Courtesy of Philadelphia Inquirer-Daily News-Philly.com
In the last year when Buddy Ryan was the Eagles’ coach, quarterback Jim McMahon organized a daily baseball game in the locker room. They didn’t play with a baseball, obviously, but they didn’t use a whiffle ball, either. Back at the Vet, the quarterbacks all dressed by the door and that’s where home plate was. I forgot if McMahon used to pitch or catch, but he was the ringleader.
Buddy Ryan through the years
The locker room, like most professional locker rooms ever, had been a pretty staid place — guys changing for practice, maybe grabbing a sandwich or flipping through their playbook or just hanging out. But it had become a much more loose, even wild place under Ryan — and this baseball game turned it into a circus. For weeks it went on — this rollicking ballgame, everyone into it, hooting and hollering, missiles flying everywhere, nobody safe.
But then one day, they broke a big, full-length mirror. The only shock was that it didn’t happen earlier, seeing how it was right behind the catcher. It crashed down, and it got cleaned up, and like chastened schoolboys, they all went back to their sandwiches and their playbooks. That year, they never played baseball again.
And all Ryan said was, “I wish they would have kept playing.”
For Buddy, there were two sets of people: his guys and everybody else. To be one of his guys was to be encouraged, protected, even coddled sometimes; he is the coach, after all, who once allowed Randall Cunningham and a couple of others to miss the second half of an exhibition game to attend Whitney Houtson’s birthday party. To be on the long list of everybody else — including the team owner, Norman Braman — was to be available to take flak in Ryan’s never-ending cultivation of his image as someone who just didn’t care what you thought if you weren’t one of his guys.
Everything about Ryan was Us vs. Them, and two constituencies couldn’t get enough of that dynamic: the players and the fans. Although, to be perfectly accurate, the fans were split on Ryan when he was fired following the 1990 season and the players were split on Ryan when he arrived in 1986. Again, though, he was identifying who his guys were at the beginning, and the only way he knew how to do it was to attempt to kill all of them and to see who was still standing.
You have to remember the times. The Eagles were struggling as a team and as a business. After years and years of decrepitude, they had made the Super Bowl under Dick Vermeil. But then the team faded, and a players strike reduced the 1982 season to only nine games, and Vermeil resigned citing burnout, and the team wallowed for three years under Marion Campbell — and all through much of this time, owner Leonard Tose was nearly gambling away the franchise in Atlantic City. The result was a franchise in decline. Season ticket sales had fallen well below 50,000. The occasional game was blacked out on television because it wasn’t a sellout.
But then, in walked Ryan, the defensive coordinator of the historically-great 1985 Chicago Bears — and the franchise was instantly resuscitated. That first spring and summer were unlike anything anybody in football had ever seen. He called the players by their numbers, for the most part, not their names. His criticisms were withering. He said he would trade one running back “for a six-pack — and it doesn’t have to be cold.” He said another running back was so out of shape, “He looks like a reject USFL guard.” Another defensive lineman looked like “a fat old washer woman.” And that was only the beginning.
When training camp rolled around, the only thing missing were the chariot races. It really was total gladiator stuff, just hell on cleats, with Ryan standing by himself on the field, deep behind the secondary, swinging his whistle on a lanyard in one hand, hat pulled down over his eyes, taking in the carnage.
No one has likely seen a team hit in an NFL camp the way the Eagles hit those first few days under Ryan. It would be against NFL rules today, and it might be against the law. The team would dutifully, almost gleefully, report how many players had to go to the emergency room for IV’s after practice. One player went often enough that Ryan took to calling him “the General — you know, like General Hospital.”
And crowds of fans came to watch them practice that summer in West Chester unlike any the Eagles had seen — and wouldn’t see again until the height of the Andy Reid years at Lehigh.
The Eagles went to Detroit that summer to practice with the Lions for a few days before an exhibition game. It was an outrageous trip, with Ryan criticizing the food, the accommodations, even the towels, while the players started fights in practice every afternoon. A few weeks later, the Lions cut a safety named William Frizzell and Ryan immediately picked him up. Why? “Because he was the only one who fought back.”
