From 50 Cent to showerheads: DeMeco Ryans’ Texans turnaround

HOUSTON -- Brevin Jordan jogged off the field in frustration.

The Houston Texans tight end had just run the wrong route, and when he reached the sidelines, he screamed. The echoing expletive was loud enough to catch coach DeMeco Ryans' attention.

"DeMeco turned around and was like, 'Next play. It's over with. We're coming right back to you,'" Jordan told ESPN.

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During the following series, offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik called the same play. This time, Jordan ran the correct route and quarterback C.J. Stroud found him as he bolted into the end zone untouched to put the Texans up 10-0 against the Tennessee Titans.

"For me, I don't know if coaches understand how much that means to a player. To hear that, [it shows] my coach trusts me. He's done that multiple times with me," Jordan said. "He goes out of his way to talk to us to build our confidence. Dudes need that. When you hear that from the head man, you're like, 'Man, I'm about to go bust these boys ass.'"

The first-year coach created a leadership council -- led by Stroud, running back Devin Singletary, wide receiver Robert Woods and others -- to keep a pulse on the team and make weekly adjustments.

The changes come in all forms. It could be as easy as fixing the showerheads in the locker room because the water pressure was too intense. The council brought this concern to Ryans, and he took care of it, proving to the players he's listening.

"It might seem small, but that's just the type of guy he is," Singletary told ESPN.

From the beginning, Ryans made it clear his coaching style would be engulfed with positivity. That approach is why the Texans (10-7) are AFC South champs for the first time since 2019 and hosting a playoff game against the Cleveland Browns on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, NBC) at NRG Stadium. He is the 27th first-year coach to win their division since the 1970 merger.

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That moment of affirmation from Ryans to Jordan has been a common occurrence.

"I told the guys they were going to be treated like men. We're going to be respectful as a coaching staff," Ryans, a 39-year-old former linebacker, told ESPN. "We're going to tell you the truth, and everything we do is going to be positive. It's going to be positive reinforcement and positive feedback. I let them know that. I don't want my coaching staff cussing out players or demeaning players because that isn't helpful."

RYANS' COACHING STYLE has captured buy-in from his team.

The defense improved from the 27th-ranked scoring defense (24.7 points) last season to 11th (20.8). He helped improve a run defense that allowed the sixth-most total rushing yards (2,894) in history in 2022 to having the sixth-best run defense, allowing 1,643 yards in 2023, and the second-fewest yards per rush (3.5).

In addition, Ryans built a staff to develop his rookie quarterback, who finished the season with 4,108 passing yards -- the third most for a rookie behind Andrew Luck (4,374 in 2012) and Justin Herbert (4,336 in 2020). Stroud's six 300-yard passing games were tied with Luck and two behind Herbert for the most all time by a rookie, and he became the first rookie to lead the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (23:5).

Ryans' infectious energy permeates the organization, giving it belief that Houston can avenge a Week 16 loss to the Browns (11-6) -- this time in the wild-card round of the playoffs -- with the season on the line.

"The energy that I feel from our team right now. Everybody's calm. Everybody's confident. Everybody has positive energy," Ryans said. "Our team is together. And I was hoping we could get to [this] because I know when you get a tight team like this, you get the best team. You see the smiles. The guys enjoy working with each other. That's what I was searching for. That's what I was trying to instill, and it's here now."

Two weeks prior to the Browns game, the Texans could have folded. They were 7-6 coming off a loss in which Stroud was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter with a concussion. The concussion would keep Stroud out of the Browns game and that Week 15 matchup with the Titans, leaving Ryans with a decision to make on who would start at quarterback -- Davis Mills or Case Keenum.

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Many assumed Mills would get the nod, but Ryans was coy all week, saying, "Davis has done a good job with everything that we've asked him to do."

But behind closed doors, Ryans was leaning toward starting Keenum -- who hadn't started a game since 2021. Ryans demanded that his team keep the information inside the building to gain a competitive advantage.

"I want you to know at the last possible second," Ryans said, "so you're not strategizing to practice for Case Keenum and then go back and look at all his film. No, that's going to be at the last minute. ... So, for me, keep it as tight as possible to [help us] get the win."

The news that Keenum would start broke Saturday morning, but it still left Tennessee with little time to game-plan.

The Texans defeated the Titans, 19-16, as Keenum threw for 226 yards with a pick-six but tossed the game-tying touchdown to wide receiver Noah Brown to send it into overtime. He led the game-winning drive in the extra period highlighted by a 41-yard completion to Singletary.

"It's competition. It's strategy," Ryans said. "For me, when it comes to who's available, what are we doing, why do we do this? I don't feel like you should give the opponent anything. They're searching all the interviews. ... I just like to keep everything tight and keep everything in-house. And let's just go out and do our thing. I was never in the mindset that you got to do all this talking about what you're going to do. Just show up."

