wo o’clock in the morning and the phone rings.
That’s rarely good.
When you’re coaching for the Oakland Raiders and the call is from is from the man running the team, you can bet the conversation won’t be much fun.
“Hello?” Kristin Ryan says.
“Hi, this is Al.”
“Hey, Mr. Davis.”
“Is Rob there?”
“Yes, I’ll get him.”
“OK, thanks, sweetie.”
Rob Ryan wipes the sleep out of his eyes and takes the phone from his wife. During his time as the Raiders’ defensive coordinator, he became used to such wake-up calls from the boss, who liked to spend his nights studying film of his team and looking for every mistake .
“Then, he’d get on and rip my ass for 30 minutes,” Ryan recalls with a smile. “What it was was tough love. I was OK with it.”
That’s because there were far more positive memories from the five seasons (2004-2008) he spent around Davis. He learned from one of the NFL’s all-time great masterminds about defense, about offense, (“He loved the game maybe even more than anybody I’ve ever been around”).
The occasional pummeling his ear and ego took in the middle of the night was all something he was equipped to handle.
“That comes back to Dad,” Ryan says. “He raised two tough kids.”
They’re together now, Rob and his twin brother, Rex. The toughness instilled in them by Buddy Ryan, who passed away in July after a long illness, might never be more necessary as they stand shoulder to shoulder trying to deliver on Rex’s promise last year of ending the Buffalo Bills’ championship drought.
Rex is already feeling the heat after one season as head coach, largely because the defense, his specialty, tanked on the way to an 8-8 finish. It was hardly a surprise his No. 1 solution for improving on that side of the ball – above using his top three draft picks on defense – was hiring Rob as assistant head coach/defense.
Rex will tout his brother’s credentials every chance he gets, especially the fact he has spent nearly 12 seasons as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. More than anything, though, he wanted someone who could enhance the teaching of his defense.
Enter Rob, who since he and Rex last worked together as assistant coaches on Buddy’s Arizona Cardinals staff in 1994 and 1995, has gained considerable NFL knowledge outside of the family tree. He was a linebackers coach for the New England Patriots (2000-03). During those seasons, he was in the company of another football genius, Bill Belichick.
It was with the Patriots that Rob says he made “the most growth as a coach” after learning about pressuring quarterbacks and pass coverage in the “46” defense that Buddy made famous as defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl-championship squad.
“It was a completely different philosophy than I was used to and I had to learn the most to do a better job,” he says of being with the Patriots. “I got hired to coach linebackers in a 3-4 defense, which was all foreign to me. ... I also learned from Belichick on how much situational football meant because he took such an interest in that.”
Rob learned something else from Belichick. Job first, everything else last. “He just demands everything you’ve got, including your blood, or you’re done,” Rob says.
Rex likes to tell the story of when he was the Ravens’ defensive line coach in 2000, Rob’s first season in New England.
“I’m getting ready to go coach in the Super Bowl (XXXV), and it was like on a Thursday or something,” Rex says. “And I’m heading home. It’s like 11 o’clock at night, I try to get a hold of (Rob). They weren’t even in the playoffs, and this is five weeks or four weeks (after the Patriots’ final regular-season game), and he’s sleeping in the office, getting a report ready. I mean, that’s what I’m saying. That’s what we brought in here. This is the genuine article, and I knew our team would benefit from it. And I’m talking about everybody.”
The Belichick Way hardened Rob. He realized that being on his staff could quickly become a temporary assignment, so it conditioned him to pour every ounce of energy into every job he has had since.
“If you know him, he doesn’t have time for people if they’re not going to grasp their job the right way, to do what’s demanded of them,” Rob says of Belichick. “Trust me, he’s going to get rid of you.”
Belichick didn’t get rid of him. Rob advanced his career by going to Oakland. Davis didn’t get rid of him, either. Rob was with the Raiders with four head coaches before becoming defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns (2009-10), then the Dallas Cowboys (2011-12), and finally the New Orleans Saints. He worked for the Saints from 2013 until the middle of the 2015 season. With the team posting historically bad defensive numbers, he was fired.
