Remembering Buddy Ryan. In the early 1960s, I became a diehard Philadelphia Eagles fan. As a seven-year-old growing up in the Somerton section of northeast Philly, I inherited my love for, and allegiance to, the Eagles from my late father, who had been a lifelong fan since 1939. I am 66 now, and I have personally witnessed some good, but primarily dismal, Eagles seasons. Since 1964, our Eagles have had one Super Bowl-winning head coach, Doug Peterson, one NFL Hall of Fame (HOF) coach in Dick Vermeil, and a future HOF coach in Andy Reid.
Unfortunately, our Eagles have been cursed with a laundry list of hapless and ineffective team leaders throughout the past six decades. Their names are iconic in Eagles football lore and represent a Mount Rushmore of head coaching incompetence: Joe Kuharich, Jerry Williams, Ed Khayat, Mike McCormick, Marion Campbell, Rich Kotite, Ray Rhodes, and Chip Kelly.
However, throughout my lifetime, the most colorful and probably most loved head coach in the City of Brotherly Love was a man named James David Ryan, better known to Eagles fans simply as “Buddy.” Buddy led our Eagles from 1986 through 1990, assembled one of the league’s greatest all-time defenses (1991 Eagles), and coached in some of the most memorable games of the 1980s. Buddy never won a playoff game here in Philly. Yet, you cannot go anywhere in the Delaware Valley that doesn’t have some kind words and great memories of a man who captured and epitomized our city’s blue-collar, Rocky-like, working-class spirit.
Ryan was born in Fredrich, Oklahoma, on February 17, 1931. He served as a US Army Drill Sergeant during the Koran War, and in 1952 he enrolled at Oklahoma A & M University (now Oklahoma State University) and started at guard from 1952 through 1955. After graduation, Ryan coached high school football in Texas throughout the late 1950s. In 1961, Ryan began coaching at the collegiate level. Ryan started his new career as a defensive line coach first at the University of Buffalo, which featured Second Team All-American (and future All-Time American Football League-Team defensive end) Gerry Philbin. After the 1965 season, Ryan became the defensive line coach at the University of the Pacific in 1966 and later at Vanderbilt University in 1967.
ON TO THE PROS
In 1968, Ryan entered the professional ranks and became the defensive line coach with the AFL’s New York Jets. That year, Ryan and the Jets won Super Bowl III by defeating the heavily favored NFL Champion Baltimore Colts 16-7. During their World Championship run, the Jets defense ranked first in the AFL against the rush (allowing only 85.4 yards per game), second against the pass (154.9 ypg), third in total sacks (43), and fourth in scoring (20 points per game).
Ryan’s stalwart defensive front featured three Pro Bowlers with ten or more sacks: defensive ends Gerry Philbin (league leader at 14) and Verlon Biggs (10.5), and defensive tackle John Elliott (10). During Ryan’s eight-year tenure with the Jets, he began creating multiple blitz packages (“the 59, Taco Bell, and Cheeseburger blitzes”) specifically designed to attack an offense’s cornerstone and nerve center: the quarterback. Ryan’s defensive philosophy can best be summed up in one of his classic quotations: “A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back . . . We must hit the quarterback hard and often. Quarterbacks are over-paid, over-rated, pompous bastards and must be punished.” Ryan left the Jets after the 1975 NFL season to become the defensive line coach of the Minnesota Vikings’ legendary “Purple People Eaters.”
Buddy Ryan served as the Viking’s defense line coach throughout the 1976 and 1977 NFL seasons. In his first year at Minnesota, the Vikings lost Super Bowl XI to the AFC Champion Oakland Raiders 32-14. During the franchise’s final Super Bowl run, the Vikings defense (led by Hall of Famers Alan Page and Carl Eller) ranked second in the league behind Pittsburgh’s legendary “Steel Curtain” in overall team defense (12.6 ppg), first in pass defense (112.5 ypg), and fifth in sacks (45). During Ryan’s two-year tenure with the Vikings, he began designing various nickel-back defensive schemes to disrupt an opponents’ passing game. These experimental defensive packages ultimately became the precursor to Ryan’s renowned “46 defense.”
In 1978, the Bears legendary owner George Halas hired Buddy to be the team’s new defensive coordinator. While serving under head coaches Neil Armstrong and later Mike Ditka, Buddy created the legendary “46 defense.” Named after free safety #46 Doug Plank, this defensive scheme focused on stopping the run and bringing more pressure on the quarterback than an offense can block. An innovative form of the 4-3 defense, the 46 called for three interior defensive linemen lining up over the center and the two guards as opposed to lining up in the gaps. Consequently, the alignment forced the three interior offensive linemen to block one-on-one, thereby limiting their abilities to move or assist on the play. The weakside defensive end would align outside the offensive tackle assigned to block him.
