Mufasa returns: To surprise of no one, DeMeco Ryans is now a coach

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Mufasa returns: To surprise of no one, DeMeco Ryans is now a coach

In the spring of 2011, during the middle of the NFL lockout, DeMeco Ryans would spend his mornings in Birmingham, Alabama, rehabbing his ruptured left Achilles tendon. 

And every afternoon he'd make the 20-minute drive that eventually took him to his next profession. 

That spring, as Ryans rehabbed away from the Texans' facility because of the lockout, he took a position as the fill-in defensive coordinator at his alma mater, Bessemer City High School. Every afternoon, after his workout was over, he'd make the short drive to Bessemer and help coach the Tigers, who were led by his former University of Alabama teammate Dennis Alexander. That spring, the Tigers played just one game and one inter-squad scrimmage. But Ryans was hooked. 

"That was the first real taste," Ryans said to NBC Sports Philadelphia this week.  

Alexander, now an assistant coach at East Central Community College in Mississippi, said this week in a phone interview that it was "kind of crazy" that he happened to become the head coach of his college teammate's former high school. And he was happy to have him with his program. The kids naturally gravitated toward Ryans that spring. 

"You could tell back then that he had a football mind," said Alexander, who remembered Ryans as the freshman who came in and played immediately for the Crimson Tide in 2002. "He was athletic but he also knew all the X's and O's and he was smart." 

The lockout ended in July and Ryans returned to the NFL field. He played one more season in Houston before he was traded to Philadelphia, where he became an integral part of the team, a favorite of fans, and one of the most respected players to come through the franchise in decades. 

This weekend, Ryans will return to Philadelphia as a defensive quality control coach with the 49ers under first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan. 

Absolutely none of his former teammates still on the Eagles' roster are surprised about Ryans' new profession. 

"There's nothing but great things to say about DeMeco," Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox said. "He really just helped me become the person that I am. When he was here, he was one of those guys I could go to and talk about anything. It don't even matter if it was about something simple because he just made you feel better afterward. I thought, shoot, DeMeco could probably go back to Alabama and be the AD. That's how much weight his name carried. I don't think anybody would have anything bad to say about him."

What made Cox think Ryans could become a coach? 

"The way he looked at the game, the way he studied it, the way he simplifies it," he answered. "He makes it so simple. He always tells you 'the harder you make things, the harder they are.' If you find ways to simplify and figure out the best way to look at it, then it will be that way." 

Linebacker Najee Goode credits Ryans for much of his improvement in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Goode still remembers sitting in meeting rooms with Ryans, who would have answers to all the coaches' questions. He said Ryans' daily routine — he was a creature of habit — was to go back and do the same things three or four times. 

Of course, Goode said Ryans reminded him of a coach back then. 

"That dude was huge for the city and huge for the team," Goode said. "It was just huge to learn from him."

Ryans — who was lovingly dubbed "Mufasa" by Chip Kelly — was certainly a favorite among his teammates and coaches in Philadelphia. When the Eagles released him in February 2016, they made sure to do it before the GM and head coach met with reporters at the combine. On the podium, Howie Roseman began with a heartfelt statement thanking Ryans for his time in Philly. 

Out of the NFL for the entire 2016 season, Ryans got his football fix from doing a weekly radio show in Houston with former NFL players Greg Koch and N.D. Kalu on SportsTalk 790. He also got to enjoy spending plenty of time with his family. 

But Ryans has always thought about the possibility of coaching, even dating back to his time at Alabama, where his teammates affectionately referred to him as "Coach." 

And when Kyle Shanahan took the head coaching job in San Francisco this year, he heard from Ryans, who told him he was interested in coaching. "That's all I needed to hear," Shanahan said. 

Shanahan was a wideouts coach with the Texans when Ryans was drafted in 2006, and he became the team's offensive coordinator by 2008. He was immediately impressed by Ryans, who came in and started on his way to being named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Shanahan was even more impressed by Ryans' work ethic and those same qualities that have led to his new career as a coach. 

"For me, with DeMeco, it was pretty easy," Shanahan said on a conference call with Philly reporters this week. "You watch him in football and you could see he would be successful in anything in life he chooses to do. I was just pumped he told me he wanted to be a coach." 

As a defensive quality control coach with the 49ers, Ryans spends his weeks breaking down upcoming opponents in the run game. He also helps the other coaches prepare for practice and of course, he assists with the linebackers in drills and in the meeting room. 

He's found he's able to relate to players because he's not far removed from playing himself. At 33 years old, he's around the same age as the most veteran players on the roster. The biggest thing he's learned so far is that every player doesn't do things the way he would and that's OK. 

The 49ers are a disappointing 0-7 so far this season, but Ryans has enjoyed his first NFL coaching job. 

Does he want to be a head coach one day? 

"Definitely. I definitely want to take it all the way," Ryans said. "I always look at it like anything you do you want to be the best at it. That's definitely a goal of mine." 

This Sunday, when Ryans returns to Philadelphia, he won't get to see one of his protégés, the Simba to his Mufasa. Maybe Jordan Hicks is following Ryans a little too closely. Hicks tore his right Achilles on Monday night, three years after tearing his left in college. Ryans tore his left in 2010 and his right with the Eagles in 2014. Ryans, who keeps up with Hicks and even attended his wedding in the summer, said he feels for his former teammate but expects him to make full recovery. 

Aside from Hicks, there are plenty of other Eagles who owe plenty to Ryans and who will be looking forward to seeing him on Sunday. 

"It's going to be great to be back in the Linc, seeing old friends, all the fans there," Ryans said. "I know the place will be rocking. Will always be a special place to me. I'm really thankful for how the fans accepted me when I got traded there in 2012. It's always a special place for me. I love Philly, love the people there in Philly and really looking forward to getting back." 

