs, Los Angeles Rams assistant head coach and tight ends coach Thomas Brown an Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka.
The 49ers allowed just 18.9 points per game and 305.3 yards per game over the past two seasons.
“DeMeco is so naturally talented and he’s good at everything he’s ever done and he really understands football,” Shanahan said. “He did as a player, he did as a quality control in his first year. He did as a linebacker coach, and he has as a coordinator, and he was good right away. But, anytime you have someone who does have those types of abilities, the more reps they get, like everybody, they get better.
“You go through experiences and you learn from the good and the bad and that’s what’s pretty neat about DeMeco because he was going to be good regardless, but just watching him throughout last year, each game, each quarter, he learned something. And he’s always trying to think and always trying to challenge his players, but always trying to keep it simple, too.”
A former Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Ryans oversees an aggressive defense headlined by Bosa and All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.
“He’s the best,” Warner said. “And I don’t just say that just because, obviously, he’s my coach. I know what greatness looks like and he shows that every day, not only just as a coach, but as a person. His leadership ability, the teachability that he possesses, and his continuing to want to get better as a coach is shown every day. He wants this group to get better and pushes us and makes sure that he prepares every single day to make sure he gives us his best self.”
Ryans is a licensed minister. He grew up in Bessember, Ala., as his single-parent mother, Martha, worked in a steel mill, cleaned houses and at the local church Ryans was a four-time dean’s list student at Alabama where he was a consensus All-American for the Crimson TIde.
He led the league in solo tackles as a rookie and he provided an example to his teammates for how to approach life in the NFL.
“I think he’s going to be really awesome, if he surrounds himself with the right people,” Smith said. “I think he has a chance to be really successful. We drafted DeMeco, and to bring back someone like him, it’s like family. I think players will gravitate to him as an ex-player.
“He would make adjustments and you would think, ‘Oh my God, he’s really well-coached.’ He was unbelievable from the get-go. I’m so excited. He’s got that even-keel demeanor, very classy, not egotistical. It’s a great choice for the Texans. He’s special.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.