RICHMOND — The Redskins were leaving the field after a recent training camp session when a family cheered and called out to Rob Ryan. Ryan walked over, and pretty soon, he was signing autographs — not a common request for an NFL position coach to fulfill.
He removed his hat, revealing more of his famous silver locks, and drew another round of cheers.
“I’m always happy to do it,” Ryan said. “Somebody asks for my autograph, it’s like, ‘All right. You’re sure you want it?’”
For two years, Ryan’s famous name and hair weren’t enough to land him a new NFL job, his record as a defensive coordinator perhaps too checkered. But in Washington, Ryan is in charge of inside linebackers — just a year after he took a detour from his NFL comeback to work at his brother-in-law’s shipyard.
Through it all, he never wondered whether his coaching days were numbered.
“This is where I wanted to be. I’m a pro coach,” Ryan said. “So I was fortunate to get this job. I’m happy to be here, excited, but I never lost confidence. No way.”
On the docks
Ryan’s last NFL job ended in 2016 when the Buffalo Bills fired him and his brother Rex. Rob was Rex’s assistant coach in charge of the defense in Buffalo, following stints as defensive coordinator in Oakland, Cleveland, Dallas and New Orleans, which never produced enviable results. The Saints, for instance, fired him in November 2015 as they went on to finish with one of the worst pass defenses in history.
While out of the league, Ryan kept busy with broadcasting, his gregarious nature a fit for that line of work. He hosted a radio show and worked as an NFL analyst for British outlet Sky Sports.
But in the summer of 2018, Ryan lived with his wife’s family in San Diego and got to talking with his brother-in-law, Paul Ralph. Ralph owns YYK and Bay City Marine, two multimillion-dollar ship-repair companies that work with the U.S. Navy.
The work sounded intriguing to Ryan — intriguing enough for him to sign up and help Ralph’s 520-some employees at YYK.
“Shoot, I’ve worked my whole life,” Ryan said. “I’ve done hot tar roofing, delivered papers, unloaded Pepsi-Cola trucks. I worked in factories.”
Ryan was also drawn in by the “alpha males” there, strong men that reminded him of NFL players. “Sometimes you just need a little extra testosterone,” he said.
Ralph’s employees knew who Ryan was — some had even met him at previous company events like barbecues. YYK’s clients knew him too. Naturally, they wanted to talk football.
“Imagine Rob walking into NASSCO (the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company) and guys recognizing him, because he’s so recognizable, and just wanting to get a moment of his time,” Ralph told The Washington Times. “He has such a mayor-like quality that everybody really is engaged by his conversation.”
Ryan likes to say that he didn’t perform much taxing manual labor at YYK, but Ralph insists he “wasn’t just there for some kind of handout.” He worked on whatever the assignment was that week, whether painting, stripping old paint, cleaning or otherwise.
There was something else Ryan got to do at YYK — a bit of coaching.
“On occasion, we’d give him a little window of opportunity to do a little vignette about a certain situation that he would relate to teamwork,” Ralph said. “How potentially there was a challenge, maybe emotionally, or maybe a fundamental challenge or a routine that wasn’t being followed. And he related it to one of our current challenges.”
The men were “stoked,” Ralph said, to know that, as blue-collar workers, they had challenges similar to those faced by their favorite NFL players.
Ryan, for his part, is fond of his time on the docks.
“There’s a lot of great people in the world and they’re not all football players,” he said.
On the sidelines again
But the docks weren’t where Ryan was destined to stay. The annual NFL coaching churn began in January, and rather than waiting for a call, Ryan phoned Jay Gruden, who had a new opening to fill.
“I knew they lost their linebacker coach, and I’m like, ‘There’s no better linebacker coach in football than me,’” Ryan said. “I went and called Jay and it worked out great.”
Gruden’s office at the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center is next door to Ryan’s linebacker room. Needless to say, he listens in.
“I hear him teaching these guys and he’s an excellent teacher, communicator,” Gruden said. “He brings a great energy to our defense and our team, a passion for the game. Being out of the game, I think, for about a year or so really made him realize how much he missed it and how much he loves it, so it’s great to have him on staff.”
Ryan could have been working with Reuben Foster and Mason Foster in Washington, but the former tore his ACL at OTAs and the latter was released the day before camp. So Ryan’s task this year involves preparing a new pair of projected starters, Jon Bostic and Shaun Dion Hamilton.
“Jon’s been around a while. Shaun Dion, the sky’s the limit,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s idiosyncrasies are so well-known that rookie linebacker Cole Holcomb impersonated him for his rookie skit, a hazing tradition around the NFL. Holcomb planned his skit for weeks, buying a gray wig on Amazon and packing some extra pillows for camp to stuff under his shirt.
The bit included claiming he downed “six hot dogs and 20 beers” at a baseball game — and swearing every couple words.
“He said it was perfect,” Holcomb said. “To a tee, I was Rob Ryan.”
But Holcomb is also in awe of his first NFL position coach, saying Ryan’s scheme knowledge is “light years ahead.” Bostic added that he appreciates Ryan being an “old-school” coach.
“A guy that’s been around it that long, he’s able to say, ‘You know what, you’re a longer guy, you’re taller. Instead of you doing (something) this way, let’s have you do it this way. This might be a little bit better for you,’” Bostic said. “He understands us as players. Everybody’s different.”
Ryan’s boisterous enthusiasm, his trademark over the years, whether around ship workers or football players and coaches, never wanes.
“I love these guys. I’m never gonna let them down,” he said of his new team. “I’m gonna be the best hand I can be. I want to help as much as I can. I died and went to heaven.”