SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It was all so rhythmic, fluid, uncomplicated. The San Francisco 49ers were in cover-four, protecting against a deep pass, and edge rusher Nick Bosa pushed a Seattle offensive lineman toward Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith.
The 49ers’ defensive coordinator, 38-year-old DeMeco Ryans, was already pacing, yelling, leaping on the sideline. This is what he does. Late in the third quarter, up six on a plucky division rival in last weekend’s opening-round playoff game, San Francisco needed this. Bosa fell on the loose football, and now Ryans — a rising superstar in coaching and, soon, a litmus test for the NFL’s supposed meritocracy — was going bonkers: arms raised, smiling wide, waiting for Bosa to reach the sideline so he could jump onto his shoulders and be among the first to celebrate with him.
Plays such as this — simple, relentless, ending with a merry sideline party — have been a hallmark of San Francisco’s season and of Ryans’s brief but towering rise through the 49ers’ coaching ranks. After taking an entry-level position on Coach Kyle Shanahan’s staff in 2017, Ryans now leads the NFL’s best defense and a group of men who aren’t used to such intense feelings of loyalty and the unbridled joy their coordinator cultivates.
“His passion, his love for the guys — DeMeco is like your dad. You always want to, like, make him proud,” 49ers linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair said after his unit’s suffocating second-half performance. “As a man, as a coach, he has a way of getting guys to buy in and just play with love.”
The night before San Francisco’s 41-23 win, Ryans addressed his defense. His message: “Seize the moment.” These big games don’t come often, even during a long playing career, and Ryans learned that during his own 10-year career. But players, acutely aware Ryans is among the hottest names on the head-coaching interview circuit, left with another interpretation: This ride, with a coordinator so young and fun and almost supernaturally gifted, may be approaching its end.
“He probably gone. It sucks,” linebacker Dre Greenlaw said, shaking his head. “That’s the thing about this business, man. You ain’t got no control over what happens or when. You’re just thankful for the moment.”
Throughout the league’s history, head coaches have neither risen this quickly nor traditionally looked like DeMeco Ryans. Ryans is Black, and the NFL isn’t exactly a place where the sky is the limit for Black coaches, no matter how beloved or skilled.
The NFL has adamantly denied that its hiring practices are racist despite the fact that only two of its 32 teams are led by Black men, that former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores headlines an ongoing class-action discrimination lawsuit against the NFL or that a recent Washington Post investigation found that, in a league where nearly 60 percent of the players are Black, teams’ hiring and firing practices continue to disadvantage Black coaches at every turn.
That includes coaches who eventually do land top jobs: The Houston Texans, who drafted Ryans before he spent six seasons as an overachieving linebacker with them, hired — and fired — David Culley and Lovie Smith, both of whom are Black, following the past two seasons.
All five teams with a head-coaching vacancy — Arizona, Carolina, Denver, Houston and Indianapolis — have requested interviews with Ryans, who has made clear his desire to one day become a head coach and “represent,” he told reporters last week, for the many Black coaches who never got such a chance. Each of those franchises has obvious baggage, some more formidable than others. Ryans’s colleagues, players, former teammates and friends are eager, therefore, to see what happens — and not just from the White billionaires who own the teams looking for a fresh name to offer their marketing departments and toss to their ravenous fan bases.
What will Ryans do? He’s a former rookie of the year and two-time Pro Bowl selection, a licensed minister, “a coach’s dream,” in the words of Reggie Herring, the former Houston linebackers coach. Friends wonder whether they have ever heard Ryans use a curse word. He’s a family man and philanthropist who, colleagues say, can connect with any player, be they from the inner city, a gated neighborhood or a trailer park. He avoided controversy, saved and donated much of his NFL money, leads multiple charitable and community efforts. Just five years into coaching, he’s pretty good at the football thing, too.
It all leads to an interesting question: With Ryans’s bona fides unquestioned, his credibility unmatched and his reputation unimpeachable, is it possible the best Black coach on the market is too good to be the face of a bad organization — the latest pawn in a corporate game of sociopolitical chess?
