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Earlier today, Buddy Ryan, legendary NFL coach, defensive football strategist, and father of Rob and Rex Ryan, passed away at the age of 82. As the man who invented the 46 defense—a scheme employed by the 1985 Chicago Bears, a team largely regarded as the greatest football defense ever assembled—there are already a significant number of tributes that have been written to pay homage. But Buddy Ryan’s impact goes far beyond the football field and is probably best understood through his own words, anecdotes from those who have worked with him, and the experiences of those who were fans of his teams.
For me, Buddy Ryan was the ornery Philadelphia Eagles head coach who set the tone for every person who would coach professional sports in the city after him. He wasn’t the winningest head coach in Eagles history, nor did he deliver a Super Bowl title to Philadelphia like he helped bring to New York and Chicago, but to this day personality-wise he’s still considered the most "Philly" head coach the city has ever had. He was fiery. He was honest. He was relentless. He was fearless. He was funny. And he didn’t mind being the bad guy, particularly if him being the bad guy helped his team perform better.
That mentality fit perfectly in Philadelphia. By now all of the Philly fan stereotypes are so well worn that even a mention of “snowballs” and “Santa” in the same sentence will trigger a defense mechanism in anyone from the Delaware Valley. People from Philadelphia are tired of being labeled vicious battery-flinging sports terrorists, particularly when beatings and stabbings at pro sporting events are much more likely to happen in other areas of the country. Still, even in today’s more family friendly Philadelphia sports environment, fans from the area still very much identify with the Buddy Ryan mentality. (For example, @FakeWIPCaller, a Twitter user akin to @PFTCommenter except he satirizes Philadelphia sports radio callers, has always used Buddy Ryan has his avi.)
Buddy Ryan’s defense gave the team and fans an identity. Eagles fans hated the Dallas Cowboys, so Buddy Ryan made it his main objective to beat the Cowboys (which he did seven out of the eight times they played). The game they lost—Ryan’s first matchup against Dallas—was held during an NFL strike, and Ryan felt Cowboys coach Tom Landry ran up the score and let his picket line-crossing starters play too far into the fourth quarter. So Buddy Ryan decided to get his revenge. Per NJ.com:
The teams played a few weeks later and the Friday before the game just after practice Ryan told a couple of beat writers to make sure they watched the whole game.
So with seconds to play and the Eagles ahead 30-20, Randall Cunningham took a knee on first down, took a knee on second down, and then faked a kneel down and threw deep to Mike Quick on third down.
When grilled about what he did after the game, Ryan smiled.
"(Landry) opened the can of worms,'' he said. "I closed it.''
Buddy Ryan once faked a kneeldown to run up the score against the Dallas Cowboys. He ruled. R.I.P. https://t.co/wbTwOXOhbg— Dan McQuade (@dhm) June 28, 2016
It wasn't even like Randall Cunningham hit a wide open receiver, either; the Cowboys were called for pass interference on the fake kneel. Then, with two seconds left in the game, already up 10 points, Buddy Ryan decided to ruthlessly run it in for the score.
They really don’t make NFL coaches like that anymore. With social media and brand managers and normal American public relations business culture now more in control of the world’s richest sports league, wildcards like Buddy Ryan can be seen as bad for business. But for those who played for him or those who were fans, Ryan represented what they wanted out of an NFL leader. Football is, after all, a war game. And while the league and its lawyers continue to try to distance football from its violent roots, the game is the game. Buddy Ryan was just more honest than most when it came to understanding what football is at its core.
Take, for instance, these two paragraphs from one of his playbooks, which outline one of his most popular defensive philosophies:
“A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back. We must hit the QB hard and often. QB’s are over-paid, over-rated, pompous bastards and must be punished. Great pass coverage is a direct result of a great pass rush, and a great pass rush is simply a relentless desire to get to the QB.
Never miss an opportunity to punish the opponent. We must dominate and intimidate the enemy. If the opponent is worried about you, he is not thinking about carrying out his offensive assignment. If you play aggressive, physical, and smart--you cannot be beaten.”
This was Buddy Ryan. This was the man behind The Bounty Bowl, where $500 was put on Cowboys’ (now Hall of Fame) quarterback Troy Aikman’s head. (Bounty Bowl II, held several weeks later, would feature Eagles fans throwing snowballs at Cowboys players and coaches. One of those fans, a lawyer named Ed Rendell, unsuccessfully bet his friend $20 he couldn’t hit the field with a snowball. Rendell would later go on to become the mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania.)
This was the man who once punched former New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride in the face DURING A GAME.
RIP Buddy Ryan, who lived out every Giants fans dream of punching Kevin Killdrive in the face pic.twitter.com/7xTdhKed1z— Clemzingis (@TheClemReport) June 28, 2016
This was the man who almost got into a locker room fist fight with Hall of Fame head coach (AND HIS BOSS AT THE TIME) Mike Ditka during the Bears’ only loss of the season (Ryan would later be carried off the field with Ditka after winning Super Bowl XX).
Buddy Ryan was the only assistant coach to ever be carried off the field by players after a Super Bowl.— Kevin Negandhi (@KNegandhiESPN) June 28, 2016
This was the man who once said of a player: "I'd trade him in a minute for a six-pack, and it wouldn't even have to be cold."
"I'd trade him in a minute for a six-pack, and it wouldn't even have to be cold." Buddy Ryan on Earnest Jackson.— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) June 28, 2016
This was the man who once predicted the Eagles would beat Washington so bad, “They’ll have to be carted off in body bags.” The Eagles would go on to win that game 28-14 after knocking out nine Washington players, including two quarterbacks. It’s called the Body Bag Game and has it’s own page on Wikipedia.
This was the man who designed “Polish” defensive formations that purposefully put too many men on the field (and worked!).
“Was Ryan sheepish about employing such a questionable tactic? Hardly. When Al Meltzer asked during the taping of Ryan’s weekly television show about the propriety of having 14 men on the field, the coach did note a flaw in the strategy. “There should have been 15,” he snapped.”
This was the man who responded to an angry Jimmy Johnson calling him fat by laughing and saying, “I thought I was looking good,” completely content with his Eagles’ 27-0 victory.
This was the man who, after leading the greatest defense the sport of American football has ever seen in Chicago, became a local sports legend in Philadelphia despite never winning a playoff game.
This isn't a collection of urban legends. This was Buddy Ryan. And he will be missed.