St. Louis Rams And DC Rob Ryan: Mapping Out His Defenses In Context

Dec 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan reacts on the sidelines after the fumble was confirmed in overtime against the New Orleans Saints at Cowboys Stadium. The Saints beat the Cowboys 34-31 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan reacts on the sidelines after the fumble was confirmed in overtime against the New Orleans Saints at Cowboys Stadium. The Saints beat the Cowboys 34-31 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

With most major coaching vacancies nearly filled and only two team still alive in the 2012 post- season, the offseason task of filling out the coaching roster has already begun for most teams.  A couple of weeks ago, “reports” began to drop that the St. Louis Rams had come to an agreement with ex-Cowboys’ DC Rob Ryan, making him the new defensive coordinator of the up-and-coming Rams. At the time, Ryan reportedly had denied those claims, stated that he was “on vacation” and hadn’t “spoken to anyone.” This week, Ryan had his formal interview with Jeff Fisher and the Rams, leaving the facilities without a contract, at least for now.

Naturally, the idea of a Ryan Brother in the locker room sparked some controversy among Rams Nation, seemingly divided between whether or not the flamboyant coach would be motivation or a distraction for the young St. Louis’ defense. Some worried about his recent history running a defense out of a 3-4 base, something that the St. Louis Rams’ roster is simply not built for right now. Others questioned his overall effectiveness as a defensive coordinator, marking his short stints in both Cleveland and in Dallas as enough to slap on the “overrated” label. It’s a fair question. Truly great coordinators typically only leave their jobs for head coaching spots, not because their services are no longer needed…

The most commonly dropped figures have been Ryan’s defenses’ rankings over the years, most notably points per game, turnovers, and yards per game. Mike Sando, the ESPN columnist for the NFC West, dropped some cumulative rankings for the defenses that Ryan has coached in the NFL. At first glance, you can see that the St. Louis Rams’ defense of this past season was far superior in nearly all categories to any of those three teams. In the most important defensive statistic, points per game, a Rob Ryan defense has never finished any higher than 15th in the league, ranging anywhere from 29th with the Oakland Raiders (2004-2008) to 15th with the Cleveland Browns (2009-2010).

However, simply looking at defensive rankings is not a good indicator of Rob Ryan as a coach. To truly gauge his impact, we should look at the performance differential from year to year with his teams. For the most part, aside from coordinators being promoted, the hiring of new members coaching staff means that the team was under-performing overall. So, naturally, the defenses that Rob Ryan has taken over for haven’t exactly been the most stout. We’ll start off by looking at his Oakland Raider defenses, stretching back all the way to 2004.

In my mind there are only a handful to truly “key” statistics on the defensive side of the football: Points allowed, Yards/Game, 3rd Down %, Defensive Penalties, Time of Possession, and Turnovers (Fumbles and Interceptions). In 2003, the year before Ryan was hired as the the defensive coordinator, the Raider gave up nearly 380 points throughout the season, while committing 115 penalties. In 2004, the Raiders were actually worse in nearly every statistical category, including giving up 442 points and forcing 12 fewer turnovers from the previous season. In 2005, Ryan’s sophomore season as the defensive coordinator, the team seemed to “buy into the system.” The Raiders gave up significantly fewer points (-59 points from ’04), yards per game (-40.2 yards), and forced 36 turnovers (+12 turnovers). In 2006, the fairy tale defense only got stronger, putting up the best defensive numbers for the Oakland Raiders in nearly a decade. They played discipline football, committing only 85 penalties after accumulating at least 100 in the previous three seasons. More importantly, they allowed only 332 points, 100 points fewer than in his first season as defensive coordinator, and allowed under 300.0 yards per game to opposing offenses. To put that in perspective of this year, only the Pittsburgh Steelers  allowed fewer yards per game, only four teams had fewer penalties, and only 10 teams gave up few points.

However, in 2006 the Oakland Raiders fired then-head coach Art Shell, handing the reins of the organization to Lane Kiffin, who became the youngest head coach in Raiders’ franchise history, and was, at the time, the youngest head coach in the NFL. On top of that retrospectively bad hire, Al Davis and Kiffin used the Raiders’ first overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft on JaMarcus Russell. Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back at that draft class, the Raiders missed the opportunity to grab Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch, and Darrelle Revis; all of which were taken in the Top 15 after Oakland had made their selection.

