He's always worried about: How do we feel about this? How do we like this look? And if we don't like something, say something. He understands that we play the game and if we're not comfortable, then it's not going to work. —Saints safety Roman Harper, on defensive coordinator Rob Ryan
METAIRIE, La. — From his long, gray hair flaring out of the back of his hat to his periodic brash statements, Rob Ryan presents himself as a renegade who does things his own way and doesn't care what anyone else thinks.
Yet those who've been around the Saints' new defensive coordinator for a while don't necessarily see him that way.
As Ryan aims to turn around a unit that allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season, he has sought regular input from his charges. His players list his willingness to listen to their ideas among his top attributes, and say they appreciate being consulted.
"He's always worried about: How do we feel about this? How do we like this look? And if we don't like something, say something," safety Roman Harper said after Thursday's practice. "He understands that we play the game and if we're not comfortable, then it's not going to work."
Even his hairstyle isn't entirely of his own making.
"Who are we kidding? The wife likes it long," he said.
Ryan learned defense and much of what he knows about football from his father, Buddy Ryan, who won Super Bowls as a defensive coach with the New York Jets and Chicago Bears, and who was head coach of three playoff teams in Philadelphia, all of them known for having one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Ryan said he and his brother Rex, the head coach of the Jets, both tend to work collaboratively with players because of their father's influence.
"I've only been in the league 16 years," Ryan began, somewhat sarcastically, "But I've been around it my whole life.
"The greatest defensive coach that ever coached is my dad. ... I watched how he was and the biggest thing he told me and my brother is: 'Be yourself,'" Ryan said. "We know we're good and we're confident, but we're smart and we don't mind sharing anything. When you have smart veteran players and they're seeing things differently, they're the ones on the field."
Ryan spent the past two seasons in Dallas, where his defenses ranked in the middle of the league in yards allowed — 14th in 2011 and 18th in 2012. He was fired after last season, but was not out of work long.
Saints head coach Sean Payton, looking to change his team's scheme from a 4-3 (four linemen, three linebackers) to a 3-4, hired Ryan in early February.
Payton, who has been known to work closely with star quarterback Drew Brees on offensive game plans, said Ryan's approach toward soliciting player input fits with the Saints' overall approach.
"We, as teachers, as coaches, always want to have feedback," Payton said. "That would be our philosophy. ... One of Rob's strengths is his ability to communicate with a player and make them feel good about what they're doing."
The 50-year-old Ryan has run 3-4 schemes for years. He worked as a linebacker coach in such defenses in New England, where he was part of two Super Bowl-winning teams. He then spent five seasons as defensive coordinator in Oakland (2004-2008), followed by two seasons in Cleveland before moving to Dallas in 2011.
Ryan's players routinely praise his passionate, fun-loving and aggressive approach to coaching defense. Saints players also noted that Ryan has studied a number of blitzes the Saints ran well under former coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-11, and brought elements of those plays back.
Ryan said he owed his start in the NFL to nepotism; his father hired him as a defensive backs coach on his Arizona staff in 1994. He went back to coaching in college in 1996 before returning to the NFL with New England in 2000, and said one of the keys to sustaining his NFL coaching career was being secure enough in himself to take advice from his players.
"The better teacher you are, the more input you can handle," Ryan said. "I don't have a damn dictatorship in my room. I think open forum is good when everybody knows what they're talking about. I've always done that. It doesn't make it right, but it is who I am. I just want it to look right on Sundays."Comment on this story
Notes: RB Mark Ingram did not practice. Payton said he was simply giving the running back a day of rest and expected him back on Friday. ... LB Curtis Lofton returned after missing a pair of practices with back soreness. ... The Saints initially had scheduled Friday's practice indoors in the afternoon and closed to the public. It is now slated to be outdoors in the morning and open to the public. Saturday's scrimmage at team headquarters also is scheduled to be outdoors and open the public. ... A team of NFL officials, as well as some college and high school officials in the leagues training program, were working with the Saints during Thursday's practice and will remain through Saturday's scrimmage. Among the officials was Sarah Thomas of Pascagoula, Miss., who currently is a college official in Conference USA and finalist to become a permanent NFL official. She could become the first woman to officiate an NFL game.