Warm send-off

Ravens praise Ryan after coordinator gets Jets head coaching job

January 20, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

In the locker room after the AFC championship game, Rex Ryan stood misty-eyed and reflective as he spoke to reporters about his 10 years with the Ravens.

On the plane home from Pittsburgh, he went from seat to seat, player to player, memory to memory.

That was Ryan's emotional goodbye to the players he has come to love, to the defense he has diligently pushed to new heights the past four years as coordinator.

The feeling in the locker room and on the plane was mutual and just as emotional.

"Guys would run in front of a bus for Rex," safety Jim Leonhard said yesterday. "We'd do anything for Rex."

They did, too, in Sunday night's 23-14 loss to the Steelers. It was the sign-off episode for Ryan, the burly 46-year-old defensive innovator who was named head coach of the New York Jets yesterday.

Run in front of a bus? At least two Ravens did in Pittsburgh.

Cornerback Frank Walker dislocated his left shoulder in the first half, went to the locker room to have it reset, then played much of the second half.

Cornerback Corey Ivy got pole-axed on a block by Steelers wide receiver Limas Sweed in the final 30 seconds of the first half, didn't move for at least a minute and came back to play in the second half.

It wasn't just Sunday night that Leonhard noticed an emotional Ryan in the Ravens' locker room. He saw it late in the season, when the Ravens kept working through injuries without taking a step back.

"You could tell he loves this group of guys," said Leonhard, who signed as a free agent in April. "He's been around this group of guys for a long time, a number of them. They mean a lot to him. You can tell guys respect him for that.

"You're not just another player to him. If you earn his respect and his trust, you really are family to him. As a player, you really can respect that."

Ryan's defenses with the Ravens have been lauded for their creativity, their interchangeable roles, their passion and their effectiveness. In his four seasons as coordinator - after six as defensive line coach - the Ravens have not finished lower than sixth in the NFL in total yards allowed.

What the Jets are getting with Ryan is a coach who knows which buttons to push and how to push them.

"He will bring his personality and his passion for the game," Leonhard said. "I can't speak for who they had previously, but they're getting a hell of a coach and he will make them a better football team."

Ryan replaces Eric Mangini, who was dismissed after the Jets lost four of their final five games to finish 9-7.

"Rex is revered by his players and respected by his peers around the NFL for his innovative schemes," Jets chairman Woody Johnson said in a statement. "There is no doubt in my mind that Rex has the expertise and instincts to build on the foundation that we have in place and take this franchise to the ranks of the NFL's elite. He will bring an aggressive, physical brand of football that will captivate our fans and ignite their passion."

Ryan is the son of Buddy Ryan, assistant coach on the Jets team that won the January 1969 Super Bowl, and twin brother of Rob, new defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns.

"I'd like to thank Woody Johnson and [general manager] Mike Tannenbaum for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Ryan said in another statement from the Jets. "It's been a dream of mine to become a head coach in the NFL. Coming here to the New York Jets, where my father once coached and was part of the Super Bowl III staff, is fantastic. I look around at the facilities and the people they have in place and see a first-class organization. I'm just proud to be part of it."

Members of the defense speak with one voice when it comes to Ryan.

Said linebacker Bart Scott: "I think it's a gain for them and a loss for us. But it's well deserved and a long time coming."

Ryan, the last remaining defensive assistant from the Ravens' Super Bowl team, has interviewed for head coaching jobs with the San Diego Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, St. Louis Rams and Ravens in the past two years.

Bill Parcells, the Dolphins' executive vice president in charge of football operations, privately told colleagues that if Tony Sparano hadn't been available this season, he would have hired Ryan. That opinion is believed to have carried considerable weight with the Jets, for whom Parcells once worked.

Ryan will inherit a 3-4 defense that played well in the first half of the season but fizzled late. The 3-4 is a key component for Ryan, who does some of his best work disguising coverages and creating pressure out of that formation.

"I think he understands the game from a player's perspective," Leonhard said. "Not to say he'll be a players' coach, per se. He understands what you go through on a day-to-day basis and what players need to be told. I think he's a very realistic coach. He understands that things happen on a football field that the coaches can't control. He does his best to prepare his players."

When the Ravens boarded their flight back to Baltimore on Sunday night, they all knew it was their final trip with Ryan.

"Everyone was very excited for Rex," Leonhard said. "It'd be totally different if he left the team to be defensive coordinator somewhere else. But being a head coach in this league is a rare opportunity. He wanted it a long time. How can we not be happy to see him finally get that opportunity?"

While Ryan was finalizing his four-year contract with the Jets, George Kokinis, the Ravens' director of pro personnel, was in Cleveland for a second interview with Browns officials about becoming general manager. Kokinis did not return messages to The Baltimore Sun yesterday.

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