By just being himself, Doug Pederson has had masterful year

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By just being himself, Doug Pederson has had masterful year

Bill Belichick didn’t win a playoff game until his fourth year as an NFL head coach and didn’t reach a conference title game until his seventh year.

Don Shula didn’t win a playoff game until his sixth year as a head coach.

It took Dick Vermeil four years to win a playoff game, Dan Reeves six years, Tom Landry eight.

Heck, Pete Carroll didn’t reach a conference title game until his third head coaching stop, and Marv Levy didn’t even get to the playoffs until his eighth year as a head coach.

Just a little context.

Pederson has been magnificent this year, and out of everybody we talk about who’s played a role in the Eagles' success — from Carson Wentz to Nick Foles, Howie Roseman to Joe Douglas, Fletcher Cox to Malcolm Jenkins, Jim Schwartz to John DiFillippo, Jason Kelce to Alshon Jeffery — Pederson is the common thread that’s tied all of it together.

We saw last year that Pederson had a rare ability to keep a team together when faced with adversity. Whether it was the whole Sam Bradford situation before the season, Lane Johnson’s suspension, a couple arrests, two players publicly speaking out about mental health, or just keeping the thing on the rails after three straight late-season ugly losses, Pederson won over his players by confronting each issue openly and professionally and treating his players like grown men.

By the time the team training camp ended this past summer, Pederson had earned the respect of the veterans by preaching discipline without being over the top about it and by constantly keeping the lines of communication open with his players. 

Here’s a young, inexperienced coach who had a long but undistinguished playing career and no real track record or resume as a head coach trying to convince a locker room of Super Bowl winners and all-pros that he knows what he’s doing.

But he did that. Just by being himself. Tough, smart, open, honest.

And once you get guys like Malcolm Jenkins, Jason Peters, LeGarrette Blount and Alshon Jeffery to buy in, the younger guys just fall in line. 

And that might be the biggest challenge any head coach faces. Getting guys to believe in his message. To believe in him.

But Pederson has tremendous instincts when dealing with people, a real natural, honest way of getting his point across, and it enabled him to seamlessly win over the locker room. 

Once that happened, this team was built to withstand whatever challenge it faced. To withstand whatever roadblocks stood in its way.

And as it turned out, there were plenty of them. 

We don't have to run down the littany of season-ending injuries the Eagles faced, but what this team has accomplished without its MVP quarterback, its Hall of Fame left tackle, its best linebacker, its all-pro returner and its top special teamer is nothing less than astonishing.

Nick Foles is their quarterback and they're in the NFC Championship Game.

Think about the last month.

They came from behind in Los Angeles to beat the Rams after Wentz got hurt. They beat the Giants on the road. They beat the Raiders to clinch No. 1 seed. They "upset" the Falcons in a conference semifinal playoff game. 

For this football team to be one home win away from the Super Bowl after all it has been through speaks volumes about Pederson. He's guided this franchise through adversity that would have crushed some locker rooms, and he's done it in his second year as a head coach above the high school level.

Pederson found a way to get 53 guys to believe in themselves even when very few other people did. And they returned the favor by consistently playing smart, physical, disciplined football for him no matter who the opponent, no matter what the score, no matter how long that Injured Reserve list grew.

This has been a masterful year for Pederson, and anybody who can't see that just isn't looking very hard.

Why lack of touches for Jay Ajayi after 1st quarter?

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Why lack of touches for Jay Ajayi after 1st quarter?

Jay Ajayi wasn't hurt Saturday night. So why did he barely play after a huge first quarter?

Ajayi dominated the first quarter of the Eagles' 15-10 playoff win over the Falcons at the Linc with seven carries for 49 yards. But after a one-yard carry a minute into the second quarter, he didn't touch the ball again until the third quarter.

After his hot start, he didn't even get on the field on the Eagles' last two drives of the first half.

LeGarrette Blount actually had more carries than Ajayi after the first quarter, but netted only 19 yards on nine attempts, although he did score the Eagles' only touchdown from a yard out in the second quarter.

Ajayi never got into a rhythm after his long layoff. He had eight carries for five yards after the first quarter and finished with 15 carries for 54 yards along with four catches for 44 yards, including a 32-yard catch and run that was the Eagles' longest offensive play of the game.

Head coach Doug Pederson said Monday he just wanted to get Blount some work. He also said he likes to go hurry-up after long plays and was unable to sub Ajayi while the offense was going with tempo. But there weren't any plays longer than 15 yards while Ajayi sat.

Pederson said the decision on which back to use rests with him and not running backs coach Duce Staley.

“I ultimately control the personnel," he said. "Duce doesn’t sub them. I’m the one calling the plays, so I call for those guys in particular situations, and a couple times when we broke off a long run or a pass particularly — it’s a good time to go a little tempo. So whoever the back is at the time on the field, I just kept him in there.

"And [Blount] was heating up a little bit and we wanted to get him going as well and it’s just the way it went."

Ajayi had 35 of the 86 net yards on the Eagles' only touchdown drive of the game.

After that second-quarter TD drive, the Eagles ran 15 times for 17 yards, not including three Nick Foles kneel-downs.  

Pederson said all the backs know all the plays, but he just prefers different backs depending on what the Eagles are doing offensively. 

Of the Eagles’ 67 offensive plays, Ajayi played 29, Blount 20, Corey Clement 16 and Kenjon Barner one (see Snap Counts).

"The way it is set up is by design, by scheme design, a particular back might be good at a certain run scheme so we put that back in for that particular play," he said.