Davis, Ryan share tangled NFL roots

PHILADELPHIA – They are their fathers’ sons.

Buddy Ryan begat twins Rex, the colorful head coach of the New York Jets, and Rob, the long-haired firebrand who runs the New Orleans Saints' defense.

Bill Davis Sr. begat Bill Jr., the polite, plainspoken defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles.

About all Davis and the Ryan brothers have in common is that they went into the family business. About all their fathers have in common is that their NFL career paths intersected in Philadelphia. Intersected? Make that collided.

Buddy Ryan was the head coach of the Eagles. He was hired after leading the Chicago Bears’ legendary defense all the way to a dominating Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. Ryan clashed with his boss, Mike Ditka, in Chicago and he clashed with his bosses in Philadelphia as well.

Owner Norman Braman was “the guy in France.” Team president Harry Gamble, as decent a guy as ever who worked in the league, was often forced to react to Ryan’s outlandish comments and actions – such as presenting personnel men with oversized “scab rings” for assembling a particularly incompetent group of replacement players during the 1987 strike.

A year later, Gamble hired Bill Davis to run the personnel department. Ryan and his friend Joe Woolley had been making draft-day decisions, and Ryan wasn’t thrilled by the move. He once snarled, “"Bill Davis has got a job and he's got a title, but that's about it."

Davis, who had been on Dick Vermeil’s coaching staff in the 1970s, resigned in 1989. Ryan was fired a year later.

A quarter century later, Rob Ryan and Bill Davis Jr. will coach against each other in a first-round playoff game. Ryan will stalk the sidelines, trying to rally his guys to slow down Chip Kelly’s go-go offense. Davis will sit up in the coaches’ box, trying to find answers for Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and the rest of Sean Payton’s weapons.

“I don't really know him that well,” Davis said of his adversary. “I know the Ryan brothers to say hello to, but I really don't have a big history with either one.”

That’s remarkable when you consider Davis was a ballboy for those ‘70s Eagles teams. The Ryan brothers were too young to coach with their father in Philadelphia, but Buddy hired them when he made a brief stop in Arizona as head coach of the Cardinals.

Rex Ryan made three stops at the collegiate level before returning to the NFL for good in 1999. Rob Ryan has been in the league since 2000. Davis has worked continuously in the NFL since 1992.

That’s a lot of scouting combines and Senior Bowls for three second-generation NFL coaches not to get past “hello.”

But then, they are their fathers’ sons.

On Saturday, the cameras will follow Rob Ryan up and down the sideline. He is every bit the character his father and brother are – loud, funny, irreverent. He’s also a really good defensive coach, as evidenced by the Saints’ vast improvement over last year.

Davis has quietly done a very good job with the Eagles, too. He was not an enormously popular hire. Kelly spent weeks interviewing potential defensive coordinators before settling on Davis. He had been the linebackers coach with the Cleveland Browns (Rob Ryan was the Browns’ coordinator for two years before Davis got there; it’s a small league). Davis had been a coordinator twice before, with little to distinguish him.

He has led the Eagles in the transition from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4. His unit has gotten better every week, with the exception of one poor showing in Minnesota. Davis’ Eagles play smart football, tackle much better than they did the past two years and have started creating turnovers at key moments.

Davis himself is as adept at explaining the game and his strategies to fans as he is at teaching the players. He never ducks responsibility when things go bad – he did a postgame news conference by cellphone after the 52-20 loss in Denver – and spreads credit when things go well.

“I think the biggest thing that's happened in this defense is the chemistry and the type of men that they are made of and how much they are really playing for each other,” Davis said this week. “I've been on a lot of different teams and been through a lot of seasons and this one is unique in that the guys are truly unselfish and they are truly playing for the success of their teammates.”

To paraphrase his father’s nemesis, Bill Davis has a job and a division title, and that’s pretty good.