Two linebackers would position themselves on the tight-end side of the formation. The middle linebacker and a safety (who would act as a fourth linebacker) would support the center of the field, and the two cornerbacks would play bump-and-run on the opposing wide receivers. Buddy’s revolutionary defensive scheme presented nightmares for opposing coaches. According to Bruce Coslet, former defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals in the mid-to-late 1980s: “The 46 became an f*&%$@# nightmare to coach against. It was something nobody had seen and nobody knew how to prepare for. Buddy changed football with that defense.” Most NFL coaches and pundits of the era began referring to the 46 as “eight in the box.” In an interview, when asked about his revolutionary innovation, Buddy famously said, “[s]ome say the 46 is just an eight-man front. That’s like saying Marilyn Monroe is just a girl.”
In five of his eight seasons with the Bears, Buddy Ryan ’s legendary 46 defense ranked within the NFL’s top five in total defense. While in Chicago, Buddy assisted in drafting: (a) three future HOFs in Dan Hampton (DT), Mike Singletary (MLB), and Richard Dent (DE), (b) four Pro Bowlers in Otis Wilson (LB), Wilbur Marshall (LB), Todd Bell (CB), Dave Duerson (SS), and (c) defensive line bulwark William (“The Fridge”) Perry (DT).
According to many professional football historians, the Bears 1985 defense ranks as the greatest defensive unit ever assembled. In their 15-1 Super Bowl-winning season, Buddy’s defense led the league in seven categories: (a) points allowed (198 or 12.4 ppg), (b) total yards (4,135), (c) rushing yards (1,319), (d) first downs (236), (e) rushing touchdowns (6), (f) interceptions (34), and (g) takeaways (54). In the playoffs, Buddy’s defense pitched two shutouts (21-0 against the Giants in the NFC Divisional Round; 24-0 against the Rams in the NFC Championship Game) and crushed the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. After Super Bowl XX, Richard Dent and Dan Hampton carried Buddy Ryan off the field as champions of the football world. It’s the only time in Super Bowl history when a defensive coordinator was hoisted off the field by his players.
TO THE BIRDS
For the 1986 NFL season, Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman hired Buddy to replace recently fired former head coach Marion “Swamp Fox” Campbell. Inheriting a team with a 1985 win-loss record of 7-9, Buddy came to the Eagles and immediately began changing the team’s personnel and culture. In his initial draft, Ryan selected future starters at running back in Keith Byers (Ohio State) in Round One and, Anthony Toney (Texas A & M) in Round Two, left offensive tackle Matt Darwin (Texas A & M) in Round Four, outside linebacker Seth Joyner (Texas El-Paso) in Round Eight, and defensive end Clyde Simmons (Western Carolina) in Round Nine.
At the end of preseason training camp, Ryan released former starters center Mark Dennard, left guard Steve Kenney, strong safety Ray Ellis, 1985 Round One selection offensive tackle Kevin Allen, and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Earnest Jackson. In his critique on Jackson, Buddy Ryan harshly stated that he “[would] trade him [Jackson] for a six-pack [of beer]. It doesn’t even have to be cold.” During the season, Ryan released starting left tackle Tom Jelesky and demoted former starters tight end John Spagnola, wide receiver Kenny Jackson, and running back Michael Haddix (who Buddy Ryan said resembled “a rejected guard from the USFL”).
Historic Personnel Moves
However, one of the most historic personnel moves in franchise history occurred here at Veterans Stadium on Week 11, when Ryan benched our incumbent 10-year starting quarterback and former league MVP, Ron Jaworski, in favor of Randall Cunningham. Before Week 11, Buddy Ryan pulled Jaworski on third down and long situations to let Cunningham (who later would be referred to by former Eagles general manager Jim Murray as “a human highlight film” or by Sports Illustrated as “The Ultimate Weapon”) create his unprecedented brand of magic on the field. Ryan’s 1986 Eagles finished the season with a record of 5-10-1. However, a new and exciting chapter in Philadelphia football lore began. In Philly, we referred to it as “Buddy Ball.”
The following season, in relentlessly pursuing his efforts at constructing a winning franchise, Ryan continued assembling a roster of solid football players. Buddy’s 1987 draft selections included future two-time All-NFL defensive tackle Jerome Brown (Miami) in Round One, and future starters middle linebacker Byron Evans (Arizona) in Round Three, center Dave Alexander (Tulsa) in Round Five, and eight-time Pro Bowl and future HOF wide receiver Cris Carter (Ohio State) in that year’s supplemental draft. After Week 2 that year, the Eagles had a 1-1 win-loss record.
Then, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) called for a strike when the players and the league could not agree on the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Accordingly, the league canceled all Week 3 games and ruled that replacement players play all subsequently scheduled games. Buddy Ryan pledged his allegiance with his players, not with team owner Braman (who Ryan sarcastically referred to in the press as “the guy in France” because Braman holidayed at his villa there during the summers) or the replacement players.
