Winter 2022

Sustained by Christ, DC DeMeco Ryans leads 49ers to NFC championship game

There’s an old and oft-repeated football maxim in the NFL. It goes like this: “Defense wins championships.” If so, the San Francisco 49ers must like their chances.

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On Sunday in San Francisco, the 49ers scraped out a 19-12 victory against their historic rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, to advance to the NFC championship game (their third in four years) against the Philadelphia Eagles. Two of the top six scoring offenses in the NFL were neutralized much of the afternoon and combined for only two touchdowns.

Meanwhile, the defenses shined, especially San Francisco’s. Ranked No. 1 in the league in yards allowed (300.6), points allowed (16.3) and interceptions (20) during the regular season, the opportunistic 49ers picked off Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott twice in the first half (once in the red zone), and allowed only three points in the decisive fourth quarter. Both interceptions led to 49ers field goals.

San Francisco’s stifling defense is led by defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans.

The 38-year-old Ryans is in only his sixth season coaching the 49ers (his second as the defensive coordinator) after a stellar playing career in which he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2007 and 2009 as a linebacker. Yet despite his relative inexperience in coaching, his speedy turnaround of the 49ers defense has garnered the attention of the rest of the NFL and made his name a popular one in discussions about head coaching vacancies.

“It’s very humbling to be able to get requests for head coaching interviews,” Ryans said on Jan. 11, according to NBC Sports. “… It’s special to be able to be in a select group, to have head coaching interviews and people requesting. It’s a special moment. It’s a proud moment and I’m very thankful and grateful just to be spoken of in that light. I’m very humble, very grateful, for those opportunities.”

In fact, Ryans was set to have a very busy Saturday with four head coaching interviews lined up.

According to FOX’s Jay Glazer, Ryans completed the first two with the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans (the team who drafted Ryans and where he played from 2006-11). Then, he canceled the next two with the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts citing a desire to focus on San Francisco’s game with Dallas the next day.

During Ryans’ rapid rise in the coaching ranks, he’s been sure to participate in coaches’ Bible studies led by 49ers team chaplain Earl Smith and speak publicly about his faith in Jesus.

“It just reminds you that you got to keep the main thing the main thing,” Ryans told Sports Spectrum in 2020 about the Bible study. “That’s why we’re all here, and that’s by the grace of God. Why are we in the position that we’re in? Why are we able to do what we do? That’s by God blessing us with this awesome opportunity to reach back and teach these young men, help these young men, but we have to stay grounded in the Word.

“We can get caught up in our work, a lot of long hours, a lot of long days, but you can’t forget what sustains us, and that’s Jesus Christ.”

Ryans, who calls himself a “God fearing husband, father, and coach” in his Twitter bio, credits his mother for instilling in him the importance of faith when he was a child. As he got older, he realized faith needed be the most important thing.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m so happy for my mom instilling that into me at a young age,” Ryans told Sports Spectrum, “because now as I continue to grow older and older, that’s the only thing that truly matters. That’s the only thing — our relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Ryans clings to Who truly matters, even as teams around the NFL clamor for his attention. They’ll have to wait another week, and for that, Ryans is glad; it means his 49ers have another game to play.

San Francisco’s matchup with No. 1-seeded Philadelphia will present another big test for Ryans and his defense, as the Jalen-Hurts-led Eagles ranked No. 3 in the NFL in scoring offense (28.1) during the regular season.

The NFC title game is set for Sunday at 3 p.m. ET.

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