It took the better part of two seasons to assemble his group. There was another players strike in the second year, and three games were played with scab players, and plenty of players around the NFL crossed the picket line. Through it all, Ryan had only one plea to his team: either all stay out together or all cross the picket line together, and they all stayed out. The Eagles were one of only a handful of teams that had no one cross the line.
That strike forged them as a group, as a team, and set up what was to come: a division title and three straight playoff appearances, led by Reggie White and a great defense. But it also laid the groundwork for Ryan’s downfall. During the strike, the Eagles’ scab team was terrible. Also, Ryan was adamant about supporting the striking players despite threats of fines from the NFL to anyone who derided the scabs. So, before the first game against Mike Ditka and the Bears, Ryan cracked, “I’d trade my team for Ditka’s right now, even-up, sight unseen.”
Ryan barely coached his scabs. Braman seethed. After the season, Ryan mocked the two front office executives who assembled the replacement teams by calling them out at a press conference and awarding them big, gaudy “scab rings.” Braman, furious, acted this time, hiring Bill Davis (father of the Eagles’ recent defensive coordinator) as a vice president essentially in charge of Buddy. Ryan treated Davis with a withering disdain, saying, “They can give him whatever title they want, but I’m still picking the players.” Which is exactly what happened, and Davis resigned within two years.
But Braman — along with club president Harry Gamble — continued to dislike what was happening. The team had a terrible reputation around the league. Everybody hated Buddy. He feuded with everyone, from sainted Cowboys coach Tom Landry on down. The accusation of a bounty that Ryan placed on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas triggered a league investigation. Brutal hits by his defense resulted in rules changes to further protect quarterbacks. The locker room again grew into this wild menagerie. Card games on the team plane had become raucous.
And again, Braman — “the man in France” is what Ryan famously called him one summer, referring to Braman’s vacation chateau — seethed.
Ryan had things set up the way he wanted them. His biggest flaw was ignoring the offense, and particularly the offensive line, but he always believed he was a draft away from fixing that. But in the Us vs. Them world, the offense could be kind of a “them,” too. On the night when Ryan choked on a pork chop and was saved when offensive coordinator Ted Plumb performed the Heimlich maneuver on him, another assistant coach came upon the scene and said, “I just figured Buddy had made one too many cracks about the running game and Ted finally jumped him.” That’s just the way things were.
Now Ryan needed to win. He knew that from the beginning. The town loved it when he treated his bosses with such disdain — he was every working man’s dream — but he needed to win to back it up, and he was well aware of that fact. As he told reporters, almost from the start, “If I win, there’s nothing you can write that can hurt me, and if I lose, there’s nothing you can write that can help me.” So there it was. And after winning the division in 1988 and then losing in the Fog Bowl to the Bears, the thought was that the launching pad had been built.
But it wasn’t. They lost a wildcard game at home to the Rams that featured Ryan deriding the Rams’ running back in the days leading up to the game — “Greg Bell, my ass,” he said — and then complaining afterward that his offense had been stifled “by a junior high defense.” Then, in 1990, there was another home wildcard loss to Washington, another game where the offense couldn’t do anything, a game when Ryan actually benched Cunningham for three plays in the second half to try to get something going.
Braman said he thought the benching was disrespectful to Cunningham, but that was just an excuse. The history was too much for Ryan to overcome, and he was fired the next day. A more typical NFL coach would have survived, but that wasn’t Buddy. That he thought it wasn’t his fault goes without saying. As he told reporters that day, “Three playoff games, offense couldn’t piss a drop.”
He would work again as a head coach in Arizona, but it wasn’t the same. A team and a town and a time had never been more perfectly matched than those five years Ryan was in Philadelphia. To this day, he is revered — maybe even more than the day he left.
The way he saw it, then and to the end, was revealed in the name he gave to one of his racehorses. Firedforwinning is what he called the filly, born months after his time with the Eagles ended.
He was the architect of chaos and he gloried in it.
