As Ravens keep moving up, assistants could move on

December 31, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

A YEAR AGO, Ravens coach Brian Billick said he wouldn't let a truck back up to the Owings Mills complex and haul away several of his assistant defensive coaches.

The truck is warming up for a possible return visit in 2003.

Six NFL head coaches have been fired or have resigned since the season started, including the bizarre resignation of Washington Redskins coach Steve Spurrier yesterday.

There could be more soon. Fortunately for Ravens defensive assistants Donnie Henderson, 46, and Rex Ryan, 41, the openings could lead to jobs as defensive coordinators. Unfortunately for the Ravens, they could lose two coaches who have played major roles since joining the franchise in 1999.

"It's a two-edged sword. You hope not, but by the same token, you're proud of them and hope they have the opportunity," Billick said. "We're going to do anything we can to help advance their careers, but at the same time I have an obligation to this organization.

"I know Rex has been thought of in that way [defensive coordinator], and Donnie, as well, particularly because of what we have done defensively."

The word on Henderson and Ryan started to leak out after the 2000 Super Bowl season, but several other defensive assistants had higher value. But both coaches endured going from a veteran team in 2001 to a kiddie corps last season.

The Ravens finished ranked No. 22 in overall defense a year ago, but are No. 3 going into Saturday's opening-round playoff game against the Tennessee Titans at M&T Bank Stadium.

After the 2001 season, Marvin Lewis left to become defensive coordinator and assistant head coach of the Redskins. That same year, Ravens linebackers coach Jack Del Rio became defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.

Lewis and Del Rio are now head coaches of the Cincinnati Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively. Del Rio hired Ravens linebackers coach Mike Smith as his defensive coordinator during the offseason.

Next up on the food chain seems to be Henderson, the secondary coach, and Ryan, who coaches the defensive line.

Teams aren't allowed to contact other clubs about assistant coaches until the end of the season, but there is already a lot of backroom dealing going on. Phone lines are busy.

"I don't know if I'm going to get my shot," Henderson said. "I'm still under contract and I have a pretty good job here. I've only been in this league for five years. People may not know who I am. I don't have the pedigree. I didn't play in the league. I don't have those kind of connections."

But he already has respect, enough to draw interest last year.

"Right now, I think there is some speculation, but who knows who is going to get these jobs? I think I have the pedigree for it," said Ryan, son of former Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan.

"I don't think it's any coincidence that the Ryan family is going for a sixth Super Bowl ring. I'm fortunate to be here, but I've been waiting for an opportunity where I can put my own name on a defense."

Henderson and Ryan have a lot in common. They are new-breed coaches with extensive college backgrounds. Gone are the days when coaches just ordered players around. Coaches have to be surrogate parents and teachers.

On some days, they have to be friends.

When the Ravens won their title three years ago, Henderson had such veteran players as safeties Rod Woodson and Corey Harris. Cornerback Duane Starks was in his third season.

Now the Ravens start safeties Ed Reed and Will Demps, both in their second seasons, as well as third-year cornerback Gary Baxter. Cornerback Chris McAlister has the most experience, and Henderson deserves a medal for transforming McAlister from a head case into a Pro Bowl performer.

And while on the subject of head cases, Ryan had three of them in 2000 and 2001 with tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams and end Michael McCrary. The only sane one among the starters was end Rob Burnett.

Now he has two starters, nose tackle Kelly Gregg and Marques Douglas, who were undrafted free agents. End Tony Weaver is only in his second season.

"Their extensive work in college helps them to be very good teachers," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "They have very good rapport with their players."

Said Henderson: "The philosophy is simple. First, a coach has to be approachable. A player should be able to come to talk to me about anything and everything. Secondly, that player has to be coachable. When those two things happens, it opens it up for a third which has no right or wrong, just the right results."

Both use that approach. Both are sticklers for fundamentals and are two of the most vocal coaches on the practice field.

"No matter what kind of players I've ever had, they are going to play with technique and going to play hard," Ryan said. "The way they play is an extension of me, and that is something no one can take from me."

Or Henderson.

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