“QB’s are over-paid, over-rated, pompous bastards and must be punished.”
If ever one man’s footballing philosophy could be summed up in one sentence, it was James David Ryan’s when he made the above statement IN ONE OF HIS PLAYBOOKS, no less. Known universally as Buddy, over the course of 26 seasons in the NFL he established a reputation as one of the best, and certainly most innovative, defensive coaches in the history of the game.
Ryan, who died on June 28th aged 82, served in the Korean War as a sergeant when he was just 18 years old before embarking on a coaching career that would take up his adult life. He was the defensive line assistant coach for the AFL New York Jets (the team his son Rex would serve as head coach for six seasons) when they stifled the Baltimore Colts to claim victory in Super Bowl III, one of the greatest upsets in pro football history. He created several aggressive blitz packages for the Jets, realising that an offense went as their quarterback went. In 1976, he left for the Minnesota Vikings and coached the famous Purple People Eaters defense for two seasons, leading them to 1st and 3rd place finishes in terms of passing yards allowed, before landing at the club where he would enjoy a fabled run as defensive coordinator, the Chicago Bears prior to the 1978 season.
Bears head coach Neill Armstrong, the latest in a long line of coaches unable to live up to the standards set by Papa Bear George Halas, enjoyed limited success in his four seasons in charge, going 30-34 and having just a solitary winning season. As it became obvious that Halas, the Bears owner, would be making a coaching change, Bears defensive players co-signed a letter to the boss pleading for Ryan and his staff to be kept on. One morning, during practise late in the 1982 season, these players were called over by Halas. “I got your letter” he gruffly informed them. “Your coaches will be retained.” It was a decision that Halas would not regret, and showcased just how loyal Ryan’s players could be towards him. This was a trait that would continue for most of his coaching career.
Mike Ditka, a former Bears player was brought in as head coach, but delegated control of the defense to his inherited coordinator. This was another wise move. Lamenting the lack of an effective four man pass rush, Ryan tinkered with his formation, creating what became known as the 46 defense. The number, despite its similarity to the 4-3 associated with his base defense, was actually attributed to the jersey number of strong safety Doug Plank, given his positions importance in what would become one of pro footballs most dominant and punishing defenses. The 46 defense was able to stifle a team’s running attack, leaving them needing to pass more and more. This opened up pass rushing opportunities that Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, Steve McMichael and Dan Hampton would exploit with ferocious results.
In 1985, the Bears defense ranked 1st in yards allowed, points allowed, rushing attempts allowed, rushing yards allowed and rushing touchdowns allowed, while only allowing the 3rd most passing yards and touchdowns. The Bears posted an NFL best 15-1 record that season, and ended with a victory in Super Bowl 23. They allowed just 10 points in three postseason contests (all ten in the Super Bowl), and restricted the New England Patriots to just SEVEN rushing yards in their 46-10 rout. Following the game, both Ditka and Ryan were hoisted aloft the shoulders of the Bears players. It was the last game Ryan would coach as a Bear, as he left to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles following the game.
His time with the Eagles saw another beastly defense assembled, with Reggie White and Jerome Brown amongst others forming part of “Gang Green”. The Eagles went 10-6, 11-5 and 10-6 in Ryan’s last three seasons, but were unable to win a single playoff game during his tenure. This led to him being “fired for winning“, in his words, by then Eagles owner Norman Braman in 1990. The next Eagles head coach to fail to win a single playoff game would be Chip Kelly.
Ryan’s attitude to quarterbacks, and offenses in general, is best summed up by the quote at the beginning of the piece. HIS offenses main job was to control the clock, score, then let his rested defense return to kick some serious ass. The distaste he showed towards offenses that spent too little time on the field was never more evident than during his tenure as the DC to the Oilers during the 1993 season. The Oilers ran an offense known as “run and shoot”, a pass heavy system that regularly lost the time of possession battle. Ryan called the offense “chuck and duck”, and hated its reliance on scoring more and more points when it should have been closing games out. In a late season game against the Jets, approaching half time Oilers OC Kevin Gilbride called another pass play, an action that led to Ryan swinging a punch at his coworker.
Ryan was no stranger to controversy, with his Eagles team accused of placing bounties on several Dallas Cowboys players during a game in 1989 now known as “The Bounty Bowl”. It may be significant that when the New Orleans Saints were found guilty of “Bountygate” in the early part of this decade, their defensive coordinator was Gregg Williams, a former assistant of Jeff Fisher. Fisher had served as Ryan’s DC with the Eagles. In 1987, the Eagles were accused of unfairly running up the score against the same team when already up 30-20, scoring a last gasp touchdown to extend the lead to 37-20. Ryan responded that he was simply retaliating after the Cowboys star players crossed the picket line two weeks during the NFL Players strike, and proceeded to beat the snot out of the Eagle scab players.
The 1985 Chicago Bears place in history as one of the greatest defenses of all time is secure, and with it so is Ryan’s as one of the games greatest defensive minds. At the time of his passing, his twin sons Rex and Rob were set to coach for the same team (the Bills, who Buddy turned down an offer from early in his career), partly for the old man to see them work together. He never got to see it happen, but don’t for a second think that will affect how tenacious they will be to succeed in his name in 2016.