SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil's first NFL job didn't come until after he'd spent eight seasons working his way up the college ranks. When that chance -- defensive quality control coach for the New York Jets -- finally came, it was Rex Ryan who gave it to him.
It was a career-altering -- and life-altering -- opportunity, and O'Neil still considers Ryan a "really big" influence.
“He gave me my first chance in this league," O'Neil said. "I coached in college football ... and then I kind of went to the New York Jets and got around [former NFL coach] Mike Pettine and [Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator] Bob Sutton and Rex Ryan and everything I thought I knew about football they kind of flipped it upside down on me and really taught me a lot about attacking protections and coverages, and Dennis Thurman’s the [Bills'] defensive coordinator now. There’s so many guys that were on that New York Jets staff that I learned from. But yeah, those guys have been huge in my development and learning this game and learning this league.”
O'Neil will get a chance to reunite with many of those football influences on Sunday when the 49ers pay a visit to Buffalo to take on Ryan's Bills. It's a relationship that was established as a byproduct of O'Neil's relationship with Pettine.
When O'Neil was defensive coordinator at Towson in 2005, Ryan was the defensive coordinator for the nearby Baltimore Ravens. O'Neil played for Pettine's father in high school and Pettine was then the outside-linebackers coach for Ryan in Baltimore. Pettine set O'Neil up with the opportunity to pop into the Ravens training facility when he had time to check out spring practices and organized team activities.
"I got to know Mike, I got to know Rex and I got to know Dennis Thurman," O'Neil said. "And then when I was in college, I thought Rex was going to get the Atlanta job or a couple jobs the year before he ended up getting the New York Jets job and he had contacted me and asked me if I wanted to come and then when he finally got the New York job, he hired me. I think I was there before his press conference I was so excited to get a job in the NFL.”
Ryan recalls a similar lineage, noting the close tie between Pettine and O'Neil. Ryan said he was first struck by O'Neil's intelligence and work ethic.
"When we brought him in, he was all of those things," Ryan said. "He was really in a quality-control capacity initially, very similar to Pettine and then he moved into an assistant job and then moved to a coordinating job and all that stuff. Smart guys and team guys, they’re hard to keep down. They find ways of elevating themselves, and Jim O’Neil is one of those guys. He’s got a great family and so I just think he was a great guy. I missed having him around, but he’s a good football coach and like I said a great person."
After working with Ryan with the Jets until 2012, O'Neil moved on to Buffalo, where he was linebackers coach in 2013, and Cleveland, where he was defensive coordinator the past two seasons, before arriving in San Francisco this year.
Ryan and O'Neil still keep in touch, though O'Neil said it's usually more checking in on each other and their families than it is discussing X's and O's. But Ryan's influence on O'Neil can be seen on a weekly basis in watching O'Neil's defense. O'Neil prefers a base 3-4 defense with an attacking style and multiple looks coming from different angles, much like Ryan has since he began running defenses.
"He’s just always upbeat, smart, great work ethic. He had all of that, so I’m not surprised he’s had success in the league," Ryan said. "He’s elevated to a coordinator and things like that. He always wanted to learn and I think he has a good rapport with players. I’m happy to see him in that position."