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McClain: Ryans' second offseason 'like day and night' compared to his first one as a rookie head coach

An image from the June 5, 2024 Minicamp practice at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX.
An image from the June 5, 2024 Minicamp practice at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX.

John McClain, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, is in his 48th year of covering the NFL in Houston, including 45 seasons at the Houston Chronicle.

As he prepares for his second training camp with the Texans, DeMeco Ryans didn't hesitate to respond to a question about how much difference a year can make for a head coach.

"It's like day and night," he said, smiling and shaking his head while remembering what his first offseason was like. "Man, was this offseason more comfortable for me."

Like other first-time head coaches, Ryans' head was spinning when he reported to NRG Stadium last year to work for the McNair family. He approached his new job like he approached his 10-year playing career – full speed ahead.

The responsibilities of a first-year NFL head coach like Ryans can be overwhelming. After he was hired, among his duties were interviewing coaches from Lovie Smith's staff, hiring new assistants, watching tape of Texans' players, participating in preparing for free agency and the draft and getting to know people he'd be working with on the personnel and administrative sides of the organization. And, of course, Ryans had familial responsibilities, as well.

While Ryans was doing all that, he was putting together plans for the offseason program, training camp and preseason. He found out quickly that being a first-year head coach is almost a 24/7 proposition. No matter how head coaches like Kyle Shanahan and Gary Kubiak advised him about what the transition was like for a coordinator becoming a head coach, Ryans had to learn the hard way by diving in and swimming as hard as possible. Most of the time, he felt like he was swimming upstream.

"After I was hired, there were so many administrative things going on outside of football that I couldn't really focus on being in all the meetings, getting a feel for the guys, installing (the defense) and teaching how I wanted it to be taught," he said.

Executive Vice President/General Manager Nick Caserio played a huge role in Ryans' transition from coordinator to head coach. They developed a productive working relationship that translated to the field and helped Ryans have an outstanding rookie season with a 10-7 record, an AFC South title and a wild card victory over Cleveland before being eliminated in the divisional round at Baltimore.

While learning how to be a head coach off the field, Ryans learned to rely on his coordinators – Bobby Slowik, Matt Burke and Frank Ross. He also had to learn how to delegate. With the 49ers, it was easy for Shanahan to delegate to Ryans. Last year, it was Ryans doing the delegating to assistants like Slowik, Burke and Ross.

"Delegating is huge," Ryans said. "You have to trust the guys around you. A lot of the coaches last year were new to me. I had only two (Slowik and safeties coach Stephen Adegoke) I'd worked with before. It takes time to gain their trust. Now the guys see how I want things to be done. When I delegate, I know they'll do it the proper way."

Last year, Ryans kept nine assistants from Smith's staff and hired more. He made some shrewd decisions that helped the Texans become the NFL's most surprising team, one that many locally and nationally believe will be a genuine Super Bowl contender this season even though they face a brutal first-place schedule. All Ryans knows is that many of the challenges he faced in 2023 as a first-year coach no longer exist. He can concentrate on football.

"This offseason, I was able to be in all the meetings," he said. "I've been able to coach up the guys. As we go into training camp, we have a good schedule – how we practice and how we want to do things. I got that out of the way. I don't have to deal with that because it's already set.

"A lot of the administrative things have been taken care of, which allows me to put more of my attention on football and helping to improve our team."

The Texans in general and quarterback C.J. Stroud in particular received exceptional coaching from Ryans and his staff. As a group, they should be more comfortable and confident with a year together.

"Our coaches have done an unbelievable job," Ryans said. "They've been very consistent, and I'm very happy with that. They've done an outstanding job this entire offseason from where we were last year to where we are now. A credit to our coaching.

"Our staff has been phenomenal at having their guys attentive and ready to go when we hit the field. Our players are locked in. Guys know what to do and how to do it. And that's a credit to our coaching staff."

The Texans were fortunate to keep Slowik and quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson. They were in demand, Slowik as a head coach and Johnson as an offensive coordinator. They stayed, and the McNairs rewarded them with contract extensions. Opposing general managers and head coaches were impressed with what they saw of Stroud and the offense.

Meanwhile, the defense could have as many as five new starters. That's why Caserio signed 14 defensive free agents and drafted five players on that side of the ball. The competition for starting jobs will be fierce on defense. Ryans can't wait to get started on his second training camp and preseason.

"When it comes to that second year, you always want to see growth and improvement," he said. "I think we've seen that from our offensive staff. I like the looks and things they're giving us -- stressing us on defense, making guys communicate, giving us some really tough looks – that's a credit to Bobby and what he's done with the staff. Each year we try to give coaches more and more responsibilities that give them opportunities to grow."

Ryans was satisfied with the offseason program. He's excited to get back to work because the Texans have an extra preseason game against Chicago in Canton, Ohio. He wants training camp and preseason to be a springboard to another successful season. He wants to avoid another 0-2 start like his first season.

"When we show up for training camp, our guys will have some familiarity with what we're doing," he said. "They know how to do it. They know how we practice, what we're asking of them, and we can hit the ground running when we get to training camp."

And, of course, Ryans hopes the Texans will keep on running to New Orleans for Super Bowl LIX on February 9.

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