BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Not every day is a completely successful day at training camp, not every practice moves DeMeco Ryans closer to where he wants to be with the Eagles, but Thursday was just fine.
"It's coming. It's going in the right direction," Ryans said. "And I know because I'm my toughest critic."
Ryans came to the team in an offseason trade to fill what has been a gaping hole at middle linebacker. He brought with him six years of NFL experience, a reputation as a popular team leader, and the standard question marks attached to a veteran who suffered an Achilles tendon injury not that long ago.
If he can stay healthy and show enough mobility to remain on the field in passing situations, Ryans is just what the Eagles defense needs - a shot of maturity chased by a pint of attitude. He would help settle a defense that was wildly unpredictable in 2011. If he can stay on the field.
"I don't have any doubt. It's more of a passing league now, and you have to be able to stop the run and stop the pass if you want to stay on the field for three downs," Ryans said. "You have to cover."
The Eagles are believers now, even though one week of training camp practices can create mirages that dance above the sweltering grass. Ryans is on the field for both the nickel and dime coverage packages, teaming with Jamar Chaney at linebacker when the defense uses five defensive backs and out there alone at linebacker when they go with six defensive backs. It could be an optimistic experiment or it could be that the Eagles are simply confident he can handle it.
"Well, that's their [decision]," Ryans said. "I like being out on the field competing, but after one week of training camp, you can't make much of anything."
One thing is certain. The Eagles needed help in the middle and have for some time. In the last three seasons, the Eagles went through nine starters at the middle linebacker position. (For those scoring at home, the list is: Omar Gaither, Jeremiah Trotter, Will Witherspoon, Chris Gocong, Joe Mays, Akeem Jordan, Stewart Bradley, Casey Matthews, and Chaney.) Some guys could play the run. Some guys could play the pass. Some guys could do both, but not particularly well.
While all that was going on, the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Ryans was the captain of the Houston Texans defense on his way to a franchise record of 637 career tackles and two Pro Bowl selections. He started his first 70 games in the league, beginning with the 2006 season when he was named the AP defensive rookie of the year. The streak came to an end in the sixth game of the 2010 season, when Ryans tore his Achilles tendon and missed the rest of the year.
When he returned last season, not fully rehabilitated, the Texans began using him more as a situational player, getting him out of the formation on passing downs. Ryans started every game, but was able to record just 64 total tackles, the fewest of any full season in his career by about half. His teammates were upset when he was traded to the Eagles, but the Texans made a business and football decision, not wanting to commit nearly $5 million of salary cap space for what they thought was a part-time player.
The Eagles are betting otherwise, going with the theory that recovery from an Achilles tear really takes a full year. Based on how Ryans has moved so far, it seems like a good bet, but August can tell terrible lies. What Ryans definitely can do is lead a defense. During practice, Ryans is vocal and confident, moving around his teammates to match what he thinks the offense is bringing. Several times on Thursday, he moved players into the exact gap to stop the play. Maybe it was luck, but it didn't look that way.
"I was feeling something on those plays," he said. "It's just communicating. It comes over time at the mike [middle linebacker]. You give the guys the call, get them lined up, make your checks. Make sure everyone's on the same page. That aspect of things puts you in a leadership position. It takes time. Today was a step in the right direction."
That is all that happens at Lehigh, small steps that hopefully add up to cover the necessary distance. Some days go forward. Particularly when there are injuries, some days move the goal further away. And some days just lurch sideways through the heat and the sweat. Not Thursday, though. Thursday went all right, even though Ryans missed some plays with what appeared to be a leg cramp before returning to the field to finish out the afternoon without problem.
"Everybody pushed through," DeMeco Ryans said before disappearing into the cool of the locker room. "We had a good practice."
One step and one day closer.