Feb 2, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans head coach Demeco Ryans listens to a question from the media during his introductory press conference at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
John McClain: Ward watched Ryans grow as a 49ers’ assistant, predicts he’ll do an ‘amazing job’ with the Texans
In 2017, defensive back Jimmie Ward was entering his fourth season with the 49ers when Kyle Shanahan was hired to be his third head coach after Jim Harbaugh and Jim Tomsula. That instability in San Francisco’s coaching staff allowed Ward to build a seven-year relationship with DeMeco Ryans that brought them to Houston to help turn around the Texans the way they did with the 49ers.
From 2017 through the 2022 season, Ward watched Ryans grow as an assistant coach in charge of defensive quality control and then linebackers before Shanahan promoted him to defensive coordinator to replace Robert Saleh, who left the 49ers to become the Jets’ head coach. In January, five teams with coaching vacancies pursued Ryans before he signed a six-year contract to return to Houston, where he played linebacker for the first six years (2006-11) of his career under Gary Kubiak.
Ward, whose contract expired after last season, elected to follow Ryans to the Texans. During his nine seasons with the 49ers, Ward played free safety, strong safety, and nickel cornerback. He prefers safety but focused on nickel cornerback last season, covering slot receivers in Ryans’ defense. Ryans and new defensive coordinator Matt Burke are expected to play Ward at safety next to Jalen Pitre.
During a recent session with the media, Ward looked back on his career playing for Ryans. Even though Ryans played 10 seasons with the Texans and Eagles, he was eager to make the transition into coaching and wanted to learn as much as possible as soon as he arrived at the team’s facility in Santa Clara.
“For him to be a coach, he was coachable,” Ward said. “You (could) criticize him (and) he’d take it and learn from it. He had a great sense of humor.
“I watched him and coach Kyle’s (Shanahan) relationship, and when he got that defensive coordinator job, he stepped right into the shoes. He had some pretty big shoes to fill because Saleh was a pretty good defensive coordinator, too. We didn’t lose a beat. I think we actually got better. Now, it’s his first time being a head coach, and I feel like he’s going to do an amazing job.”
Ryans was a fast learner. With experience came improvement. He didn’t realize it, but he was being fast-tracked to becoming an NFL head coach. After his fifth season with the 49ers, Ryans interviewed for Minnesota’s head-coaching job. He turned down a chance to interview a second time because he thought he needed more experience as a defensive coordinator, and the job went to Kevin O’Connell. A lot about Ryans’ style impressed Ward.
“I saw him really trusting his calls,” Ward said. “Sometimes he would (make) a certain call and (wouldn’t) be as aggressive, and the next year, he started switching stuff up. He started playing to his defense. If he felt like something didn’t work, he’d throw it out. It doesn’t matter if we were good at it the last game, good at it last week, good at it last year, he started calling plays that fit his defense.”
Ryans didn’t play favorites with the 49ers and isn’t expected to with the Texans, either. It’s not his style, no matter how many honors a player has earned or how many millions he makes.
“To be honest, he’ll call you out,” Ward said. “I feel like no matter the age, no matter how good a guy is — All-Pro, Pro Bowl — you’ve got to be able to take criticism. You’ve got to be able to be coachable.”
Ward believes Ryans’ approach has a lot to do with what he learned during his decorated 10-year playing career.
“That’s one guy who played this game and played it for a long time,” Ward said. “He knows what you’ve been through. That’s one guy that a lot of guys look up to. A lot of guys want to play 10 years in this league. A lot of guys want to be a starting player on defense/offense/special teams for that long in this league. He’s a role model to a lot of guys. That’s why it’s easy to listen to DeMeco. That’s why it’s easy for him to push us, too.”
The Texans have a lot of young players on defense – Pitre, cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., linebacker Christian Harris, and end Will Anderson Jr. – who are expected to become starters next season. Ward, who turns 32 in July, knows one of the reasons he was brought to NRG Stadium.
“To be honest, to be an extra coach,” he said. “Obviously, I know this defense. Just try to bring the younger guys along because I’ve been through a lot going on my 10th year in this league. Really just try to explain to them my experiences.”
As the defensive back with the most experience, Ward will mentor Stingley and Pitre, both of whom are entering their second seasons.
“The main thing I’m going to do is tell them how to take care of their body because I’ve been through a lot of injuries,” Ward said. “Tell them to take care of their body and stay clearheaded. Things are going to happen in this league. And just let them know it’s a marathon. Right now, it’s OTAs. We’re building up, don’t peak too early (and) peak at the right time.”
As a safety, Ward is going to get a good look at Anderson’s development. General manager Nick Caserio traded up to get the third overall pick in the draft from Arizona so the Texans could select Anderson, who should be their best pass rusher.
“You know what type of defense we’re running,” Ward said about the emphasis on linemen. “It’s run through the front. The more guys you got up there that can get after the quarterback, it makes it way easier for the DBs, way easier for the linebackers.
“We got two studs (quarterback C.J. Stroud and Anderson). Those are game-changers. Those are franchise players right there. I think Nick and Meco did an amazing job.”
Now it’s time for Ward to do an amazing job as a defensive leader helping Ryans and his coaches during the offseason program, training camp, and preseason as the Texans try to show significant improvement over last season’s team that produced only three victories.
(John McClain writes four columns a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).