By hiring Rob Ryan to be his defensive coordinator, Jeff Fisher completes a circle of sorts. Fisher came up in the NFL as one of many understudies of Buddy Ryan. Fisher's coaching life begain as his playing career ended, as a member of the elder Ryan's vaunted 1985 Chicago Bears defense.
Years later, Buddy Ryan finally passed the torch to his twin sons, Rex and Rob, giving them their break in the NFL with the 1994 Arizona Cardinals. "We got him fired in two years, but our careers kept going," Rob said in a 2007 interview. "Sorry, dad. At first, people screamed nepotism. My dad gave us a shot. I'm sure it was nepotism. But now we know what we're doing."
Like Fisher, Rob Ryan got his start coaching defensive backs for his father. Both he and his brother coached in college for several years before re-ascending to the pros; Rex in 1999 with the Baltimore Ravens, Rob in 2000 with the New England Patriots. But where Rex was able to build a name for himself in Baltimore, Rob found himself living a vagrant's lifestyle.
Normally, a team's record isn't the first thing you look at when you judge a defensive coordinator. Especially a coordinator that worked for stiffs like Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, and Eric Mangini. Nonetheless, it's somewhat remarkable that no Rob Ryan team has ever finished a season above .500.
Is this a good hire for the Rams? That depends on how well he can replicate his success with the 2006 Raiders.
Rob Ryan joined the Raiders in 2004, as they began their downward spiral into oblivion. Bill Callahan (who may or may not have "thrown" the Super Bowl the year prior) was out as head coach, and Norv Turner was brought in to execute the kind of vertical offense that Al Davis loved. Ryan inherited Charles Woodson and Warren Sapp, but was given little else to work with on defense. The core of the team on both sides of the ball was old, brittle, and bad. Accordingly, every part of the team stunk.
The Raiders invested heavily on defense in the next several drafts, but the Raiders continued to struggle with Ryan's 3-4 defense. That is, until he changed it.
"We were getting ready to go to Tennessee," Sapp says of a midseason game in 2005. "He looks at me and says, 'All right, you're getting your four-man rush, and I want that (SOB) on the ground. You got me, Sapp?' "
Sapp had three sacks and forced a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown. "After the game," Sapp says, "he looked at me and says, 'Now I see why Monte [Kiffin] stood on the sideline with his chest stuck out.' "
The following season, the Raiders played a 4-3 all season long and the Raiders jumped up to 3rd in the NFL in fewest yards allowed. However, with Art Shell as coach and the execrable duo of Aaron Brooks and Andrew Walter at quarterback, all that defensive dominance amounted to a mere two wins.
It wouldn't be the last time Ryan's defense was let down by his offense. Fast forward to 2012, as he was made the scapegoat for yet another late-season collapse by the Dallas Cowboys. It was a season, as Gregg Rosenthal writes for NFL.com, that started out very strongly on defense.
Ryan's firing points out the uncomfortable reality that he has coached circles around Jason Garrett the last two seasons. The Cowboys' defense hasn't been great, but it quickly improved from the 32nd-ranked unit Ryan took over in 2011…. The Cowboys' defense played well early this season before a ton of injuries hit.
"When you play that way for the first 10 games, you're supposed to be 9-1 and or 10-0. We were 5-5."
The Cowboys had some good players to work with in Demarcus Ware, Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne, but much of the season was patched together with creaky veterans filling in for injured younger players – or for each other.
For all his bad luck at previous stops, the Rams must look like a paradise to Rob Ryan. He will be working with the youngest and most talented defensive roster that he has ever had as a professional coach.
Chris Long, James Laurinaitis and Cortland Finnegan are all in their physical prime and provide leadership and production at all three levels of the defense. Young players Janoris Jenkins, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and Trumaine Johnson have showed remarkable growth already, and each is primed for better things. And the gaps have been mostly filled by savvy role players such as Eugene Sims, Kendall Langford, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Quintin Mikell.
Ryan also walks onto a coaching staff that is full of experience and that has gelled incredibly well. If Rob Ryan deserves a pass on his past record based on the situations he was hired into, this Rams team will give us a true picture of his capabilities as a defensive coordinator. They are one or two players away from being an upper-tier unit, on a team that is primed for better things in 2013.