SPEAKING of leadership, one of the things for which Donovan McNabb was routinely faulted was that the former Eagles quarterback consistently felt the need to emphasize he was the team's leader.

The theory was that if you have to keep reminding people that you are the leader, in all likelihood, you aren't.

You can't talk your way into being a guy whose example others choose to follow.

Eagles inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans has no such issue.

Even though Ryans is in only his second season in Philadelphia, he has established himself as a presence the other players look to.

On both sides of the ball, Ryans, the 2006 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler with the Houston Texans, is one of the unquestioned leaders on a young team that surprisingly won the NFC East to set up a meeting with the New Orleans Saints tomorrow night at Lincoln Financial Field in an NFC wild-card game.

"DeMeco Ryans is excellent," Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said. "He's a vocal leader, but a lot of things about vocal leaders is that sometimes they don't actually do it on the field.

"DeMeco does. Everything he preaches and talks about he shows on the field by how hard he works during games, practice, or anything. He's a good man and good teammate."

Some guys try to and want to be leaders, but it just doesn't work for them. Players easily can ferret out the guy who only talks a good game.

There is something innate about real leaders, something there teammates can see, something that makes them want to take notice and listen.

Guys like Ryans become invaluable assets on the field and in the locker room. They earn a level of respect that teammates don't easily give up.

There was a reason the locker room of the Houston Texans went into an uproar when Ryans was traded to the Eagles before the 2012 season.

Texans management viewed it as a simple business transaction, of Ryans becoming expendable after losing his starting job at middle linebacker to Brian Cushing, who was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010.

As often happens in professional sports, management failed to look at the intangibles Ryans brought to the table — things that don't always show up on the stats sheet but become pertinent to the success of a team.

Ryans brought those things to South Philadelphia and they are manifesting fully in his second year with the Eagles.

"It's first about just doing your job and doing things the right way," said Ryans, 29. "Guys see you doing things the right way and they'll follow you."

Coming off a 4-12 season and with a straight-from-college coach in Chip Kelly, the Eagles needed a few good men to step up and set the pace.

With new defensive coordinator Bill Davis switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, it was going to take some veteran leadership to quell the uneasiness.

Ryans was there, buying in from the start of minicamps.

"As bad as it was last year, it couldn't be anything but good this year," he said. "Coming in with the new staff, new players, you always expect the best, and I feel like we've come a long way since last year."

It's no secret how the Eagles' defense struggled at the beginning of the season — the 52-point barrage by Denver in Week 4 isn't easily forgotten.

But it's just as easy to see how this unit has continually improved throughout the season as players got comfortable with a new scheme and adjusted to new responsibilities.

Ryans, as the on-field play-caller for Davis, helped everyone transition easier.

"DeMeco is the quarterback of our defense," Davis said. "He's outstanding. He lines the defense up and keeps them steady, even when things start to go bad."

Ryans says he's just relays the plays that Davis has called, but to the other guys on the field with him, it has a bigger impact.

"DeMeco is the leader of our defense," second-year defensive lineman Fletcher Cox said. "He makes the call and that's it. There's no arguing. He makes the calls and we get where we are supposed to be and run the plays that he calls."

Veteran mindsets, especially those of respected veterans, become contagious.

The Eagles do not consider it a surprise they are in the playoffs. They don't look at themselves as having crashed the playoff party by winning the NFC East.

No matter what anyone else thought, they believe they should be here, deserve to be here and can advance.

One thing Ryans said he never bought into was the idea that the Eagles were a rebuilding team under Kelly.

"I don't look at it like that," Ryans said. "I look at every game as we are in it to win it. If we keep our mindset of taking it one week at a time and continue to get better, we'll be fine."

The saying goes that when your best players are also your hardest workers, it makes it easier for everyone.

With 177 total tackles, 125 solo tackles, four sacks and two interceptions, Ryans has the on-field production to meet the first part.

But again, the difference is what he does when a game isn't being played. That's what other players are drawn to.

"There are times when I go to find him for advice," McCoy said. "He fires me up every game. He's always preaching that if you want to be the best, then go do it. Be the best.

"Strive for greatness, but also do it on the practice field. He's a veteran and he's always taking so many reps during practice.

"I'm sure he knows what's going on. I'm sure he knows the game plan. Still, he does the reps. He's not letting a backup do them. He is.

"When you see a guy like him, one who is established in this league, a heck of a player, going out in practice every day and working hard to prepare so that he can get better, you say to yourself, 'Why not yourself?' "

Email: smallwj@phillynews.com
Blog: ph.ly/DNL