IRVING, Texas – Diplomatic words are a hallmark of any game week interview, but there's no denying the smirk.
Coaches and players from both the Cowboys and Saints have been asked for their opinion of Rob Ryan this week, as Dallas prepares to face its fiery old defensive coordinator on Sunday night. To a man, the answers to those questions have been preceded by a smile or a small laugh.
"There is an enthusiasm that comes with him that I really enjoy," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "He's someone who works well within the framework of the staff that's been outstanding. I think our players have responded well to him."
Those knowing smiles probably have something to do with Ryan's boisterous and unmistakable demeanor -- both on the sidelines and just as a general rule. It marked him during two seasons in charge of the Cowboys' defense in 2011 and 2012, and it has followed him to New Orleans, where he has taken the Saints from last in the league in total defense to fifth this year.
"I love Rob – I think he's awesome," said Drew Brees. "I love his approach, I love his attitude. He's kind of brought a swagger and a confidence, and kind of a good spirit to the defense."
That sentiment wasn't just echoed by the Saints players who are seeing the benefits of Ryan's employment. Jason Hatcher laughed when asked about his inevitable pregame meeting with his old coach.
"I'm going to say 'What up, dawg?' I'm going to say 'That's my dawg.' He knows it. That's my dawg," Hatcher said. "Just the relationship me and him had on and off the field, he did a lot for my career. He's just one of those guys that came in and believed in me right away."
Orlando Scandrick, typically reserved in the locker room, lit up when asked about seeing Ryan.
"That guy was one of the best coaches I ever had, man. I had great times with him," he said. "I'm looking forward to seeing him and just seeing how he's doing." Of course, the assumption is that Ryan, with his swagger and attitude, will put special significance on this weekend's clash. As is well-documented by now, the Cowboys fired their then-defensive coordinator somewhat unceremoniously, informing him by phone that he'd been let go after his injury-plagued defense finished 19th in the league last year.
"The logistics of those decisions can be challenging sometimes, because of the timing and then where everybody is," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "One of the things that we always try to do in our organization is – everyone understands the nature of the business – you try to handle your business the right way. And sometimes you can't handle it ideally, exactly the way you want to handle it." [embedded_ad]
For his part, Garrett said there's no animosity since Ryan's departure, going as far as to say the friendship hasn't ended since the decision to bring in Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli to spearhead a new defensive scheme.
"Oh, it didn't end – it's an ongoing relationship I have a great deal of respect for Rob, as a coach and a person," Garrett said. "I have a great deal of affection for him and the job he did when he was here as our defensive coordinator. He and I have stayed in touch, and he's a great guy."
Whether you care to classify it as a grudge match or not, there's no denying the familiarity there. Ryan worked against and alongside Garrett's offenses and Tony Romo for two years, and there's little doubt the Cowboys are well-versed in Ryan's 3-4 schemes and preferences.
"That's like playing teams in your division. You're familiar with each other. Who has the advantage? Well, all it means is you're familiar with each other," Garrett said. You know some of the things that he likes, but he knows some of the things that we've done in the past. You act accordingly with that knowledge."
How the Cowboys decide to proceed will be interesting indeed. New Orleans' secondary is fourth in the league, allowing an average of just 211 passing yards per game.
But the Saints' No. 20 run defense is allowing 121 yards on the ground per week – exactly the opposite strengths of the Cowboys' No. 5 passing game and No. 26 rushing game.
"Whether that means you continue to do the same thing or you try to use that to your advantage and say, 'OK, he thinks we're going to do this, so you do that.' Whatever," Garrett said. "So you kind of play that chess game in your preparation and certainly during the game."
Between the fire and the familiarity, it's undoubtedly a juicy storyline. Sunday's game will determine who's smiling when it has played out.