Buddy Ryan, the architect of the best defensive scheme in NFL history, died on Tuesday. Here in Philadelphia, it’s not an overstatement to say that Ryan’s brief tenure made the Eagles what they are today. Sure, he never won a Super Bowl in Philly — hell, the guy never even won a playoff game — but the way he coached, and the attitude surrounding the Eagles from 1986 through 1990, has never left South Philly, haunting the parking lot and permeating the psyche of the fan base.
Ryan started coaching in 1961 after serving time in the military, working for the Bills, Jets and Vikings before landing the defensive coordinator job with the Bears in 1978. Ryan probably wouldn’t survive as a coach in today’s NFL. We look at his sons, Rex and Rob, as bombastic facsimiles of their dad, but that’s not who Buddy was. The elder Ryan spoke softly, carried a big stick…and would hit you with it whenever you got in his way.
Buddy made it acceptable in Philly to not only hate the Cowboys, but hate them so much you cheered when they got hurt. Throwing snowballs at players, putting bounties out on opposing stars…it’s amazing Ryan isn’t credited with all the ills this town has ever known. Are we sure Ryan wasn’t there when we booed Santa? Are we certain he wasn’t the one who threw batteries at J.D. Drew?
That’s the mentality Ryan brought with him to Philly, and 30 years later, we still have it. At least the good parts of it.
Ryan took over as head coach of the Eagles in 1986 — 30 years ago this year — after leading the 1985 Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl with the best defense ever put on a football field. The ‘85 Bears led the NFL in points against, yards against, rushing yards against, rushing touchdowns against, interceptions and total takeaways. Basically everything, and it was a credit not just to their Hall-of-Fame players, but the coach who always put them in the right positions.
A year after taking over in Philly, Ryan’s defense was again one of the best in football, though unlike those teams in Chicago, he didn’t have Walter Payton carrying the ball for him on offense.
Still, in his time in Philly, the offense did improve, but success in the playoffs remained elusive. Ryan was a great coordinator, and a wonderful players’ coach, but history has not remembered his head coaching stint as fondly as Eagles fans choose to remember him.
Ryan went 43-35-1 in his time with the Eagles, winning 10 or more games and getting to the playoffs each of his last three years. But his caustic nature and lack of success in the post season made a change understandable, if not necessary. Ryan was out of coaching for a few seasons after the Eagles cut ties, returning for one year as a coordinator in Houston before taking the head coaching job in Arizona for two seasons. His struggles with the Cardinals put his career coaching record at 55-55-1 in the regular season, 0-3 in the playoffs.
A coach should only be judged by his record, and as a head coach Ryan’s .500 mark was a good illustration of what he was. But to the football community, Ryan was so much more. As a defensive mind, he was, is, an absolute legend. As a Philadelphia sports figure, he is beloved.
Andy Reid won 141 games in Philly, including 11 playoff games. Dick Vermeil coached for seven seasons in Philly and turned the franchise into a World Championship contender. People have put Buddy Ryan in that category, even though both Rich Kotite and Ray Rhodes won more playoff games in Philly than he ever did.
Perhaps that defines Ryan more than anything else. In a city where the only thing that seems to matter is winning, Ryan defied that. His spirit connected him to the city in a way some other coaches never could. That spirit — his spirit — will never leave.