When speaking about the replacement players, Ryan stated, “[t]hese aren’t my guys . . . my guys are walking that line.” Buddy’s outward support for “his guys” ultimately won over the locker room. However, the replacement players lost all three games played in Weeks 4 through 6. The NFLPA voted to end the strike before Week 7, as its efforts to enter into a new CBA with the league failed. After the 15-game strike-shortened season, the Eagles finished with a record of 7 – 8 (missing the playoffs by one game). Randall Cunningham threw for 2,786 yards, 23 touchdowns, and led the team in rushing with 505 yards. Wide receiver Mike Quick had 46 catches with 11 touchdown receptions, whereas defensive end Reggie White led the league with 21 sacks. Both Quick and White represented the Eagles and the NFC in the 1987 Pro Bowl.
The 1988 NFL season proved eventful for Eagles fans in several ways. First, in the preseason, the Eagles had an outstanding draft by selecting five-time Pro Bowl tight end Keith Jackson (Oklahoma) in Round One, six-time Pro Bowl cornerback and NFL HOF candidate Eric Allen (Arizona State) in Round Two, and serviceable starting cornerback Izel (“Toast”) Jenkins (NC State) in Round 11. Second, Buddy’s Eagles finished the season with a win-loss record of 10 – 6, enabling the franchise to earn its first NFC East crown since Dick Vermeil’s 1980 Super Bowl XV team. Third, Randall experienced his first true breakout season, passing for 3,808 yards and 24 touchdown passes, running for a team-high 624 yards with six touchdowns, and engineering three game-winning comebacks. Newcomer Jackson caught 81 balls for 869 yards and six touchdowns, the league leader for tight ends.
Reggie White led the league in sacks for the second consecutive season with 18. In the NFC Divisional Round game, the Eagles lost to the Bears 20 -12. NFL historians have referred to this iconic game as the “Fog Bowl,” when dense fog rolled over Chicago’s Soldier Field late in the second quarter, thereby reducing visibility throughout the remainder of the game to no more than 20 yards. Randall threw for 407 passing yards but was intercepted three times and sacked four times. The Eagles’ defense created four turnovers yet could only come away with four Max Zendejas field goals. At the season’s end, Randall, Jackson, and White represented the Eagles and the NFC in the 1988 Pro Bowl, and Randall won his first of three Bert Bell Awards from the Maxwell Club as the NFL’s Player of the Year.
In 1989 our Eagles again recaptured the NFC East crown, this time with a record of 11 wins and 5 losses. Buddy’s preseason draft included reserve linebackers Jessie Small (Eastern Kentucky on Round Two) and Britt Hager (Texas on Round Three), and backup running backs Robert Drummond (Syracuse on Round Three) and Heath Sherman (Texas A & M-Kingsville on Round Six). Once again, Randall directed the offense with 3,400 passing yards and 21 touchdown passes, and for the third consecutive season led the team with 621 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Under new defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher, three members of the defensive line recorded more than 10 sacks: Clyde Simmons (15), White (11), and Jerome Brown (10.5) This season included some of the most legendary games in franchise history: (a) the Week 3 loss at the Vet to the 49ers (when the Eagles defense sacked quarterback Joe Montana eight times but Montana threw five touchdown passes in a thrilling 38-28 comeback win), (b) the Week 12 Eagles 27-0 victory in Dallas on Thanksgiving day referred to by professional football historians as “Bounty Bowl I” (when first-year Dallas head coach Jimmy Johnson alleged that Buddy had placed a $200 bounty on kicker Max Zendejas and $500 bounty on rookie quarterback Troy Aikman),
(c) the Week 13 Eagles 24-17 victory over the New York Giants at the Meadowlands (when Randall launched a 91-yard punt from his own end zone), and (d) the Week 14 Eagles 20-10 victory over Dallas at the Vet (commonly referred to as “Bounty Bowl II”) when Eagles fans (including future mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell) pelted Cowboys coaches, players, officials, and CBS television announcers Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw with ice balls. At the season’s end, the Eagles lost the NFC Wild Card Game to the Los Angeles Rams 21 – 7 at the Vet. The offense sputtered, giving up two sacks and committing three turnovers, with the offense’s time of possession just exceeding 26 minutes. For the second consecutive year, Randall, Jackson, and White represented the Eagles and the NFC in the 1989 Pro Bowl.
The 1990 season looked optimistic for our Eagles. Buddy engineered a solid preseason draft by acquiring three new starters: cornerback Ben Smith (Georgia) in Round One, and wide receivers Fred Barnett (Arkansas State) in Round Three, and Calvin Williams (Purdue) in Round Five. Offensively that year, Randall passed for 3,466 yards and 30 touchdowns, ran for 942 yards with five touchdowns, and orchestrated three comeback wins. Rookie wide receivers Williams and Barnett scored a combined total of 16 touchdowns.
