WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Some people around the NFL can’t believe Rob Ryan’s still a defensive coordinator with the Saints.
But if Ryan’s defense puts up the kind of numbers it did last season, his days as an assistant coach will be not for long.
In his first year as the Saints defensive coordinator, the team sailed up the statistical charts, moving from 32nd (and dead last in the league) in total defense all the way to fourth.
That improvement of 134.4 yards (305.7 yards allowed per game from 440.1) was the biggest since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970
And Ryan still didn’t get a head coaching position — or even a single interview — in a league where tradition often rules.
Tradition would seem to be on the side of the 51-year-old Ryan, whose brother Rex coaches the New York Jets and father Buddy was a defensive wizard when the 1985 Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl and later served as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals.
Yet here Rob Ryan remains, again leading the defense for New Orleans during its three-week training camp at The Greenbrier resort. He thus begins his 28th season of coaching, 17 of those in the NFL and the last 11 as a defensive coordinator, one step below the head coach.
Rex Ryan has gone on record as saying he was surprised no team interviewed his brother for a head coaching position. Rob Ryan seems willing to bide his time.
“I’ve been coaching for a long time,’’ Rob Ryan said following a recent Saints workout, “and I’ve been an assistant for a long time. I’ve never been a head coach.
“When people want to give me that opportunity, that will be great. Until then, I want to whip ass and be a great assistant.’’
Saints head coach Sean Payton also thinks it’s just a matter of time before Ryan gets his chance.
“From my experience, he is going to have that opportunity,’’ Payton said, “and you just can’t put a clock on it. We had success and there are times where it all depends on the owner and it all depends on the situation. It’s not as simple as, ‘Hey, you finished this on offense, you finished this on defense, you receive five interviews.’ It doesn’t work like that.
“Having been through that success in New York [as an assistant with the Giants] and then coming to Dallas and experiencing some success there and then our first year and then having an opportunity but waiting — it just finds you. I think when you can prepare and focus on the main task, the other stuff just handles itself.
“He is clearly someone who will be ready for a position like that. That’ll happen and it is something that no plan or no calendar can really predict.’’
Just like in some of his previous stints as defensive coordinator (Raiders 2004-08, Browns 2009-10, Cowboys 2011-12), Rob Ryan has earned the reputation of being a cult hero in New Orleans.
His flowing gray locks and outgoing, infectious manner aren’t just saved for sideline shows, but often occur off the field as well.
“I’d rather be a hero than a goat,’’ Ryan deadpanned. “Hell, I want to make sure we do the right thing. I love New Orleans, and it just happens to be an awesome city and they seem to appreciate just a good guy.’’
Payton said he’s learned a lot about Ryan in the last year or so.
“The biggest thing,’’ Payton said, “is with not having worked with Rob before, is that you get a better idea of the person, the personality and his passion for football because half of his staff, I would say, I probably worked with or coached with somewhere else.’’
Ryan realizes that one area his defense needs to shore up is forcing turnovers.
Even last year with the NFL’s No. 4 total defense, the Saints finished 29th in takeaways (interceptions and fumble recoveries), coming in with a mere 19.
“We need to improve in that area if we want to be a great defense,’’ Ryan said. “We’re doing everything we can. We’ve got to be better at it. That was a weakness for us last year. We’ve identified it; we’re trying to coach it better than we did last year.’’
That stat is a telling one, since in their lone Super Bowl-winning season of 2009, the Saints wound up second in the league in takeaways with 39, one shy of the Packers.
A repeat of that might not only make Ryan the toast of Bourbon Street, but also see him packing his bags for a long-awaited head coaching spot.
Until then, his hair continues to grow, and perhaps his reputation as well.
“I’m going to get it cut,’’ he told reporters about his hair. “It’s too long. I waited a little too long this year, but I’ll be getting it cut when I get back [to New Orleans].’’
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.