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Rob Ryan helps Saints find inner animal

10/30/2013

METAIRIE, La. -- Cameron Jordan is a great white shark, Malcolm Jenkins a black panther, Kenny Vaccaro a king cobra and Curtis Lofton a grizzly bear.

But not everyone on the New Orleans Saints defense got so lucky with the "inner animals" that were bestowed upon them by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan at the beginning of the season.

"Everyone on defense has their own animal, and you don't get to have any input," Lofton said with a smug smile. "Some people like theirs, and some people don't."

Outside linebacker Junior Galette was dubbed a sakis -- a monkey that sports a full, bushy beard like Galette's, which teammates find hilarious. Rookie defensive end Glenn Foster got stuck with seahorse. Deep-thinking cornerback Jabari Greer is a morning dove. And linebacker Ramon Humber is a wombat.

"Fun fact. A wombat can run up to 23 miles per hour for a total of 90 seconds," Jenkins said -- something he and his teammates learned after a little research.

Clearly, everyone on the Saints defense has gotten a kick out of the concept -- one of many that Ryan has introduced this year to help keep things fun on and off the field.

Ryan also does things like introducing assistant coaches with their own theme music during team meetings. Assistant secondary coach Andre Curtis, for example, walks up to the sound of "Forgot About Dre" by Dr. Dre and Eminem -- a crowd pleaser.

And Ryan has endeared himself to players by naming certain plays after them or their family members or their alma maters, among other personal touches.

"He's been like the coolest guy," said Galette, one of many young players who have been thriving. "I don't even know how to explain it. I have respect for him as a coach, but I feel like I can talk to him like a player. I've never had a coach like that except for high school basketball.

"He's been cool and just very encouraging throughout this whole process. ... You can talk to him about whatever. He just wants to have fun and win. Anytime you have a guy like that with that type of charisma and just brings energy to work every day, you know, you want to be around him and you want to play harder for him."

That word "fun" is always one of the first things players bring up when they talk about why they love playing for Ryan so much.

They see how much fun the game is for Ryan himself, and how much passion and love he admittedly has for the sport. And that carries over to them as well.

Linebacker Victor Butler, who followed Ryan from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency this summer, said Ryan was the same way in Dallas.

"He's a real player's coach, and he brings the best out of his players," said Butler, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since June. "With Rob it's always exciting. You feel like you're learning new things. You're excited to get up and go to practice and apply the things you're learning. And as you can see, guys are full of energy, guys are ready to play, guys are running through walls for him."

Saints coach Sean Payton said he could see that level of mutual enthusiasm between Ryan and his players from afar even before he started researching him as a possible hire this offseason.

And it's not just the personality that endears Ryan to his players.

Probably even more important is the way Ryan values their input and tailors his defense to suit their individual strengths.

Ryan has evolved his 3-4 scheme this year to maximize the talents of guys like Jenkins, Jordan and Galette, among others. He was receptive when Jenkins told him he'd like to play more often as a nickel back. And Jordan has been put in a position to rush the passer more often than some 3-4 ends.

"I think the best thing [about Ryan] -- it's a couple things," Jenkins said. "Obviously personality. ... At the same time, he allows us to have input, and there's back and forth dialogue as to what we're doing and how we're playing. Players really feel like they have their fingerprints on this defense."

In many ways, Ryan is similar to former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- also a disciple of Ryan's legendary father, Buddy Ryan. They are both known as players' coaches and creative motivators (a strength of Williams', despite the bounty scandal). They are both versatile schemers, and they both brought out the best in the Saints' defensive players, getting them to play with a ton of confidence. Jenkins said the biggest difference is that Ryan is more laid back than Williams is.

The only drawback with Ryan, according to cornerback Keenan Lewis, is that he might go over an individual play "a million times" in the meeting rooms, in walk-throughs and on the practice field.

But, Lewis admitted, "It makes my job easy. If he watches it a hundred times, I only have to watch it once or twice."

Ryan was described this summer as a "mad scientist" by former Saints and Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who said Ryan would stay up late into the night studying opponents' tendencies and finding ways to exploit them.

With the remarkable impact Ryan has made on the Saints in his first year, it's a wonder he hasn't had more success so far in his career as a defensive coordinator with the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys. With the Saints, he's on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time in 10 years as a defensive coordinator.

Clearly, though, Ryan has earned the respect of players who have played under him, past and present, as well as colleagues from around the league. None more so than his twin brother Rex, the head coach of Sunday's opponent, the New York Jets.

"I think we have respect from the league as being pretty decent on defense, both of us. And one day I think he'll be an outstanding head coach," Rex said. "I think he's a great motivator. He gets guys to play. He gets guys to believe in themselves, and I think that's a big part of it."