MIAMI — DeMeco Ryans wants to become an NFL head coach. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to the many who have known the former Eagles linebacker since his college days when he first picked up the nickname “Coach.”
But before Ryans joined the 49ers coaching staff, he didn’t know if he would like the profession. He had heard the horror stories about long hours and the grind it can have on your life outside of football.
“It’s not as bad as everybody tries to make it out to be,” Ryans said Wednesday. “A lot of people bash coaching because of the long hours. But a lot of those people weren’t coaching. Once I got into it, I was like, ‘Aw, this is it.’ ”
Ryans never reached the Super Bowl in his 10 NFL seasons. It took only three as a coach, however, to reach that pinnacle. Hired as an entry-level assistant in 2017, Ryans has been on the fast track. He was promoted to inside linebackers coach the next season and was given the entire unit this season.
It could be only a matter of time before he’s calling plays as a defensive coordinator, which would have him only one step from his goal of leading a team.
“That’s definitely an aspiration of mine,” Ryans said. “But I will continue to be the best linebacker coach I can be, and the best linebacker coach in the league, and eventually I’ll get the opportunity to call plays as a defensive coordinator and eventually head coach.”
Chip Kelly, Ryans’ former coach in Philadelphia, was once asked on a questionnaire to name a player he thought would make a great head coach. His answer: Ryans. Kelly provided that answer during his one year with the 49ers, but he gave his former middle linebacker the nickname “Mufasa” when he was with the Eagles.
But “Coach” was the first nickname to stick. A teammate at Alabama gave it to Ryans because he would police his teammates when they didn’t clean up after themselves. He was picking up other coaching traits while in Tuscaloosa, too.
Then-Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines used to let Ryans call plays during film study. And in the NFL, he always found himself dialing up schemes in his head to see if he would call the same plays as his coordinators, Wade Phillips, Todd Bowles, and Billy Davis.
“Once you get on the field, that’s the easy part,” Ryans said. “That’s been my mentality from college, throughout the NFL, being the [middle] linebacker, understanding what every position had to do, and where do I fit into this puzzle?”
Ryans, 35, took a year off from football and did radio in Houston after he retired following the 2015 season. But he knew he wanted to coach and was reunited with 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, whom he first met when he was playing for the Texans. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was one of Ryans’ linebackers coaches in Houston.
The transition from player to coach was natural, but not seamless. The most challenging part has been condensing all his knowledge and information, Ryans said, into a digestible 45 minutes of allotted time during positional meetings.
But Ryans was gifted with everything else one would want from a coach. He can lead. He can communicate. And he can handle the mental element of a face-paced game.
It was Andy Reid, head coach of the 49ers’ opponent Sunday, the Chiefs, who first brought the linebacker to Philly in a trade before the 2012 season. Ryans said that quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City offense will present the toughest challenge for a San Francisco defense that is chock-full of potential future coaches.
“Our guys have an awesome mindset the way they prepare, the way they study,” Ryans said. “It’s really easy when you’ve got guys who are so tuned in. They’re looking at it like coaches, as well. They may bring up something. As coaches, you have to listen to your players, as well."
A former player would know.