The sporting world lost two of its all time legends on Tuesday. The world of basketball lost one of its greatest coaches when Pat Summit lost her fight against early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. That very same day, the NFL and football lost arguably the greatest defensive architect of his time.
Buddy Ryan was certainly one of the biggest personalities of his era, a trait that lives on in his sons, the eclectic Rob Ryan and his limelight-stealing brother Rex Ryan. Despite a career that had a few entertaining side WWF (or WWE, depending on you generation) side stories, what Ryan accomplished on the field defensively is literally second to none.
Defensive genius at work
Ryan’s first season coaching in the NFL ranks was in 1968 with the New York Jets. He was their defensive line coach. For those not savvy to the Jets history, they have been to one Super Bowl, led to glory by a very subpar quarterback in Broadway Joe Namath. That happened in 1968, when the Jets defense was No. 1 in total yards and rushing yards allowed, and number two or three in nearly every other statistical category. If sacks were an official stat back then, the Jets surely would have had a lot behind the Cheeseburger Blitz and the Taco Bell Blitz.
That’s what Ryan became known for: blitzing all night long and taking the opposing team’s best player out of the game. He would continue the trend when he became the defensive coordinator in Minnesota in 1977, and like the Jets, they too would go to the Super Bowl. Ryan coached the resurgence of the Purple People Eaters to new heights. Led by Hall of Famer Alan Page, the Vikings went to consecutive NFC Championship games.
Ryan’s next stop would become quite possibly his most famous. He created the infamous 4-6 defense that Hall of Famer Mike Singletary would help elevate to the next level. The Monsters of the Midway had returned and Super Bowl shuffled their way into the history books behind what is considered by many the greatest defense of all time.
He would also fight with Mike Ditka, and that was a rough thing to survive in Chicago. Mike Ditka wasn’t merely a legend, he was Chicago football. George Halas and Walter Payton may have shined brighter, but Coach Ditka was the thunder that brought the storm in Chicago. The next season, Ryan would tackle his first head coaching job in Philadelphia.
First go as head coach
A combustable personality and defensive minded coach was a good and bad mix for Philly, a city known for the Broad Street Bullies. The list of players drafted under Ryan are an All-Pro Team — Seth Joyner, Cris Carter, Clyde Simmons, Jerome Brown, Keith Jackson and Eric Allen. Along with Reggie White and Randall Cunningham on defense, the Eagles seemed to be a force to be reckoned with… but they never were.
Ryan found himself amid controversy again in Philly. First he butted heads with Tom Landry, then he did the same against Jimmy Johnson. He seemingly had an inferiority complex, often showing his moxie to some of the biggest legends of his time. Still, the Eagles were a ferocious team that brought excitement back to the City of Brotherly Love.
Houston, we have a problem
After not being able to win a single playoff game during his tenure, Ryan was fired in 1991. His next stop would be the Houston Oilers in one of the more famous seasons of the 1990s. Warren Moon and the gang looked lost at the beginning of the season, and a team usually in the mix for the AFC Championship was 1-4 after five games. Moon was benched, Babygate was going on, Bud Adams was making headlines, and it simply looked like the Frank Reich comeback of the prior season had destroyed the Oilers.
The defense hunkered down and Moon won his job back via injury and the Oilers rattled off 11 straight wins. In that 11th win, Ryan did what he become most famous for and clocked offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. Despite Ryan’s defense getting most of the credit for the huge turnaround, Buddy was one and done.
His last stop would be the Arizona Cardinals, where he would last two seasons. A combined record of 12-20 saw the defensive wizard’s career come to an end.
Buddy being Buddy
So who is Ryan? It’s easy to see where his sons get their boisterous personalities from as Buddy Ryan was larger — or at least louder — than the game. Think about it? Name five defensive coordinators without using the internet from the 70s and 80s. You can’t, right? That’s because Buddy set out to make sure he was remembered, and remembered he will always be.
He was part of three teams that made it to the Super Bowl, winning two and losing one. All three of those teams had one thing in common: dominating defenses. Whether you loved him or hated him, Ryan could arguably go down as the greatest defensive coordinator in the game.
To borrow a phrase from the WWE, Ryan was the ultimate heel. If he was your guy, you would ride or die with him, but if you were a fan of any other team in the NFL, you wanted to see him knocked out. Ryan thrived on that, he made it his calling card.
Unfortunately, Ryan was a lot more Wade Davis than Bill Belichick. Where Belichick was able to succeed as a head coach and rise to even greater heights, Davis and Ryan were adequate head coaches, but could never take it to the next level. What they could do was step into any situation, implement their strategies and take their defense to legendary status. Davis’ Cowboys and Ryan’s Eagles will be forgotten in 50 years, but the ’85 Bears defense and the 2015 Broncos d will live forever.
So will Buddy.