The stage was set for a Ryan Brothers reunion. To many outsiders, it appeared to be a simple case of nepotism. One sibling helping another who was out of a job.
Veteran Bills defensive lineman Kyle Williams understood the perspective.
“The initial reaction is, ‘He just did it because it’s his brother, he’s taking care of his brother,’” Williams says. “Well, I’ve had the privilege of being around for a long time. So I’ve played against teams that have played against his defenses. I know his track record. I’ve seen it.
“Sure, everybody has ups and downs, ebbs and flows of their career, whether it’s a player or whether it’s a coach. But I’ve seen his defenses play. (Rex) doesn’t organize good defenses over the last 10, 15 years and just be, ‘Oh, you know what? I’m just going to hire my brother just because he’s my brother. He doesn’t really know what’s going on.’
“That’s not the case at all. It was a fresh set of eyes to come in here and make us better, and he’s done that.”
Rob’s role doesn’t have a specific designation. He does a little bit of everything because he has coached every position on defense during nearly 17 NFL seasons. Call him the Detail Man.
For instance, he might tweak how the Bills play a particular front. He might tweak how they play a certain coverage. During practice, Rob stands with Rex and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, listens to the signal call, then focuses on how a particular player to whom he is assigned to watch. When necessary, Rob will pull the player aside and point out what he could have done better on the play. Such conversations happen constantly, on the field, in his office or in the hallway at the Bills’ practice facility. Job One: Get the Bills back to where they were in 2014, when they led the NFL with 54 sacks, 33 more than they had in 2015.
“Basically, what he’s done is he’s come in and helped DT and Rex and they’ve taken a look at everything we do and saying, ‘OK, how can I eliminate the half-step that’s costing us this play or that play?’ whatever it may be,” Williams says. “And they work together and he’s obviously been an invaluable part of that.”
Says fellow defensive lineman Corbin Bryant, “Things that we haven’t seen before and some things that we did last year, he’s showing us how we can adjust and play it better.”
The Ryans might be identical twins, with voices almost undistinguishable, but the differences go beyond the fact Rob has long gray hair and a larger belly.
Rob will occasionally sleep at the office, something Rex has never done and never plans to do. Rob also spent time at the Bills’ facility during the offseason. Rex never sets foot in the building during the offseason.
“Of course, you want a life outside of football and he has one,” Rex says. “He’s got a family and all that. But if you give him a job to do, it’s going to get done and there’s going to be no questions asked. If there’s 16 games, he will have a 16-game breakdown. It won’t be three or four. It’ll be 16 games. That’s what he does.”
“I may take 20 times to look at one play when some guy might look at it once,” Rob says. “But I’d rather do that and be prepared – do my job the best I can do. I can’t speak for everybody else. But believe me, no one has more passion than the coaches that work here, starting with Rex. But you are who you are and you’ve got to be true to yourself.”
That applies to the meeting room as well.
Rob strongly believes that teaching is far more effective when the teacher makes an effort to grab the students’ attention. For Rob, that means having walk-up music blaring as he enters the room. “Ever since Mariano Rivera retired, I try to enter with ‘Enter Sandman’ out of respect for him,” he says, laughing. “And then try to deliver. It takes a few warmup pitches, so sometimes you’ve got to go with some other stuff. I try to stay current, but it’s hard to do.”
When Rob talks about the “Cheeseburger Blitz,” a staple of his father’s “46” scheme because it got its name from the affinity that Bears linebacker Al Harris had for cheeseburgers, he’ll show one of the Carl’s Jr., TV commercials featuring beautiful women in bikinis.
“I try to energize people,” Rob says. “I think I’d rather go into a meeting where people have a little juice than come up there, shoulders down. Shoot, I want the guy to get motivated.
“So I enjoy doing my own style. I like to try to be myself as a teacher. I think I’m a good teacher. My mother was a great teacher. My brother’s a great teacher. But I just want to be good and I want to make sure that they get the message that, as a defense, we’re trying to give them.”