Inside the Ryan family 46 defense (cont.)
Ryan took the 46 to Philadelphia and went 43-38-1 in five seasons before he was fired. He would have less success in Arizona, where he was head coach of the Cardinals for two seasons. As with all innovations, Ryan's 46 forced adaptation on the league. Passing offense grew more sophisticated, finding ways to put more pressure on the vulnerable cornerbacks and the single high free safety. Yet defensive coaches continued to rely on creative pressure packages to disrupt timed pass routes, none more than one Rex Ryan in Baltimore. "I'm not the only one," he said in the fall of 2008. "Every time you see some team moving people around to get pressure, you should think of my father. He influenced every one of them."
Florham Park , N.J.
As coach of the New York Jets, Rex Ryan has a huge office, but he fills it nonetheless. He fills it with a big body: tree-trunk legs stretching massive mesh shorts and a gargantuan torso draped in a green Jets golf shirt. But more than with his bulk, he fills the room with his personality, a self-confidence that borders on bravado, driven by a sense of having been denied too long. There is a good deal of Buddy in Rex, and Rex likes to hear that. "Dad was a hell of a football coach," says Rex. "He knew what he was doing."
Buddy was a hell of a football coach in Buffalo, traveling on a recruiting trip in December of 1962 when his wife, Doris, gave birth to twin boys back in Oklahoma. The news of their birth reached Buddy slowly.
"He found out about it the next day," says Doris. "Or maybe it was two days." Rex and Rob the twins were named. They had an older brother, Jim. All three were in the stadium in Miami for Super Bowl III and again in New Orleans for Super Bowl XX. Rex and Rob would become coaches. (Jim is a lawyer.) The family now has a combined five Super Bowl rings: Buddy's two with the Jets and Bears, Rob's two while working as a defensive assistant under Bill Belichick with the Patriots and Rex's with the 2000 Ravens.
Should anyone doubt the Ryan boys' bona fides as football coaches, consider this: Both Rex and Rob played football as fourth-graders living in Toronto but were thrown off the team for hitting a player too hard. Doris marched onto the field and said, "This is a contact sport where I come from."
Banned from football, the Ryan boys played baseball and hockey. (Rex was an all-star goalie.) In the fall of 1977 Doris sent the boys, then 14 years old, to live with Buddy, who was beginning his second season under Bud Grant with the Vikings. "It was time for them to be with their father," says Doris (by then, she and Buddy were divorced). They lived with Buddy and Joanie for a year in Minnesota and four years in Chicago. Rex and Rob were ball boys for the Bears. Walter Payton was their best friend. They soaked up football every day. Buddy knew firsthand what coaching could do to a man's personal life, and as Rex and Rob moved on through college, he tried to steer them away from it.
But they persisted, and in the spring of '87, while he was coach of the Eagles, Buddy traveled to Oklahoma, rented a hotel conference room and taught his sons the 46 on a paper easel with a black marker. And they gave as good as they got. "They knew plenty," says Buddy. "So I told 'em to go get some jobs."
Rex went from Eastern Kentucky to New Mexico Highlands to Morehead State -- "the big time," he says -- before joining his dad and brother on the staff of the Arizona Cardinals in the fall of 1994. Both were defensive assistants. "Best ones I had," says Buddy. "People said it was nepotism. Bull----."
The Cardinals went 8-8 in the Ryans' first year and ranked No. 3 in the NFL in defense but slipped to 4-12 and last in scoring defense in '95. That got Buddy fired. Rex didn't get a single job offer from an NFL team. So he took a job as the defensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati under coach Rick Minter. I'm gonna punish people now, Ryan thought to himself. I'm going back to the college game, and I'm gonna punish people. Early in two-a-days in the summer of 1996, Minter called for a nine-on-seven inside running game drill, in which the two defensive safeties are on the field essentially as props and not intended to tackle or be blocked. "On the first rep Rex calls for a free safety blitz up the A gap," says Minter. "He just stones the running back. I say, 'Rex, my gosh, it's a nine-on-seven drill.' Rex says, 'Coach, we've got to set the tone around here.'"