White recorded 14.5 sacks, which ranked fourth in the league behind Derrick Thomas (Chiefs), Bruce Smith (Bills), and Charles Haley (49ers). At season’s end, our Eagles amassed a 10-6 record, good enough for second place in the NFC East behind its arch-rival New York Giants. The Eagles most memorable game that year occurred on Week 10 on a nationally-televised Monday night game against the then-Washington Redskins at the Vet. Before the game, Buddy bragged contemptuously to the sportswriters that “The Eagles would inflict a beating so bad that they’ll [Redskins] have to be carted off in body bags.” Our Eagles won the game 28-14, and nine Redskin players left the game due to injuries.
NFC WILD CARD GAME
Eight weeks later, in the NFC Wild Card Game played on January 5, 1991, Washington exacted revenge on our Eagles by defeating them soundly 20-6 at the Vet. The Eagles committed three turnovers and four penalties while giving up five sacks. At the end of the 1990 season, Randall won his second Bert Bell Award as NFL player of the year and, like teammates White and Jackson, returned to the Pro Bowl representing the NFC for the third straight postseason.
On January 8, 1991, three days after losing the NFC Wild Card Game to Washington, Braman fired Buddy Ryan as head coach of our Eagles. Several reasons pointed to Buddy’s imminent dismissal: (a) the team’s disappointing postseason performances over the last three years; (b) Buddy’s ongoing media wars with Braman; (c) his arrogant trash-talking; (d) the team’s reputation for late hits; and (e) his collect failures in developing a strong offensive line, drafting key skill position players, and providing Randall with the quarterback coaching he needed to mature into a great passer.
Although Buddy Ryan was no longer with the Eagles during the 1991 season, his reputation as a defensive mastermind continued to leave his mark on the game’s history. That year, his former defensive unit ranked as one of the greatest of all time. Although the team failed to make the postseason (due to Randall’s season-ending injury in the season opener against the Packers), our Eagles ranked first defensively in: (a) total yards allowed [221.8 ypg], (b) rushing yards allowed [71 ypg], (c) rushing yards per carry [2.97], (d) total rushing touchdowns allowed , (e) passing yards allowed [150.8 ypg], (f) completion percentage [44.1 percent], (g) first downs allowed , (h) total sacks , (i) forced fumbles , and (j) turnovers . The defense featured three All-NFL First Team All-Pros in Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, and Pro Bowlers Seth Joyner and Eric Allen.
BUDDY RYAN AFTER COACHING
After leaving the Eagles, Buddy became a football commentator for CNN. In 1993, he returned to the sidelines as the Houston Oilers’ defensive coordinator. In Houston, Buddy became best noted for his on-air sideline altercation with offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride over offensive play-calling in a nationally-televised game against the New York Jets. One year later, the Arizona Cardinals hired Ryan as their general manager and head coach. Upon his arrival in the desert, Buddy brashly announced “You’ve got a winner in town.” After the 1995 season, Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell terminated Buddy’s contract as Ryan amassed a paltry two-year win-loss record of 12-20.
IN THE END
Buddy passed away on June 28, 2016. Testimonials on Buddy’s defensive genius proliferated throughout the media. Bears Chairman George Halas McCaskey said “Buddy was the architect of the greatest defense in our league.” Eagles Chairman Jeffrey Lurie noted that “Buddy was arguably one of the greatest defensive masterminds in NFL history.” Buddy’s flair connected perfectly with Eagles fans. He assembled a roster of players that Eagles fans could love, and armed them with an aggressive style of play that served our base instincts. Buddy was honest with us, he understood how important the team meant to our city’s identity, and he fostered and further cultivated our longstanding allegiance to the green and white. Eagles fans adored Coach Ryan. In the City of Brotherly Love, Ryan will always be Eagle fans “Best Buddy.”
Mark A. Sullivan is a retired international trade attorney and an adjunct professor of international business, law, macroeconomics, and business management. Mark is a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association (PFRA). He writes articles on pro football history and recently served as an associate editor of the PFRA’s soon-to-be-published book on The 1964 Buffalo Bills. He is a proud member of the Edge of Philly Sports family and is a panelist on the network’s The Old School Sports Show. Mark has been a diehard Philly sports fan since the early 1960s and is genuinely passionate about history in general and sports history in particular. Finally, Mark shares the distinct honor and privilege with thousands of Philly sports fans to have been an Eagles season ticket holder in the infamous 700 level of Veterans Stadium from 1974 to 1986. Mark is Edge of Philly Sports Resident Historian and an author on sports history.