HOUSTON (AP) — DeMeco Ryans was in high school when a coach told him if he wanted to make a career out of football, he’d have to show great energy on every single snap.
Ryans took that message to heart and now in his first year as coach of the Houston Texans he’s demanded his team display the same relentless mindset. It’s transformed the Texans (11-7) from one of the NFL’s worst teams to a spot in the divisional playoffs Saturday at top-seeded Baltimore where a win will put them in the AFC title game for the first time.
“That always resonated with me, like man, when you suit up, you got to do something that’s different. Do something that others aren’t willing to do,” Ryans said. “A lot of people aren’t willing to run, play with great effort, play as physical as they can play every single snap … So, when you do it, and you have an entire team that does it, it jumps off the tape and people all around the league truly respect what you do.”
Ryans returned to Houston this season after being drafted by the Texans in the second round in 2006, winning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and spending his first six seasons as a linebacker with the team. He’s made the team relevant for the first time in years after the Texans had combined for just 11 wins in the previous three seasons under three different head coaches and an interim coach.
Bill O’Brien was fired after the Texans opened the 2020 season 0-4 and Romeo Crennel finished out the 4-12 campaign. David Culley came next and was let go after a 4-13 season in 2021 before Lovie Smith went 3-13-1 last season before being fired.
Though there was a buzz when Ryans, who was nicknamed “Cap” as the undisputed captain or leader of the team during his playing days in Houston, was hired last January, few outside of the building expected the new coach to turn things around so soon.
The Texans, who won the AFC South, were predicted to finish last in the division and oddsmakers put their over/under on wins at 6½. But those inside NRG Stadium could already see brighter days ahead with the hiring of Ryans, who spent the previous two seasons as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator.
Jon Weeks is Houston’s long snapper who is the longest-tenured player on the team and spent his first two seasons in 2010 and 2011 as a teammate of Ryans. He saw the shift as soon as Ryans took over.
“It was instant,” Weeks said. “The hiring of coach brought so much new energy into the building and then what he and (general manager) Nick (Caserio) were able to do with the draft, bringing in all the young talent … I think we all knew that once we started rolling and once we started clicking that we had something that could be special.”
The 39-year-old Ryans is often seen jumping around and screaming on the sideline after a big play is made, looking more like one of the players celebrating than a coach.
When Steven Nelson returned an interception 82 yards for a touchdown in Houston’s wild-card win over Cleveland on Saturday, highlights showed Ryans running down the sideline behind Nelson before dropping into a crouch and raising his arms high above his head when he crossed the goal line.
That energy, players say is infectious.
Defensive back Kareem Jackson also spent two years playing alongside Ryans in Houston and has enjoyed seeing how players react to him as a coach after rejoining the Texans last month.
“When he was a player, he was a guy that you wanted to play with, you wanted to go out and do your job for him because he came with so much energy,” Jackson said. “And it’s the same way now with him being a coach, the energy that he brings, his positivity, his aura, you want to play for a coach like that. It makes it easy to come in and execute and want to be here.”
Of course, his success has been inextricably linked to the performance of rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, the second overall pick in the draft. Stroud threw for 4,108 yards with 23 touchdowns and just five interceptions in the regular season to help the Texans return to the playoffs for the first time since 2019.
He threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns in Houston’s 45-14 rout of Cleveland in the wild-card round to make the Texans the fourth team in NFL history and first since 2009 to win a playoff game with a first-year head coach and rookie quarterback.
Ryans and Stroud bonded almost immediately, and the quarterback has credited Ryans for easing his transition to the NFL.
“We have really similar mindsets I feel of how bad we want to win, how hard we work — the focus that we know it takes to win games,” Stroud said. “We come from winning cultures and winning teams, so really it was up to us to get this team going.”
“I appreciate him because he holds me to a standard and I know I hold him to one, but he’s always met that standard,” Stroud continued. “I’ve never had to question anything, and it’s been really cool to learn and grow with him.”
And as the Texans prepare for one of the biggest games in franchise history Saturday, where they’ll try to advance to the conference championship after going 0-4 in their previous divisional matchups, the message from Ryans hasn’t changed.
“For me, I always want the team to just play football how I see football — how I think it should be played,” he said. “I think football should be played with passion, I think it should be played with energy, and I think, when you get the opportunity to do it, you should give everything you have to the game because you don’t know when your last play will be.”
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