METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan learned football from his legendary father Buddy Ryan, who gave him his first NFL job as an assistant with the Arizona Cardinals from 1994-95 -- as well as his aggressive mentality and a passion for the sport that still hasn’t faded one bit.
But it was Ryan’s time spent under New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick that gave him his first real taste for “situational football” -- something the Saints’ film junkie now thrives on.
“There’s no way I’d still be coaching without my experience working with Bill Belichick,” said Ryan, who re-entered the NFL as Belichick’s linebackers coach from 2000-03 after four years in the college ranks.
“First of all, nobody knows everything,” Ryan said when he was asked what he learned under Belichick during those years -- which included two Super Bowl championships. “The smarter you are, the more you want to learn. I think if you shut up and listen, you can learn a lot. And I did.
“The only system I knew, which was a great system, was all about pressure. And then when I went to Belichick, after coordinating in college football, I think I had one way to play and I knew it all. Hell, I had no idea how much I didn’t know. I learned so much about situational football. I knew nothing about situational football until I got with Belichick.”
When asked how he got hooked up with Belichick, Ryan joked, “I just obviously wooed him when I went and interviewed. … I don’t know. Somebody must have turned the job down.”
Ryan was quick to point out that he feels just as fortunate now that he’s landed in the exact same kind of “winning environment” in New Orleans, where he’s still learning from new colleagues like Saints head coach Sean Payton and veteran linebackers coach Joe Vitt.
Ryan has compared the two organizations often. And he described Payton and Belichick as “the two best coaches in football” as they head toward a battle of wits Sunday when the Saints (5-0) play at New England (4-1).
That idea of “situational football” is something that defines both Payton and Ryan. They both thrive on things like studying opponents’ tendencies and figuring out ways to exploit matchups and situations. Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who played under Ryan with the Cleveland Browns, recently described him as a “mad scientist” who spends more hours devouring film than any coach he’s ever been around.
Ryan described that very approach when talking about the difficulty of preparing for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
“I’m exhausted right now,” Ryan said. “And I think every coach on defense and probably the whole team, we’re exhausted. We’re trying to do our best job. They know we look at every situation from what we learned from them, [going] back the entire season and then some. And I went back in the red zone, they had 259 snaps, and it was a lot of damn work. But I mean it’s everybody. We’re trying to do our best to be prepared. And it’s very difficult against this team.
“[Offensive coordinator] Josh McDaniels over there and Bill Belichick and [offensive line coach] Dante Scarnecchia, I mean these guys are the best of the best. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
That respect is mutual. Both Belichick and Brady spoke highly of Ryan this week, as well -- and both of them mentioned the way Ryan studies his opponents’ tendencies.
“Just watching his defenses play, they’re always very well prepared,” Belichick said. “They’re a good situational team, they do things weekly that attack the specific opponent that they’re playing, keep you off balance and present problems that hit at your weaknesses. I think he’s got great experience from his total background, from his family to all the coaching that he’s done. He’s been in several different systems. Rob is a smart guy that really is a very dedicated coach. He works hard at football. …
“He’s got a good energy; he installs a solid confidence within his players because he’s always prepared. He knows what to do and I think that carries over to the people he works with … at least it did here. I really enjoyed having Rob on the staff here.”
Added Brady: “We got to play against him when he was the linebackers coach here, and I always enjoy competing against a Rob Ryan-led defense. He has his guys always prepared and ready to play. He is certainly a guy that studies the opponent’s offense and tries to figure out ways to stop what he will perceive that we do well. … He’s going to try to take those things away. That’s kind of the mark of what he does.”