PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Philadelphia Eagles needed help at linebacker -- needed a starter-quality, sure-tackling veteran to man the middle of their defense. No one who watched them last year could doubt that, and it was their top offseason position priority.
But DeMeco Ryans, for whom they traded a fourth-round pick to the Houston Texans last week, brings more than that. Ryans is a leader, on the field and in the locker room. Whether the Eagles admit it or not, that's something that was lacking in their locker room when times got tough. And whether they were part of the motivation for the deal or not, Ryans' intangibles will matter a great deal to the 2012 Eagles.
"In my six years in Houston, DeMeco's been undoubtedly the leader of our football team," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said Tuesday morning at the NFL owners meetings. "He's been a fine player, a great person, a great kid in the community. He's the guy, off the field, that all our players really go to."
Kubiak talked of the regular Thursday night dinners Ryans would organize and host for his teammates, how he "raised" fellow Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, how he calmed everybody down on defense by reassuring them he knew what the play was, reminding them of their responsibilities.
"All you've got to do is turn the film on and watch him," Kubiak said. "He runs the show. I mean, everybody goes to him. They trust him so much and when he's doing. Whether it was on the field in a drill or whether it was off the field or working through tough times, DeMeco was always the guy that they went to."
The 2011 Eagles needed someone like this. When they were losing games early in the season, doubting each other, doubting the coaches, questioning their fits in the new schemes, there was very little glue to keep them together. So many players were new, so many coaches were new or in new spots. There had been very little time for trust to build up in the locker room, and there were few if any voices speaking up about the need for pride and trust and togetherness. Cullen Jenkins, one of the 2011 newcomers, would speak after games about the need for accountability. But he was a rare case. For most of the season, the Eagles were adrift, losing games without understanding why and with few if any on-field leaders to help them steady things before they tipped over.
Adding a player like that, and adding him at a position like middle linebacker, is a perfect salve for those problems. If Ryans really is the magnetic leader his Houston coaches and teammates say he was, he'll fill more than one of the Eagles' crying needs. He'll be a guy who can make sure the young linebacker or safety to his left or his right is in the right place, or who can reassure that young player that things are under control if he's feeling uncomfortable in a new spot.
"He's tough as nails," Kubiak said. "He's all man. He stands for all the right stuff."
The natural question, of course, is why then did the Texans trade him for a fourth-round pick. Kubiak's answer is the Texans' defense changed last year when they brought in coordinator Wade Phillips and switched to a 3-4. Ryan's natural position of 4-3 middle linebacker was eliminated, and Cushing was the only inside linebacker they kept on the field even when they switched to nickel and dime defenses.
"I think DeMeco can still be a three-down player," Kubiak said. "I told him that when he left. I think in the right scheme, he could still stay on the field for three downs. It's just that, when we went to nickel, Wade does things a little bit different with how he replaces the linebackers inside, and Brian was really the only guy that stayed on the field for us in nickel."
And they were paying Ryans about $6 million a year, and that's a lot for a guy who only plays 58 percent of your defensive plays. So they bid him farewell, though it was difficult and they believe he'll play well for his new team. Since his new team is the Eagles, he should be able to do even more than that.
"As hard as it is, we feel like it's a great opportunity for him," Kubiak said. "And obviously we have to move on and have a tough job to replace him. The Eagles are getting a great kid. You're going to love this kid. He's really special."