BETHLEHEM, Pa. - DeMeco Ryans trailed Casey Matthews out of the locker rooms and into the players' parking lot after the first full-team practice of training camp Thursday. Matthews gave Ryans a lift back to the living area because Ryans doesn't have his car at training camp. Akeem Jordan brought the new Eagles starting linebacker to Lehigh from Philadelphia on Wednesday, so Ryans is fetching rides wherever he goes.
The front passenger seat might be the only place this season in which Ryans must yield control. Otherwise, the former Pro Bowler who earned the nickname "Cap'n Meco" during his time with the Houston Texans is taking the lead.
When Ryans first arrived at camp, he awaited the team-building chemistry as if he were a sociologist trying to understand the personalities of the locker room. The process started in earnest when the team first met Wednesday night.
"Through training camp, you always have different guys coming in each year," Ryans said. "So through the process of training camp, you all get to learn each other, get to be around each other a lot more. You get used to hanging around each other. You get to know the guys. That's what training camp is all about. Especially being here in Lehigh, you get everybody, the camaraderie, guys get closer together. That's how you build a team."
Both defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and linebackers coach Mike Caldwell cited Ryans' leadership when discussing the biggest acquisition of the offseason. Caldwell specifically referenced the way Ryans carries himself, studies the playbook, and watches extra film. Those are qualities that Caldwell said other players gravitate toward, almost as if the singular presence can enhance the team.
But Ryans' previous experience as a defensive captain came with the franchise that drafted him and where he immediately started. In Philadelphia, Ryans joins an established locker room and a defensive huddle that already has long-standing veterans. The Eagles defense features five returning starters with at least seven seasons in the NFL. As a newcomer, Ryans must identify the delicate balance between imposing his will and respecting what is already in place.
"Just be yourself," Ryans said of how he plans to do it. "You can't force yourself."
But it's not always that simple. Last season, Eagles safety Oshiomogho Atogwe was in a situation similar to Ryans'. He was a defensive captain in St. Louis for six seasons before signing with Washington as a free agent and entering a new locker room for the first time in his NFL career.
So when Atogwe speaks about what he and Ryans are encountering as veterans on the Eagles, he has a basis for comparison. He admitted that he was reluctant to speak, and let his true personality come out, until he got to know the other players.
"You have to be sensitive to that," Atogwe said. "You have to respect what they have. And once you gain the respect of your teammates and what they're trying to do, they'll look for you to be who you are and won't expect anything less."
For Ryans, the process of easing into the defense has already started. Asked if he can put the face to the name of every player on the roster, he laughed at the mere implication that he might struggle with the exercise. Ryans admitted that he's still learning some rookies, but he was confident that he's strong on most of the players.
The same goes with learning the playbook and Castillo's system. Whatever transition is required at this point will be familiarizing himself with his surroundings - not the defensive scheme.
"OTAs and minicamps were the crash course. Now's the refresher course," Ryans said. "Iron out those kinks. Get used to lining up and running those plays."
Humbled during the last two seasons when his play declined because of a torn Achilles tendon in 2010 and being forced to adjust to a different scheme last season, Ryans said his motivation for 2012 is proving that he's "the best linebacker in the league." Ryans was considered among the finest in the NFL before the injury. He turns 28 on Saturday, so he still could conceivably regain form.
It is that process of proving his value as a player that might be more important than the process of proving his value as a leader. More gravitas is associated with the starting middle linebacker than an injured middle linebacker or a benched middle linebacker, and Ryans must prove that he's the caliber of player the Eagles believe he is to become the caliber of leader others suggest he is.
"I'm just worried about getting the football part of it right," Ryans said. "All the other stuff will come."