Despite the defense forcing 27 turnovers, the Raider’s would finish out the 2007 season with a -11 turnover differential, including a league-high 42 fumbles. As a result, the defense took a step back, allowing 398 points on the season. Sadly, the 2008 season, which would be Ryan’s last in Oakland, was not much better. The team fired Lane Kiffin on October 1st, promoting the then-offensive line coach, Tom Cable, to interim head coach. The offense was one of the worst in the league, averaging a mere 272.2 yard per game and amassing only 263 points throughout the season. Ryan would be let go at the end of the season, making his way to Cleveland.

In 2009, the Browns had just relieved Romeo Crennel of his head coaching duties, bringing in Eric Mangini as head coach and George Kokinis as general manager (although that only lasted until Week 8 of the regular season). Needless to say, the opening year of Ryan’s tenure was less than stellar. However, in 2010, his second season with the Browns, their defense saw significant improvements. Coincidentally, that was also the first time that the Browns had sunk significant time and money into a position other than the quarterback. They picked up D’Qwell Jackson off of free agency and traded for Scott Fujita from the New Orleans Saints and for both Sheldon Brown and Chris Gocong from Philadelphia. On top of that, Cleveland used their first two picks in the 2010 NFL Draft on T.J. Ward and Joe Haden. With the revamped squad, the Browns’ defense was one of the best of Ryan’s career, allowing only 332 points, decreasing their allowed yards per game by nearly 40 yards, and cutting their defensive penalties from 101 to only 85 from 2009 to the 2010 season.

However, even with the visible improvement on both the offensive and defensive side of the football, the Brown dumped Eric Mangini after his second season, handing the reins to ex-St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur (who has since been fired, as well). Dick Jauron took over for Rob Ryan, who was promptly given the defensive coordinator position in Dallas.

Ryan went where his services were desperately needed, on a Cowboys team that gave up 436 points in 2010 and allowed over 350 yards per game to opposing offenses. A relative turnaround in Dallas did not take long, allowing only 347 points in following season, and staying below the 350 yards per game allowed mark. In 2012, the Cowboys continued to trend in that position direction, until a wave of injuries swept through the Cowboys defense, including Bruce Carter and Sean Lee to IR, and having to deal with an injured DeMarcus Ware for a majority of the season. On top of it all, the Cowboys offense was hot-and-cold throughout the season, personified by the constantly trending “Romo-ing” to describe the ill-timed interceptions thrown by Tony Romo throughout the season. Marred by a defense pressed with the consistently bad field position, a severely depleted linebacking core, and a dysfunctional owner and head coach, Ryan was dismissed at the end of the season, where he remains unemployed to this day, at least for now.

Rob Ryan has not been a defensive mastermind by any stretch of the imagination, but he has fared well in rebuilding a pathetic defense into a respectable squad of players. Ryan has been plagued by dysfunctional front offices throughout his career, starting with Al Davis in Oakland and ended with Jerry Jones in Dallas. As a defensive coordinator in the NFL, Ryan has never had the same head coach for more than two consecutive seasons, which has led to drastic turnover in the coaching staffs, game planning, drafting, and inevitably, the players on the field. Still, he has been able to steadily improve the defenses of every team that he been apart of so far in his career. With a grounded organization, having stability in both in the front office and at head coach, and with a defense that is already well within the upper tier of league, there is no telling how Rob Ryan would fare…

Here are the numbers that were referenced throughout the article:

Note that the figured in parentheses are negative changes in performance, with the exception of those calculations relating to turnovers (i.e. fumbles and interceptions).  Also, only the highlighted years are one in which Rob Ryan was the defensive coordinator for the teams (i.e. Ryan was not the DC of the Oakland Raiders in 2003).

Total PointsYards per Game3rd Down %PenaltiesTime of Possession per GameFumblesInterceptions
Oakland Raiders
Cleveland Browns
Dallas Cowboys