DeMeco Ryans last played in Houston on Jan. 7, 2012. It was his first playoff game after spending six years trying to help turn the Texans into contenders. He was their captain, a popular player who started every game he ever played in a Texans uniform.
By the end of March, he was traded to Philadelphia.
Three seasons later, Ryans returns to Houston with the Eagles to play against the team that shipped him away. A combination of football economics and a changing roster prompted the move, although there were questions about whether Ryans could return to Pro Bowl form after he suffered an Achilles tendon injury in 2010.
"I knew what I had in the tank," Ryans said. "Everybody had questions from the outside. . . . It really didn't affect me from my standpoint because I knew I could still play ball."
Since Ryans has come to the Eagles, he has never missed a game. He has barely missed a snap. At 30, he's still excelling on Sundays. From Monday to Saturday, he is the type of person the Eagles coaches implore their younger players to watch.
"He's exactly what you want in a professional in terms of the hours that he puts in here, how important the game is to him, how much he studies just the game of football, how he trains when he's in the weight room, what he's like on the practice field," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "There's a consistency to him that I think separates kind of the great ones from everybody. It's that he's the same person every single day here."
Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin was Ryans' teammate in Houston and said that "everybody was shocked, everybody questioned it, and nobody really understood it" when the Texans traded Ryans for a fourth-round draft pick.
His salary had become a burden for a team without much financial flexibility, and he was only a two-down player in Houston's 3-4 scheme. Even after the Eagles adjusted to a 3-4 defense in Ryans' second season, he has excelled in the second act of his career. He is second on the Eagles with 56 tackles, including a team-high 41 solo tackles.
He has been steady as a three-down linebacker, even if he is no longer one of the league's best. Ryans made a key fourth-quarter play in pass coverage against the Cardinals on Sunday that helped save the touchdown and showed why the Eagles do not need to take him off the field.
Ryans played more snaps than any defensive player in the NFL last season, and he has been on the field for 91 percent of the snaps this season even with the team hoping to reduce his workload. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said that without Ryans on the field, the Eagles defense would not be as efficient.
"He makes good, quick decisions that set our defense up," Davis said. "We have a lot of checks, and he gets us in and out of calls based on formation or the quarterback audibling. Without DeMeco, I don't know if we could do as much as we do."
Ryans said the game has slowed down as he has become older. He admitted that he is "probably missing a step" since he arrived in the NFL, but he believes he has compensated for the loss of athleticism with his smarts.
Behind the scenes, it is difficult to find a player who commands more respect in the locker room. Ryans has been in the NFL longer than all but six players on the Eagles, and he is the team's union representative. In Houston, Ryans went by the nickname "Cap" because he was the captain. Davis, who has coached for more than two decades, said Ryans "is one of the finest men I've been around."
"I always go about my business treating people the way I want to be treated," Ryans said. "You get respect from the others that way."
So it makes sense that Ryans said any encounter with Texans owner Bob McNair or general manager Rick Smith in his return to Houston this weekend would be cordial. He is grateful for his six seasons with the Texans, and still owns a home in the area.
"I don't have any hard feelings," Ryans said. "I had a good relationship with those guys. They're all good people there. I understand you have to separate the business aspect of it."