DeMeco Ryans, David Shaw emerge as strong candidates in Broncos' search

Ryans draws praise from coaches, players for confidence, energy, football IQ
49ers Football
Posted at 2:15 PM, Jan 25, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-26 16:13:45-05

DENVER — Driving from the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse on Wednesday through the snow, U2's hit "I Still Haven't Found What I am Looking For" blared on the radio.

Was it a coincidence?

Three weeks since the season ended, the Broncos continue their methodical search — matching the league's pace — for their fifth coach in eight years.

With Sean Payton's candidacy losing steam and Cowboys defensive boss Dan Quinn doing a second interview with the Cardinals on Wednesday, the candidacies of DeMeco Ryans and David Shaw are gaining momentum with the Broncos.

Since the Broncos are keeping mum on their search, a 180-degree turn from last year's social media docuseries, we are left to connect the dots. Is the reason they are moving slowly because there is no rush to hire because of their circumstances?

Ryans cannot return for an interview until after Sunday's NFC Championship Game, and Shaw is not a known candidate with any other team.

So the Broncos can slow play this, perhaps, because they have zeroed in on these two and with so few openings in the league, no team is racing to fill out a staff. That is only speculation at this point.

While I wrote about Shaw's interview two weeks ago, Ryans' resume demands closer inspection. He goes against where this search was predicted to land: on a former NFL coach with championship experience.

Ryans, 38, is young, bright, and energetic. He played with Broncos safety Kareem Jackson in Houston. He interviewed for the Texans job and remains a sentimental favorite to some because of his standout career. But what would make Ryans a fit in Denver after three consecutive first-time head coaches failed in Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Nathaniel Hackett?

I asked former Broncos offensive lineman Orlando Franklin about the rising prospect. Franklin played against Ryans and coached with him last season in San Francisco.

"He has confidence. He is a leader. Within two weeks of me being there, he pulled me aside and was asking about the Broncos offense we ran with Peyton Manning. He wanted to know everything about it," Franklin said. "He was always thinking outside the box. Everybody loved him. And you can see how hard his players play for him."

While Ryans received head coaching interest a year ago, he stuck around, and it paid dividends. The 49ers boast the NFL's best defense, ranking first in points allowed per game (16.2), second in yards and second in takeaways (30). NFL sacks leader Nick Bosa calls Ryans, "easily the best (defensive coordinator) I’ve ever been around.”

After interviewing with the Texans and Broncos last week, Ryans canceled interviews with the Cardinals and Colts, creating conjecture that he favored the first two teams.

Whatever the case, Ryans appears poised for the next step.

"It starts as a man. He's the ideal leader. He was that way when he came into Houston as a 21-year-old rookie linebacker. You could tell he was in charge," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said this week. "(As a coordinator), he sees how to play an offense. He pays attention to offense and defense. I thought he was ready last year to be a head coach, and I hope his wife doesn't get mad, I hope he's not a head coach next year. But if he is, he more than deserves it."

The issue in Denver will involve him selling ownership on his staff, especially the offensive coordinator. Penner has made it clear he wants "an offensive identity" after the Broncos finished 31st in points scored. And the new coach must be able reign in quarterback Russell Wilson and help him rebound after the worst season of his career. Could Gary Kubiak, who coached Ryans in Houston, be an option at OC, while also providing a veteran presence on the offensive staff missing from Nathaniel Hackett's staff? Or even Klint Kubiak? Choosing the right voice will be important for Ryans.

As for Shaw, he knows the Penners and fellow owner Condoleeza Rice well, tracing to their Stanford connection. The Penners received graduate degrees from Stanford and Rice has a friendship with Shaw, who once had her talk to potential recruits. But the Stanford thread cannot be the reason you hire him.

Shaw, 50, was once a hot NFL coaching candidate during his first eight years at Stanford when he won five bowl games, including the Rose Bowl twice. He developed teams with physical identities on both sides of the ball, playing a brutish style seen more commonly from Utah in the current PAC-12. Shaw resigned from Stanford in November, but not from coaching. Could he be part of Ryans' staff if he's not the choice?

The hard part of selling Shaw to Broncos Country is his Stanford finish — a 14-28 record over his final four seasons. But he has shown he can run a program.

For now, no second Broncos interviews have become public. Perhaps that will change once the first domino falls.