Strauss: Not getting Ryan is good news for Rams

8 hours ago • By JOE STRAUSS jstrauss@post-dispatch.com

Whew.

That was a close one, maybe too close.

The Rams and a potential monumental mistake parted ways Tuesday morning when head coach Jeff Fisher and freshly minted defensive coordinator Rob Ryan agreed that their match was made somewhere other than heaven.

For all Fisher has accomplished in a year in Earth City, he came frighteningly close to taking a gamble that offered much more risk than reward. The Rams have built positive momentum via a series of solid player personnel decisions, a more credible offensive scheme and a more collegial culture.

A franchise that represented five splayed fingers for much of the past decade became a fist in the latter stages of its encouraging 7-8-1 season. It was a team that wanted more at schedule’s end after playing division elites San Francisco and Seattle to a virtual draw during its final seven weeks.

Either out of loyalty or a belief that Ryan offered as much substance as style, Fisher was willing to bring the demonstrative, outspoken, exiled Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator into the building to lead a veteran staff committed to a 4-3 defensive scheme.

The parties had reached agreement in principal on a contract last week. Ryan attended a Blues game Sunday and toasted his image on the matrix. Rob’s brother, Jim, appeared on local sports talk radio to discuss his sibling’s hire.

Thankfully, reality intervened sometime Monday.

The 3-4 defense is Ryan’s professional thumbprint. He ran it with the Cleveland Browns and with the Cowboys. In neither place did the scheme enjoy great success. Discarding it eventually became anathema.

Only once in his nine seasons as a coordinator did a Ryan defense finish among the league’s top 10 – strangely enough, while he ran a 4-3 defense for the Oakland Raiders.

Ryan surely would have been good TV. He works a sideline like a man fleeing a fire – disheveled, screaming, hair flowing in all directions. He would have given good microphone to fatuous broadcast outlets that once thought the hire of Steve Spagnuolo as head coach to be divine inspiration. Win, lose or tie, Sundays would never be boring.

Then again, Ryan himself may also have become the inferno, sucking the oxygen out of the room.

It is interesting to note even the franchise’s most ardent backers couched their support of Ryan’s hire by quickly mentioning that Fisher would exercise adult supervision. Ryan might call the plays but the scheme would remain property of the head coach. Somehow that didn’t fit the profile of a coordinator who claimed after his Jan. 8 firing, “I’ll be out of work for like five minutes.”

Today marks 22 days.

It’s been a long time since one could say there is more to like than dislike about the Rams. Remarkably, the Rams have reached that stage after Fisher’s inaugural season as their head coach. Continuity now seems more appropriate than combustion.

Their current defensive scheme served the Rams extremely well. It tied for the league lead with 52 sacks and led the NFL outright in plays for negative yardage. Outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar became a free agent find. The Rams permitted only 32 pass plays of 20-plus yards. (Only the Pittsburgh Steelers allowed fewer.) First-round rush monsters Chris Long and Robert Quinn framed the four-man front. Next season’s personnel appear written in pen, not pencil as the Rams only project needs at free safety and strongside linebacker.

In other words, it ain’t broke.

Fisher’s term in St. Louis has been seamless except for his search for a defensive boss. He named former Tennessee confidante Gregg Williams shortly before the league indicted him as the ringmaster of a bounty system in New Orleans. When Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Williams for the 2012 season, Fisher audibled by naming Williams’ son, Blake, to the position. Raw people skills contributed to the younger Williams’ ouster immediately after the season. The elder Williams did not receive a second invitation.

Maybe Ryan ultimately could have adapted to a new scheme and won over a tight-knit, holdover staff.

Maybe his tweaks would have improved an already solid defense by enhancing its unpredictability.

Then again, Ryan’s lengthy résumé remains heavier on bluster than gravitas.

Incensed that his 8-8 team missed the playoffs, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn’t think a crush of serious injuries explained away 400 points allowed.

Indeed, Ryan would have arrived having never coached a playoff defense. At some point, “They gave me crappy players” doesn’t spiff up a résumé.

The Rams were prepared to announce Ryan’s hiring at an afternoon news conference until the new man contacted Fisher with misgivings.

Though they took the unusual step of announcing Ryan’s un-hire via social media, the Rams probably won’t publicly comment about Tuesday’s quickie divorce. The franchise instead announced via prepared statement the hire of former Houston Texans defensive coordinator Frank Bush as linebackers coach. One can only assume Bush’s hire was independent of the pas de deux with Ryan.

Fisher meanwhile initiated a second search for a coordinator – either a veteran presence (read: Dick Jauron) or a younger, malleable 30-something talent. Whoever is Fisher’s next target, he will pose fewer potential snares than the first.

Credit Ryan for his honesty. Unofficially already hired, he met with his position coaches Monday at Rams Park, drawing up schemes, receiving feedback and continuing to read the room well after the meeting adjourned. Perhaps Ryan spoke the 4-3 language, but one must wonder whether it sounded like a warmed-over 3-4. The Rams excelled on defense this season because players’ responsibilities handsomely fit their skill set. (Remember, this team sent no player to the Pro Bowl.) Tweaking those responsibilities could set in motion an unwelcome domino effect that exposes weakness rather than augmenting strength.

It is instructive Ryan remained in town four days after agreeing in principal to a multi-year contract but phoned Fisher mere hours after Monday’s meeting.

Ultimately, Ryan reached the same conclusion many others formed long before Tuesday: He may indeed be a sagacious defensive mind that helps transform a team into a Super Bowl contender, even a participant. But for Ryan, that defense shouldn’t be the Rams’. Not now.