“He does everything right,” said N.D. Kalu, who played for the Texans alongside Ryans. “Let me just say there are some jobs I hope he doesn’t get.”
A player and a preacher
Six years ago, Ryans regularly met with friends to discuss his post-NFL future. People always said he would be successful at whichever path he chose, but that’s of no help when you’re 32, retired from the only job you have ever had and idling at a crossroads. He volunteered sometimes with high school teams, and throughout the 2016 NFL season, he made regular appearances on a Houston sports-radio show to analyze the Texans.
His mother believed he belonged not on a sideline or behind a microphone but as pastor of the Church of Christ in Bessemer, Ala., the historically segregated Birmingham suburb where Ryans grew up.
“If he doesn’t make it in the NFL,” Martha Ryans says even now, “I would love for him to do that.”
The once-shy young man delivered his first sermon one Sunday night when he was 14. During his playing days, he would surprise congregations as a guest minister. He always liked to please his mama.
She had been the only woman working the Bessemer steel mill, pouring liquid fire into molds and showing the men how to lift machinery without wrenching their backs. Martha cleaned houses at night and the church on weekends, picking up occasional hours at a plastics plant nearby. She raised four children by herself, making it work in a neighborhood called the Hill. Up the way were the well-to-do folks, and down the road were the housing projects. The Ryans lived somewhere in between, and DeMeco noticed when his mother invited kids from either direction to come in, help themselves to whatever food they had, hold a conversation, even gather around the family TV when she headed out for another shift.
“I just want to be able to tell her to quit because I hate it for her,” Ryans told reporters in 2005, during his senior season at Alabama. “Everybody wants to take care of their mom.”
The NFL didn’t seem especially viable then, even as he anchored the nation’s best defense and was named a first-team all-American. His size, 6-foot-1 and 236 pounds, was unremarkable, his 40-time a pedestrian 4.65 seconds, his agility blah. During the speed-dating session that is combine interviews, Houston linebackers coach Johnny Holland sat next to Ryans. Holland asked Ryans which Crimson Tide defenders the Texans should consider drafting. Ryans rattled off names, omitting his own.
The coach nodded, having already learned of Ryans’s humility — and that he had made the dean’s list four times, volunteered at a hospital and local schools, graduated cum laude a semester early and was nicknamed “Coach” by teammates because he would scold them for leaving trash on the locker room floor.
Houston drafted him with the first pick of the second round in 2006, and he led the league in solo tackles and was named defensive rookie of the year. He studied and absorbed information like a coach, showing teammates the right way to sharpen their technique, footwork and instincts. Holland wasn’t the only person to suggest Ryans someday pursue a career in coaching, but he rolled his eyes at the suggestion then.
“Meco wasn’t blessed with great physical traits,” former Texans assistant Vance Joseph said. “But his mind — his football IQ — was so fast. A super, super bright guy, super hard worker — all those things you want a player to be.”
Ryans spent his downtime earning his minister’s license, establishing a youth program at the Fifth Ward Church of Christ, working with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston. When he signed a six-year contract extension worth up to $48 million, he bought his mother a house, donated $300,000 to Alabama’s business school to endow a scholarship and pledged his daily meal allowance to disaster relief. He established a foundation aimed at empowering underprivileged children, spent time at a youth program at a local church connecting with so many kids, from both up the hill and down, that even those closest to him sometimes had no idea where — or to whom — his money was going.
“He was never the guy with the big gold chain,” former teammate Kalu said. “If he had an earring, I don’t remember it. The guy made good money, but he had a regular, nice SUV.”
Former Texans coach Gary Kubiak put it a bit differently: “DeMeco’s just got his s--- together.”
In 2012, Houston traded Ryans to Philadelphia, where he battled injuries and played for four White head coaches. When teammate Riley Cooper was caught on video using a racial slur, Ryans publicly defended him. After former Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said Eagles Coach Chip Kelly “got rid of all the Black players — the good ones,” Ryans used the opportunity to highlight McCoy’s “dynamic” play.
