The Eagles needed a jolt. Four straight losing seasons rendered the franchise relatively irrelevant in the NFL and then-owner Norman Braman wanted impact. Enter James David "Buddy" Ryan in 1986.
Fresh off winning a Super Bowl as the defensive coordinator of the 1985 Chicago Bears, Ryan blew into Philadelphia promising a winner, and a fan base starving for some excitement and winning football lapped it all up.
"Looking back and during that period, the fans needed it and the players needed it, the breath of fresh air that Buddy Ryan brought to Philadelphia," former Eagles wide receiver and current radio analyst Mike Quick said. "Going through the Marion Campbell era and the twilight of the Dick Vermeil years, to have a coach who put it all out there, who made those kind of statements and who had that kind of confidence and that kind of swagger, it was very much welcomed."
There was more to Ryan, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 85 after a long illness, than big talk. He was a defensive mastermind who led the Bears to the Super Bowl title, was carried off the field on the shoulders of his players and who then signed on in Philadelphia to revive a franchise that needed life.
Ryan brought it. After losing seasons in 1986 and 1987, Ryan's Eagles won 10 games in 1988, 11 in 1989 and 10 in 1990, reaching the post-season each time. The Eagles failed to win a playoff game in the Ryan era, which ended when Braman did not extend Ryan's contract following the 1990 playoff loss to Washington.
And while the end result was disappointment in the playoffs, nobody disputed the fact that Ryan revitalized the Eagles. His famed "46 defense" was an attacking, aggressive scheme that ripped apart offenses.
"He just rallied the guys. Everyone loved him," cornerback Eric Allen said of Ryan. "He just had a way of reaching you and challenging you and bringing out the best in each player. We had the greatest locker room and energy on that defense. It was amazing. The memories I have of that time in my career are just amazing."
Ryan led with his mouth and he was, no doubt, a polarizing figure. He jumped right in and understood what mattered in Philadelphia.
"I remember the first radio show I did at the Rib-It and a girl came in with a tee-shirt on that said, 'I'm Pulling For Two Teams: The Philadelphia Eagles And Whoever Plays Dallas.' So we kind of went from there. Dallas was always the key game for us," Ryan said on a conference call in 2011, before he was honored at halftime of the November 7, 2011 Eagles-Bears game at Lincoln Financial Field, an event that brought back more than 20 of his former Eagles players. "The greatest defense that ever played in the NFL was the '85 Bears, but the best front four that was ever assembled was Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Jerome Brown, Mike Pitts, Mike Golic. That was really best athletes in a front four of all the big ones and I was associated with most of the big ones in a coaching capacity.
"We thought we had a great team. We needed one more great draft to get there ... but we didn't get a chance."
Ryan's tenure in Philadelphia was marked by the ferocious Gang Green defense -- wearing the black cleats, of course -- and the mercurial talents of quarterback Randall Cunningham. There was an imbalance that limited the Eagles -- while the defense was one of the best in the league, the offense lacked consistency in the running game and at the line of scrimmage.
What Ryan brought was the ability to unite a locker room filled with diverse and flamboyant personalities -- White was the Preacher Man with the love of jocular pranks, Brown was the hard-living rebel, Cunningham was The Star, safety Andre Waters was The Longshot who made it on guts and toughness and so on and so on.
"There was so much love in that locker room," Quick said. "I think you would have a tough time finding anybody, offense or defense, who didn't love playing for Buddy Ryan, myself included. He just had a way of making you play for him and laying it all out there for him."
Said Joyner, an eighth-round draft pick in 1986 (208th overall): "I owe everything in my football life to James David Ryan. He believed in me when 29 other teams didn't. He gave me an opportunity when 29 other teams didn't. I can't tell you how much I learned about life and about the game of football from him. He meant everything to me."
Keith Byars was Ryan's first draft pick, in 1986, and the experience was typical of Ryan's approach with the media and his way of jabbing the fans' heartstrings. Just days before selecting Byars with the 10th-overall selection, Ryan called Byars, the star running back from Ohio State, a "medical reject." It was Ryan's way, of course, of steering attention away from his true intentions of taking Byars and building him up from there.
Said Byars: "Buddy meant a lot to me. He was my first head coach in the National Football League, taught me how to be a pro, taught me about building team togetherness and being a professional. I am forever grateful to Buddy. I was his first draft pick and that was always something special for me. My heart is heavy today, the same way I felt about my other brothers Jerome (who passed away in 1992) and Reggie (who passed away in 2004). Buddy was in that category. We were all in that locker room together."
Brown was the team's first draft choice in 1987 and then tight end Keith Jackson was the pick in Round 1, 13th overall, in 1988. Jackson's pass-catching skills and ability to stretch defenses added an element to the offense and helped push the Eagles to a 10-6 record and their first NFC East title since the Super Bowl team of 1980. Jackson was Cunningham's go-to receiver -- he had 81 receptions, 869 yards and 6 touchdowns as a rookie -- and Jackson, like all the others, felt something special for Ryan.
"There are certain people that left their footprint on the game of football and when it comes to defense, no question one of the greatest minds that was out there was Buddy Ryan. There is no argument about that," Jackson said. "He was able to dominate offenses and it was great to see that. What will go missing, though, is that he tried to create men out of all of his players. Whether he had to rattle you, get on you or give you some positive influence, whatever it took, he was able to do that. At the end of the day, he was going to make you a total man and make you stand up for yourself."
Eagles football was fun with Buddy Ryan and while there were no playoff celebrations and the five years he was here seemed to come and go so quickly, Ryan put the franchise back on the NFL map with his braggadocio and his aggressiveness on and off the field. The Eagles needed a jolt in 1986 and Ryan was the one to breathe fire back into the footbal team.
Joyner, Simmons and Ryan's agent, Jim Solano, visited Ryan at his home in Kentucky and spent two days with him. They talked and they went to dinner and they spoke of the old days. It was important for Joyner to be there to tell Ryan of the love he had for him.
It was an emotional couple of days as four men who shared something special in Philadelphia spent one last weekend together.
"We knew potentially that it could be the last time we saw Buddy, so it meant a lot to be there," Joyner said. "The caretaker told Buddy we were coming to town and Buddy couldn't sleep the night before, he was so excited. He was a bit in and out because he didn't sleep, but he enjoyed our time together that night at dinner. We went by the house the next morning for breakfast and he was much more alert and as we were about to leave the house, he gave us that thumb's up. Now, anybody who played for Buddy, who has been around him, knows that when he gives you a thumb's up, it's complete acknowledgement -- not only do I acknowledge that you are here and that I know you are here, but thank you for coming.
"That was really something special for all of us. He was something really special for all of us."