WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan shows as much interest in simplifying his notoriously complex schemes as he shows in cutting his long silver hair.
“We don’t coach a brain-dead scheme,” Ryan told The Associated Press on Tuesday during training camp at The Greenbrier resort. “We’re going to coach good football and whatever our players can handle, that’s what I’m going to give them.”
When Ryan was overseeing defenses for eight straight non-playoff teams in Oakland, Cleveland and Dallas, the knock on him was that his players sometimes struggled with the various pre-snap adjustments his defense requires. He also routinely asks players to line up in a number of different positions in a single game.
Last season, Ryan’s first in New Orleans, he asked Kenny Vaccaro, then a rookie safety, to play not only both safety spots, but also to handle some cornerback and linebacker responsibilities.
“He put me in six positions and helped me pick it up,” Vaccaro said, adding that players who characterize Ryan’s schemes as too complicated could be making excuses for their own failures. “He provides us with the knowledge. … We can get his scheme.”
Last year provided proof that Ryan’s way can work. The Saints, who in 2012 were the NFL’s last-ranked defense, climbed to fourth in Ryan’s first season.
In his second season, the expectation by those who know Ryan well is that he’ll push his players to learn and do more.
“Being that this is Year 2 … I would expect him to expand a lot more, which is going to keep people constantly guessing,” said retired NFL linebacker Scott Fujita, who played for Ryan in Cleveland.
Ryan said his defenses could work on any team, but stressed that the Saints provided “definitely the right environment” for him to thrive.
Ever since head coach Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006, Saints scouts have put a premium on players’ abilities to process information and translate that to assignment-sound football.
The Saints have shown they value players who can compensate for a perceived lack of speed or size with anticipation and proper reads.
“We had a really smart group” last season, Ryan said. “Most people don’t play nickel as much as we did. That really takes extra coaching and I wouldn’t say we dialed anything back for that group — but I’ve definitely dialed it back before for other teams.”
Ryan’s success with the Saints, combined with his periodic appearances at neighborhood bars and local festivals, has made him a huge hit in the Big Easy with players and fans alike.
“I love New Orleans, and it just happens to be an awesome city and they seem to appreciate just a good guy,” Ryan said.
Instantly recognizable by his bulging belly and long locks, Ryan can appear arrogant and brash at times. He says his father, Buddy Ryan, was the best defensive coach in the game. He unleashes profanity-laced outbursts during practice. He says he always knew he was a “great coach” and that he’ll never get outworked.
“He likes to boast that no one watches more film, but I can’t tell you how many times I came into the facility at 6 a.m. and he’s got on the same shirt from the day before, all stretched out, nacho cheese marks still around the collar,” Fujita said. “He literally was in his office all night.”
In his three previous stops, Ryan took over defenses ranked 30th (Oakland), 26th (Cleveland) and 23rd (Dallas), “So I wasn’t exactly taking over first-ranked defenses like a lot of people,” Ryan said. “I’m not scared of a challenge. I appreciate it. I know I’m a good coach and there’s a reason why every year I get hired.”
Perhaps a head coaching opportunity is on the horizon, but Ryan doesn’t sound bothered by the fact he wasn’t considered for one after last season.
“When people want to give me that opportunity, that will be great,” Ryan said. “Until then, I want to whip ass and be a great assistant.”
In more intimate settings, Ryan is known as an engaging, funny and passionate communicator, much like his twin brother, Rex, the head coach of the New York Jets.
Fujita recalls Ryan getting teary-eyed in locker or meeting rooms when talking about the effort of a particular player who may have struggled in a recent game.
“Players love that kind of stuff,” Fujita said, adding that Ryan would often take the blame for placing that player in a disadvantageous spot.
Vaccaro said Ryan “cares about his players more than anyone I’ve ever been around in my whole life.”
“He always has the player’s back,” Vaccaro added. “He gives us the reins … and he constantly stresses that players make his scheme.”
Notes: CB Champ Bailey (undisclosed injury) returned to practice on a limited basis, sitting out full-speed, 11-on-11 portions. … QB Drew Brees, recovering from a strained left oblique muscle, showed up at Tuesday morning’s practice in pads, but continued to work out on his own under a trainer’s watch, as he has since last week. He then participated in a walk-through in the afternoon, the first time he has done so July 31.