Rex coached for two years at Cincinnati, where he built a defense that was indeed punishing. In '98 he spent a year as defensive line coach at Oklahoma, and then, in '99, Brian Billick hired him as a defensive assistant with the Ravens, bringing him back into the NFL. He immediately connected with players. "Coaches are mostly pains in the ass," says Rob Burnett, who was a nine-year veteran defensive tackle when Ryan came to the Ravens in '99. "Rex has a humanity to him that most coaches don't have. It's rare for guys to want to win for their coach in this league. But we would have jumped on a grenade for that guy."
In 2002 defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis left the Ravens, and Billick promoted Mike Nolan to defensive coordinator. "I was pissed because, basically I got f-----," says Rex. "Brian never knew me. Maybe I never fit his image. But it was a crock of s---." (Billick's take: "When Marvin left, I had Mike Nolan on my staff, and I felt we needed a more veteran presence. But I knew Rex had coordinator capabilities. You don't spend five minutes around Rex Ryan and not see his passion.")
Three more years under Nolan. Three more years waiting for a chance. Finally, when Nolan left to become head coach of the 49ers in 2005, Ryan was promoted to defensive coordinator. For four years he would be a key figure in accelerating the defensive evolution in the NFL.
For starters Rex installed the Ryan family attitude, which, at its core, meant the intimidation of opponents, achieved primarily by hitting and hitting hard, right up to the edge of what the rules allow (and sometimes beyond). "It starts with a common mind-set," says Plank. "And without that mind-set, the playbook the Ryan family has used for 30 years is irrelevant."
Then Rex went to work on his schemes.
Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers had changed the pressure paradigm with the zone blitz (Chapter 18). Rex used many of their ideas, mixed with two cornerstone principles. One: Stop the run. "Say what you want about me," says Ryan, "but if I want to, I'll stop your run." Two: Knock the quarterback on his back, for the simple reason best expressed by Rob Ryan (who in 2009 was Eric Mangini's defensive coordinator with the Browns). "The more you hit the quarterback," Rob says, "the better you're going to do."
LeBeau's zone scheme is characterized by unpredictability within a fairly static 3-4 formation. Rex took the next step, dramatically altering the placement of players on the field. It became common to see the Ravens line up with only one player in a three-point stance and five or six other linemen and linebackers strolling around in the tackle box, waiting for the offense to call an audible before deciding where to attack from, or whether to attack at all. While his base alignment is a 3-4, Ryan's willingness to move players around to anywhere on the field freed him to conceive almost limitless schemes.
"Rex has an immense defensive package," says former Oakland and Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden. "I've seen him do almost everything imaginable. He was one of the first guys to major in what I call 'designer blitzes,' which are blitzes that are dialed up just for a particular game or a particular situation."
Ryan's defenses clearly dovetailed neatly with the changing profile of the modern athlete. No longer is a professional defense made up of cookie-cutter positional players. Defensive ends are faster than some running backs. Linebackers are stronger than some offensive tackles.
Safeties are capable of rushing the passer from 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, bringing speed and power to the blitz from the deep third of the field. "Look at the collection of athletes we had in Baltimore," says Adalius Thomas, who played under Ryan with the Ravens. "There were a bunch of versatile guys out there, and some of them are going to the Hall of Fame."
Since all 11 of Ryan's defenders were capable of blitzing, he disguised his pressures by making it seem as if they might all blitz. Thomas was among the most versatile. At 6' 2", 270 pounds, he played every position on the defense except cornerback. There were other transcendent athletes: safety Ed Reed, linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and interior space-eaters Tony Siragusa and Haloti Ngata.
The 2006 Ravens led the NFL by allowing an average of just 12.1 points per game and held Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts to just five field goals in a 15-6 playoff loss.
Rex Ryan's defense has no name to put alongside his father's 46, but it is invoked in every NFL game on every weekend. Scrambling, amorphous defensive looks have become common. Hybrid players have become standard.
The blitzing of quarterbacks has never been more at a premium. That is the influence of Rex Ryan's unnamed defense, a link in the chain between his father and the future.
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