RYANS WAS MAKING calls and connecting with his players and the rest of the Texans' organization after he took over in late January.

Fast forward to the days shortly after Houston made Stroud the No. 2 overall pick, Ryans met with his future face of the franchise in his office. The coach, as he has been able to do with many of his players, was able to connect with Stroud through faith.

"It was just about staying steadfast and just staying on your course," Stroud said. "And it just resonated with what I was going through at the time, so it was just cool to see a coach open up about his faith, you know, and not shy away from it. It was cool to bond over that."

Throughout the season, Ryans also provided a comforting space for wide receiver John Metchie III.

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Metchie made his NFL debut this season in Week 2, but he had an uphill battle to get there. Metchie heard his name called in late April during the second round of the 2022 draft, but come July, he was diagnosed with leukemia, causing him to miss his entire rookie season which he said led to "a lot of frustration."

As a decorated college player coming out of Alabama, he found himself dwelling on his lack of production this season. It simply wasn't something to which he was accustomed.

"DeMeco being open with me and talking to me and showing me how to take things step-by-step, day by day and things like that, that's something I needed to hear in times like that.

"It's been great having DeMeco, especially in my process."

Personal connections were one thing, instilling a winning culture similar to the one he learned in his six-year stint with the San Francisco 49ers in various coaching roles was another. He poured that teaching into the Texans, who went 11-38-1 from 2020 to 2022 when they fired three coaches in a row: Bill O'Brien, David Culley and Lovie Smith.

Ryans' daily message centered on consistency and improving on the little things, as he held everyone accountable and wouldn't play favorites. Even Stroud.

But it's all strategic.

Houston coach DeMeco Ryans and the Texans are set to host Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski and the Browns on Saturday in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Tim Warner/Getty Images

During OTAs Stroud missed a read, and it was something Ryans pointed out during a team meeting. The next day Stroud adjusted, and when the play was called, he threw a touchdown.

"He's not trying to embarrass nobody," safety Jalen Pitre said. "He understands the end goal and that we're all trying to do this together. Nobody is intentionally out there just messing stuff up.

"He's going to make sure that he lets you know that you did wrong and makes you understand how to fix it. But it's no belittling or anything like that. You can do nothing but respect that and just try to get better."

Ryans is relatable, but he's not a pushover -- with one player calling those long summer days the "hardest training camp of my life." He also made his players earn their spots.

Stroud competed with Mills throughout camp to be the starting quarterback. The competition went through training camp and extended until the former Ohio State standout was named the starter after the final preseason game.

These principles of accountability, focusing on the small details to improve, not playing favorites, daily consistency and positive reinforcement factored in helping the Texans dig out of an 0-2 hole to start the season, where they were outscored 56-29.

There were times throughout the season when he saw the team failing to execute in practice. He would make them repeat plays until they got it right, and sometimes that would extend to the next day.

"Some people will say, 'We'll get it later.' But [Ryans] is coming back right at the end of the practice, letting us know that's not good enough," Singletary said. "Letting us know we got to get on that now and don't let it linger 'til game day."

ALL OF THESE things are testaments and examples of what Ryans has brought, but defensive end Jerry Hughes, who was a part of last season's team that went 3-13-1, made it all sound so simple: "We got a head coach."

"You got somebody that's invested in the team and the organization and somebody who wants to win," Hughes said. "He's always got a smile, always wanting to teach guys."

One of Ryans' most recent motivation tactics came the Wednesday before their Week 18 win over the Indianapolis Colts that clinched the division and punched their ticket into the playoffs.

The magnitude of the game was great, so he summoned rap mogul 50 Cent to speak to the team on Zoom.

"I ain't gonna lie, that was hard. I ain't never seen 50 in person," Texans leading receiver Nico Collins said. "That was cool to see. He had a great message for us, and [we] took that and built on it. That was big time."

Four quarters later, the Texans came out on top, 23-17. They finished the season 7-3 in one-score games, and only the Pittsburgh Steelers (nine) and Philadelphia Eagles (eight) had more wins in close games.

A loss would have ended the season. A loss would have meant all of the momentum Ryans created in a year's span would have left them in the same position they'd been in for the past three seasons -- out of the playoffs.

Instead, his first visit to Lucas Oil Stadium as the head coach of Houston, an organization that he starred for as a player from 2006 to 2011, resulted in a high.

"For us to accomplish what we set out to accomplish, of getting that spot in the playoffs, I know what it meant to each and every one of our players, each and every one of our support staff," Ryans said. "It meant a lot to everyone in our entire organization."


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