Buddy Ryan: a coach who schemed and charmed

Alan Truex

Buddy Ryan’s name suggested friendliness, so I was hopeful that he would be cooperative when I met him for the first time, in his head-coaching office at the Philadelphia Eagles’ training facility.

It turned out he would be one of the friendliest coaches I’ve ever met.  As soon as I introduced myself he began asking where I was from and where I’d been before I was working for the Houston Chronicle.  He seemed pleased that we shared a Texas/Oklahoma background and both liked horses and watching them run.

As we chatted, he was scanning a large roster of his players, even drawing lines through names I could almost see.  He seemed incredibly open and unafraid of what anybody might know or write about him.

His ego was secure.  He was universally acknowledged as the greatest defensive genius in the National Football League, creator of the “46” defense that in 1985 may have been the best in league history.  The Chicago Bears that season lost only one game and crushed New England in the Super Bowl.

James David Ryan, I would learn, was almost a Jekyll-Hyde character.  He could be the most congenial person you could ever meet, or he could be outrageously combative and arrogant.  

When he was defensive coordinator of the Bears, he so enraged Mike Ditka during that one 1985 loss – to Miami – that the head coach challenged him to a fight.  And there was the celebrated time, a few years later, when Ryan, as defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers, took a swing at the offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, on the sidelines of a game.

But when Ryan died Tuesday morning, of cancer, at 85, football lost one of its most charismatic figures.  Certainly he was someone who always gave us something to write about.

Ryan was far ahead of his time in seeing the importance of a relentless, well-disguised pass rush as a means of restraining a passing game that will forever be rules-boosted to succeed.  As a defensive assistant for the New York Jets in the 1960s, he saw the obsession with protecting Joe Namath.

But he saw even more clearly the other side of that equation.  He would keep devising ways to keep quarterbacks in a state of confusion and duress.  One of the keys to the most famous upset in Super Bowl history – Jets over the Baltimore Colts in 1969 – was the blitz scheme Ryan designed that led to four interceptions by the losers.

That Jets defense was the forerunner of the 46 (named for the jersey number of safety Doug Plank) that set sack records for the Bears in the Eighties.

It wasn’t just scheme.  One of his Bears linebackers, Ron Rivera, now the head coach of the Carolina Panthers, said, “Buddy was a master psychologist.  He would find your weakness, tear you down and then build you up.”

Ryan sought to establish a symbiotic relationship with his players, make them understand how much they needed him.  He was often demeaning.  Refrigerator Perry was “Fat Boy.”  Most of his players were called only by their numbers. 

But he made sure Rivera and others understood not only their assignments but the philosophy that underpinned the strategy.  Players said they always knew where they stood with Ryan.  They appreciated his candor, even when he was critical of their work.  They trusted his system because he explained it so well to them.

He wanted players who hit hard enough to intimidate.  He was accused of offering bounties.  His players surely would be fined and suspended in today’s NFL.  He considered the offense his enemy to be destroyed, even if it was the offense of his own team.  Thus, Ryan vs. Gilbride.  Buddy hated the run-and-shoot and would not keep quiet about it.

That inherent antipathy toward offense would limit him:  he was only .500 in seven seasons as an NFL head coach.  His problem was that he coached to keep his defense from losing.  He was so magnificently focused on disruption that he couldn’t visualize offensive risk and success.  Even when he had players as talented as Randall Cunningham and Cris Carter.

You may have noticed a similar conundrum with his son Rex, unable to concoct a passing game for the New York Jets or Buffalo Bills.

And there’s the other twin son, Rob, brilliant, wonderfully folksy, but also obstinate,  designing exotic pass rushes while being unwilling or unable to shut down a running game.

But whatever deficiencies have been noted in the Ryans, father or sons, they have been as consistently colorful, fascinating and thought-provoking as anyone else in their sport.  That’s plenty.

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