Rob Ryan denies he’s coaching with a chip on his shoulder.
Perhaps the Saints’ new defensive coordinator should check under his long gray locks. He’d likely find a very big one there.
A combination of Ryan’s naturally aggressive style and lingering hurt feelings over what he considers an unjustified firing after just two seasons in Dallas has given him motivation to redeem himself at this, his fourth stop as a coordinator.
And with the Saints, Ryan has found himself in charge of a unit just as anxious to redeem itself after yielding the most yards in NFL history in 2012.
“Rob has something to prove, and this defense has something to prove, too,” said outside linebacker Victor Butler, who played under Ryan in Dallas for two seasons before coming to the Saints as a free agent. “Coach Ryan’s level of intensity is up from what he was like with the Cowboys, and that kind of passion is contagious. This might be the perfect storm.”
Certainly if the enthusiasm shown during last week’s minicamp is any indication, this could be the beginning of something special. It could be like the defense installed by Gregg Williams during the Super Bowl season of 2009, before Williams’ outsized personality rubbed coach Sean Payton the wrong way too much and things came crashing down in the pay-for-performance scandal.
Ryan, too, has his own outsized personality, and his defenses have been criticized for having so many wrinkles that players cannot remember their assignments. But organized team activities are just the time for experimenting with those wrinkles. The minicamp featured players moving with renewed energy as Ryan mixed and matched his 3-4 defense in myriad combinations.
“Under Rob, you’ll always see guys going after the ball,” Butler said. “We want sacks. We want turnovers.”
That would be a welcome change from last year, when the Saints ranked 29th in sacks, although they were plus-2 in turnovers.
Still, the fans at minicamp Thursday gave the biggest cheers when, during a goal-line drill, the coverage repeatedly made quarterback Drew Brees scramble and double-clutch before getting off a pass.
“That’s a good sign,” Ryan said. “We are going against the No. 1 offense in football. We’re just going to battle them every day and see what happens.”
The enthusiasm extends to the meeting room as well.
“Rob gets to know his players very well,” said Junior Galette, who’s moving from defensive end to outside linebacker.
“He wants to hear what you think and gives you options. It’s not like, ‘Listen to me, and that’s the final word.’ Rob is a lot more open.”
Galette was referring to Steve Spagnuolo, who lasted only one year as defensive coordinator after he was hired by Payton shortly before the bounty scandal erupted.
“It just wasn’t working for us last year,” Galette said. “I don’t even want to talk about it. It was a nightmare. It was a disaster.”
Of course, as Saints radio commentator Hokie Gajan points out, this time a year ago, the players were praising Spagnuolo and his read-and-react 4-3 defense.
“They were talking about how much they loved being able to sit back with their eyes on the quarterback,” Gajan said. “Now they’re saying they couldn’t get used to all of that zone coverage. I think they’re buying into Rob’s schemes and personality, but players generally always react positively to a new coach.”
Indeed, there may be a “new brooms sweep clean” feeling to the defense. But the returning players — surprisingly, 10 of the 11 defensive starters from 2012 are still on the team — are displaying a notable sense of responsibility and anger about what went wrong last year, expressing that they’re open to change.
Will Smith, now the longest-tenured player on the team, is making one of the most significant changes, moving from defensive end to outside linebacker. He’s bought into it.
“I’m still rushing the passer and doing the same things I’ve always done,” said Smith, who accepted a sizable pay cut to remain with the team. “But when you stand up, you get to see the plays develop a little faster. It makes it a bit more fun and more active.”
Smith, who successfully fought a four-game suspension in the bounty scandal, is clearly ready to put 2012 in the rear-view mirror.
“Football has a lot of highs and lows,” he said. “Last year was one of those low moments, and we’re moving on from that. This is a new year with a lot of new players in the locker room.”
Mixing in those new players on defense — most prominently Butler; veteran defensive end Kenyon Coleman, who was with Dallas last season and is running with the first unit; cornerback Keenan Lewis; first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro, a safety; and third-round choice John Jenkins, a defensive tackle — has been Ryan’s priority.
The more the merrier, in fact.
“The way the game is played nowadays, you need to have multiple players,” Ryan said. “Last year, we were No. 5 in the league 10 weeks into the season until every single player on the team got hurt and I got fired. You can’t have enough good players. We’ve got a lot of talented guys here, but we want more because what gets you beat and gets you fired is when you don’t have enough.”
That sounds like a coach with something to prove. And he’s got a team anxious to make it so.
“There’s a great group of players here,” Butler said. “Things just went south last year, but that happens to a lot of teams for a lot of reasons.
“Rob’s brought his swagger here. Guys can’t wait to get to training camp and put the pads on.”