SANTA CLARA, Calif. – DeMeco Ryans' influence on the NFC championship runs through both locker rooms.
Ryans finished his playing career as a linebacker for Philadelphia, earning the nickname “Mufasa” (from “The Lion King”) for the leadership skills that he taught the handful of teammates still on the Eagles that have been carried forward to today.
Ryans transitioned to coaching and has been the defensive coordinator the past two seasons for the San Francisco 49ers, where he has helped scheme the NFL's stingiest defense.
The two teams meet Sunday — the 49ers (15-4) at the Eagles (15-3) — with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
“He’s just a natural leader,” said Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who was a rookie in Ryans' first season in Philadelphia in 2012 and was his teammate for four years. “Playing with DeMeco taught me a lot ... about how to be a pro, how to approach things. DeMeco is always one of those guys, if I had problems with something, I would go to him. If I had problems at home, I would go to him to lead me in the right direction. That’s the type of guy he was.
"He wanted better, it didn’t matter who it was.”
Cox is one of four left in Philly from Ryans' time, along with defensive end Brandon Graham and offensive linemen Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce.
“You talk about just an impeccable leader,” Kelce said of Ryans, who started in coach Andy Reid’s final season and was deemed “Mufasa” by Chip Kelly. "Very smart, cerebral player. He was definitely a favorite during the Chip Kelly era in the locker room, by coaches and players. Everybody loved DeMeco. It’s of no surprise that he caught on to have success in anything, but certainly not surprising he’s having the type of success he is as a defensive coordinator.”
Graham said Ryans had a knack for knowing what play was coming next from the opposing offense and was able to communicate that to his teammates. He said he can see that same ability when watching the 49ers' defense, which always seems to be a step ahead of the opposition thanks to Ryans' acumen and film study.
“That’s how I’ve always been,” Ryans said. “I’ve kind of studied the game. I’ve always tried to pick up on offensive tendencies and for me, it’s always about helping the guys around me. I felt like always, if I can help the guys next to me just play a little quicker or know their assignment, then if they’re at their best and I’m playing at my best, then collectively, we can go and win games, so that’s what that was always about.”
Ryans has had a rapid ascension since his playing career ended after the 2015 season. He spent one year at home in Houston before being lured back to the NFL as an entry-level quality control assistant under coach Kyle Shahanan in San Francisco in 2017. He quickly was promoted to linebackers coach and then moved up to defensive coordinator last season after Robert Saleh got the head coaching job with the New York Jets.
The Niners have had one of the top defenses in the league under Ryans' watch, allowing the fewest points and yards in the NFL this season.
“He's as good as it gets when it comes to scheme on defense,” All-Pro defensive end Nick Bosa said. “As a leader of men, he's as good as it gets.”
Those skills have made Ryans a coveted head coaching candidate; he's already interviewed with the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos.
Shanahan isn't surprised. He was an assistant in Houston when Ryans came in as a rookie linebacker in 2006 and said Ryans “took over that defense right away.”
“He’s always been that guy and then just watching him over these two years what he took in his years learning to get there, how much better he runs the system and then he adjusts every week. He sees how to play an offense, he pays attention to offense and defense,” Shananan said. "I thought he was ready last year to be a head coach and I hope his wife doesn’t get mad, but I hope he’s not a head coach next year, but if he is, he more than deserves it.”
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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