Philadelphia released Ryans in 2016 after more injuries and another coaching change. That’s how a storybook career ended, without so much as a public announcement when he retired, one of the hundreds of men the NFL unceremoniously sets adrift each year.
He spent the following months pondering his future. His ex-coaches said he couldn’t possibly fail. His mother said she would love and support him no matter what. Ryans considered starting a business, devoting himself to the clergy, finding a job yakking about football or . . .
His phone rang. It was February 2017, and Kyle Shanahan had just been hired as the 49ers’ coach following years of head coaching interviews, negotiating control over the roster and coaching staff, biding his time for the right situation. Now he would be bringing along a few old buddies from his days as Houston’s offensive coordinator: Robert Saleh, Mike McDaniel, Johnny Holland.
When Shanahan asked his new linebackers coach whether he had any ideas on a young assistant who might be looking for a job, Holland contemplated for a moment, thought of a familiar name and said he just might.
‘Playing out of love’
Not long before the 2019 Senior Bowl, a top pre-draft showcase for NFL prospects, Dre Greenlaw heard something surprising from a man he had never met. Ryans, working the event alongside his fellow 49ers coaches, said he understood Greenlaw.
A talented but undersized linebacker, Greenlaw rarely told people that his biological parents had fallen victim to addiction and abandoned him. Disclosing that you spent six years as a ward of the state of Arkansas isn’t typically something that will skyrocket you up teams’ draft boards.
But Ryans, working the event alongside his fellow 49ers coaches, somehow knew that, before being adopted by a former high school coach, Greenlaw had spent years shuffling between foster homes and residential centers.
“I ain’t never told a reporter or none of my coaches,” the young linebacker said recently. So how did Ryans know? “That’s a good question,” Greenlaw said. “I don’t know that.”
Then Ryans shared something almost no one knows about him: He runs a group home for underserved boys in Houston. During interviews for this story, former teammates, coaches and Houston reporters said they had no idea Ryans was involved in such an endeavor. Even his mother said she knew few details about the home, something Ryans keeps largely to himself.
“All I know is he has a home for boys in Texas,” Martha Ryans said. “He just wanted to always do good for others.”
Citing preparations for San Francisco’s divisional-round playoff game against Dallas and Ryans’s head coaching interviews, the 49ers didn’t make Ryans available to The Post for an interview. But through a team spokesman, Ryans did confirm that his boys’ home in Houston remains operational. He declined to provide details.
This nonetheless provides a window into Ryans’s priorities and why San Francisco players are so loyal to him. When Fred Warner, the 49ers’ star linebacker, was locked in a tense contract dispute with the team, Ryans shepherded him through the process. When Al-Shaair was a hothead early in his career, Ryans spent extra time working with him on controlling his emotions. When Greenlaw became the father of a baby boy, Ryans would text him or stop him in the hallway to ask about his son.
“Teammates, friends you have from other teams, will tell you: ‘Oh, hell no, I hate my coach,’ ” Al-Shaair said. “This is a special room that we have, a special team. When you’re playing out of love for the guy next to you, you don’t want this feeling to end.”
But players know it will, perhaps sooner than they would like. The 49ers’ staff has been among the hottest for other teams to raid in recent years, with Shanahan assistants taking two head-coaching jobs: Saleh for the New York Jets and McDaniel for Miami.
Ryans figures to be next in line, assuming his relative inexperience, out-of-vogue specialty and race don’t scare off some owners. This represents a conundrum in the 49ers’ locker room, where, like the league at large, the majority of the players are Black. The young men in here are conflicted, with some describing feelings of wanting Ryans to fulfill his potential as he dents the NFL’s iron ceiling, but maybe … not just yet?
“For him,” Greenlaw said, “he’s going to be probably out the building, but he ain’t going to be gone.”
The linebacker knows he will be able to reach out to Ryans and talk no matter where the coach ends up. Greenlaw still doesn’t like thinking about it.