Buddy Ryan through the years
He was earthy and profane, a blunt, bullying genius in the gladiatorial arena of professional football, all bluster and bravado, and as subtle as a forearm shiver, and certainly no candidate for a diplomatic post.
But Buddy Ryan, who died Tuesday at 85, revolutionized the fine art of the carnivorous defense as it had been played in the National Football League. It was based on a simple, immutable mathematical equation: Bring one more than they can block.
First, his defenses confused you. Then they pounded the pudding out of you. The target of opportunity was always the same – the quarterback. Blitz him early, blitz him often, blitz him with extreme prejudice.
James David Ryan became so accomplished at his craft that he was accorded sport’s highest honor – he had something named after him.
He was beloved by his players, most of them anyway, large brutish men not easily given to emotion. In a memorable show of affection they hoisted him on their shoulders and carted him off the field for a victory lap after the 1985 Chicago Bears had pulverized the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
Ryan was the coordinator of that defense, which is still spoken of in hushed and reverential tones. What set Ryan’s Ride apart was that such trips of triumph are always reserved for the head coach. In this case that was Mike Ditka. To the players delight, Ditka and Ryan, hot-headed mirrors of each other, were forever feuding. In front of the team.
Jim McMahon, the blithe spirit quarterback, said that a typical Ryan-Ditka exchange went:
In front of the team.
Hired to be the defensive coordinator in Houston, Buddy disagreed with another assistant coach, Kevin Gilbride, and fired a looping overhand right at his jaw. This was during a game. And was captured on camera.
“We’re not the most political people in the world but we’re great football coaches,” Buddy said.
He was armed with such self-modesty and at each new coaching stop he would proclaim: “You got a winner in town.”
That boast required defining what was meant exactly by winner. In Philadelphia, for example, he won five more games than he lost, counting playoff games, but in those three playoff appearances was 0-3. The Eagles scored only one touchdown.
That dreary post-season record was proof, his critics said, that for all his brilliance on defense, he knew very little about offense, and cared even less.
At a memorable Maxwell Club appearance he told a room full of Iggles fans: “Offense my butt. Our offense is for Randall to make five big plays and we’ll win.”
Randall Cunningham, the extravagantly talented quarterback once anointed on a Sports Illustrated cover as The Ultimate Weapon, did indeed make some big plays, but agreed that, yes, some help would be appreciated.
A life-long horseman, Buddy named one of his animals Fired For Winning, a jab directed at Norman Braman, who hired and fired Buddy. Buddy referred to him as “that guy in France.” You could hear the snickers in the back of the class room where the cool kids sat.
Buddy was ideally suited for Philadelphia and its rabid lunch bucket, blue collar fan base. His team had swagger and a whiff of arrogance, and the coach not only endorsed it, he encouraged it. The Birds were ravenous on defense and intimidated most of their opponents, not an easy thing to do in the NFL. Some of their games were decided before kickoff, the opponent having waved the white flag. Buddy Ball’s reaction was to machine gun the life boats.
On one Monday Night Football telecast, the Eagles were filling body bags, and linebacker Seth Joyner called to the opposing sideline: “Y’all are gettin’ your people killed back here.”
Joyner and the other Buddy Ball assassins, including Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons, swore eternal allegiance to the coach. Buddy knew why. He was barely 18 when he enlisted in the Army and fought in Korea for two years, rising to the rank of Master Sergeant.
“There are some people you want to go with on night patrol,” he said, “and some you don’t.”
The critics of Buddy Ryan found him disrespectful of the game while his backers continued to light candles for him years after he was gone. But neither camp could help but acknowledge his far-reaching impact on the game. In different forms, Buddy Ball lives on, most famously in his twin sons, Rex and Rob.
“He was on a recruiting trip and found out about them the next day,” said their mother, Doris, of giving birth. “Or maybe it was two days.”
Together, the three male Ryans have accumulated a Jewelers Row of Super Bowl rings – two for Rob, one for Rex, two for Buddy, suggesting they are NFL royalty. Could it be that Buddy – You got a winner in town – was right after all?
“If we don’t tell you about it,” he said one time, “you might not hear the truth.”