Ravens have talent in wings if Ryan flies off to Chargers


February 15, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

On paper, it doesn't look good because the Ravens were always prepared in the past when teams were interviewing their defensive coaches for head coaching jobs. First there was Marvin Lewis, followed by Jack Del Rio, followed by Mike Nolan, followed by Donnie Henderson, and then Rex Ryan.

There was always an understudy in waiting. But if the San Diego Chargers hire Ryan, the next Ravens defensive coordinator might not be a present assistant coach for the first time since 2001. But don't push the panic button yet. There are some interesting candidates available.

Granted, there is no one who can replace Ryan's big old, Papa Bear personality. There is a certain reverence the Ravens have for Ryan, a certain legacy of sorts handed down from the old guard that featured defensive linemen Michael McCrary, Rob Burnett, Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams to a new regime that includes Adalius Thomas, Bart Scott and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg.

But the Ravens have two possible candidates already on staff in consultant Vic Fangio and linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald. Also available is former secondary coach Henderson, who spent a year as the Detroit Lions' defensive coordinator before he was fired shortly after the season.

San Diego will be making a big mistake if they don't hire Ryan. They already have a good defense, and he'll make it even better, possibly as good as the Ravens'. Ryan doesn't have a huge ego and will get along with Chargers president Dean Spanos and general manager A.J. Smith

Also, when teams fire a coach, they like to hire the complete opposite. Former Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer was regimented and disciplined. He was a control freak who got by because he had two strong coordinators who served as buffers between him and the players and the front office. Ryan can be tough on a player, but he has a way of reaching their souls without being adversarial.

If Ryan gets hired in San Diego, Fangio would be the Ravens' top choice to replace him. Coach Brian Billick seems to have already tipped his hand. When he hired Mike Nolan as the Ravens' receivers coach in 2001, everyone knew he would replace Lewis. When Billick named Jim Fassel a consultant in 2004, almost everyone expected him to become the offensive coordinator if he didn't get another head coaching opportunity.

Billick named Fangio a team consultant before the 2006 season began. During the year, Billick publicly singled out Fangio for praise several times, almost as if he was preparing him for the job if Ryan left. According to several players, Fangio worked in the background breaking down film and scouting plays, tendencies and individual players.

Players seem to like Fangio, even though they find him "stiff" compared to Ryan. Fangio helped build good defenses in Carolina and New Orleans, but had two awful stints in his last two jobs as the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis under coach Jim Mora and then in Houston under Dom Capers. Fangio is extremely intelligent, but the knock on him is that his defenses are too cerebral for his players. His defenses have no personality, no flash.

Henderson struggled in Detroit last season - the Lions had the 28th-ranked defense - but no coach should be accountable for what happens to him with that team. Before Detroit, he was a hot commodity and possibly a head coaching prospect after building strong defenses with the New York Jets in 2004 and 2005.

Henderson might be the best prospect. He spent five seasons here. He knows the players, and they have a deep respect for him. He is extremely familiar with the Ravens' scheme and designed several of the coverages, and he ran a similar scheme in New York. The Ravens had the No. 1-ranked defense in the league, and the last thing they need is transformation.

FitzGerald is a long shot. He's been in the NFL for 13 years and has an impressive resume, having coached at Alabama, the University of Cincinnati and San Diego State and with NFL teams in Tampa Bay, Arizona and Washington. He's liked by the players, smart and thorough. But FitzGerald is an independent thinker and not a Billick guy. He was hired here three years ago after a strong recommendation from Nolan.

The Ravens, at least, have some candidates who have spent time with the organization and are familiar with the system. It's going to be interesting if Ryan gets hired in San Diego because he might hire Henderson as his defensive coordinator.

If that's the case, the Ravens will hire Fangio, who seems like the guy they wanted anyway. But after those unimpressive stints with the Colts and Texans, his hiring will make fans a little nervous. But both of those teams never had the talent the Ravens have.

Marvin Lewis struggled here until young players such as Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware matured. Nolan struggled as the defensive coordinator in Washington, but had success in Baltimore. Faced with the possibility of losing Ryan, it's OK to get nervous, but with this kind of talent, it's certainly not time to panic.


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