“It’s going to be the hardest thing, man,” he said.
What owners want
A few days before the 49ers reported to training camp last summer, Ryans met Kubiak for lunch in Houston. Ryans was again preparing for his next chapter, and he wanted to discuss life as an NFL head coach.
“I think he knows exactly what he wants,” Kubiak said recently.
But do team owners? Among the NFL’s many veiled realities is that even the most hardcore fans have no idea what a head coach’s job actually is or is supposed to be, and this would largely include those who own the franchises and run the league. Ryans is perceived as a defensive innovator and master in-game adjuster, but neither is precisely true. The 49ers’ scheme is identical to Saleh’s, save for a few code words, and though Ryans was credited with his second-half modifications last weekend against Seattle, the defensive staff changed exactly nothing at halftime — or, generally speaking, in any of San Francisco’s three games against the Seahawks this season.
What Ryans is, players and coaches said, is a generational motivator, people manager and selfless leader who is capable of drawing greatness out of humans. If the game plan isn’t working, Ryans doesn’t bail on it. He just pushes the right buttons to fire up his guys, and suddenly the 49ers’ fortunes change. Kubiak, who is White and won a Super Bowl in his second chance as a head coach, and Joseph, who is Black and has received no second opportunity, said Ryans’s skill set is what actually lifts organizations and leads teams to compete for titles.
That may be easier in some places than others, and some close to Ryans see Houston as a natural fit — at least on paper. He spends offseasons there, has his boys home and other charitable endeavors, and understands the community and the Texans’ building after coming of age with the team. Then again, with questions about ownership and the front office and the fact that the team fired two hamstrung Black head coaches after just one season, Houston may be where excellence and ambition go to die.
“It’s that good ol’ boy thing, and there’s a little bit of old racism there, that sentiment of: ‘Can they do it?’ ” said Culley, who was fired by the Texans last year after going 4-13 in 2021 and refusing, he said, to fire the assistant coaches that General Manager Nick Caserio had hired months earlier. “But I wouldn’t discourage him from going there. I would never discourage an African American from getting an opportunity of being a head coach at a place — even that place.”
Others adamantly disagree, taking exception to the suggestion that a Black coach should take a lesser position, especially one in which he seems predestined to fail. But it’s tricky. The league needs more Black head coaches, and it seems to be at least interested in improving upon its failed Rooney Rule. But is it the job of a DeMeco Ryans to risk his good name to curb a disturbing trend? If so, what should be his approach? Be himself, as Culley suggests, or, as Joseph recommends, play to what an owner seems to desire?
“If you get one of those old guys who have their minds made up,” Culley said, “you’re not going to last anyway.”
That would follow Shanahan’s blueprint. Ryans’s boss spent years as a coordinator, waiting for the right fit, before getting much of what he wanted in 2017. Josh McDaniels did the same before taking over the Raiders last year. Joseph, fired after two seasons in Denver, said that’s not a luxury a Black man is afforded.
“Taking the right job is absolutely right,” he said. “But I get it, right; there’s only 32 [head coaching jobs] in the world. ‘I don’t want to turn this job down.’ Is it possible? Can it be done? Absolutely, but it’s not easy.”
It’s unclear what Ryans will do or whether he even will be offered a head-coaching job. Friends and colleagues indicate he doesn’t need the money, seems happy in San Francisco, is too smart and talented and popular with the 49ers to just leap into a troublesome position just to try to prove himself — and his way — against history. Then again, that’s something Ryans has done time and again.
“It’ll mean a whole lot for Black coaches that didn’t have the opportunity to see one of your colleagues, one of your brothers, get that opportunity,” said Holland, who now works for Ryans nearly two decades after lobbying the Texans to draft him. “Knowing him, he’ll be selective. I want somewhere where he and the owner and the GM, they’re on the same page, somewhere he can go and impact a team and a community and a city.
“My prayer for him is that he has the right avenues to have success — even if it means waiting.”