Buddy Ryan passed away this week. While he hadn't coached a game for the Eagles since 1990, Ryan still feels like part of the organization. You have to understand where the Eagles were before his arrival to truly appreciate the impact Ryan had.
The Eagles beat the Packers in the NFL Championship Game in December of 1960. In the 25 seasons between that and Ryan's arrival, the Eagles had just six winning seasons. Losing was the norm. The Eagles were bad and not a whole lot of fun to follow. There was a lull in the losing when Dick Vermeil came to town and turned the Eagles into winners, highlighted by a trip to the Super Bowl in 1980. Unfortunately, that success couldn't be sustained and Vermeil was gone just a couple of years later, introducing the world to the term "burnout."
Ryan was still building the great Bears defense when Marion Campbell succeeded Vermeil as the Eagles' coach. Campbell had three straight losing seasons and was let go, clearing the way for Ryan, who oversaw the 1985 Bears defense, one of the greatest in the history of the game. Immediately after helping his team win the Super Bowl in dominating fashion, Ryan came to Philly to take over as head coach of the Eagles.
That is when everything changed.
Ryan was about as unconventional as a coach could get. He didn't care what anyone thought. Ryan was going to do things his way. There would be no more answering to Mike Ditka or anyone else. The Eagles were his team and going to reflect his personality.
Even when the Eagles went to the Super Bowl in 1980, they didn't feel like a great team. They were talented to be sure, but also a feel-good story about overachievers and hard workers. The star quarterback came from Youngstown State. The star running back came from some place called Abilene-Christian. Those Eagles teams were respected by everyone and liked by plenty of people, but no one feared them. No one was in awe of them.
Buddy Ryan wanted fear and awe.
When he took over the Eagles, the other NFC East coaches were Tom Landry, Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells and Gene Stallings. Landry and Gibbs were Super Bowl winners and legends. Parcells was building a great team in New York and considered one of the best young coaches in the league. Stallings was a longtime assistant to Landry and just getting his shot as a head coach. He might not seem like a big name, but having played for Bear Bryant and coached under Landry, Stallings was very highly thought of back then. Ryan entered the lion's den in terms of coaching competition.
Ryan could have tried flying under the radar, but that would have gone against his nature. Instead, he told the world that there was a winner in town and he served notice to the rest of the division that things were going to be different. The Eagles were going to be a great team and they were going to win a lot of games. Those words wouldn't have meant a lot coming from most coaches, but coming from Ryan, who had just built the juggernaut Bears defense, gave power to the proclamations. It got everyone's attention.
The best coaches in football seemed more like professors or CEOs than football coaches. Landry looked like he was a governor or senator. Bill Walsh was more like a physics professor than gridiron guru. Don Shula could just as easily have been running a company as coaching the Dolphins. There was nothing prim or proper about Ryan. He joked with the media, openly ripped his own players and taunted the competition. Press conferences became interesting if not outright fun. Ryan was a brilliant coach who ran a very complex scheme, but he seemed to prefer that his image be that of a tough guy instead of a smart guy.
Most coaches focused on consistency. Ryan wanted to swing for the fences. He would blitz quarterbacks hoping not just for pressure or a sack, but to knock the quarterback out of the game. Sometimes that meant rushing seven or eight defenders. If the offense blocked well enough to get the ball out quickly and cleanly, they had a chance for a big play. Ryan didn't mind getting burned here and there, as long as his team got their share of big hits and big plays. In 1986, Ryan's first year as coach, the Eagles knocked three opposing quarterbacks out of the game before the calendar even turned to November. The Eagles won two of those games and lost the other in part due to some questionable officiating.
Ryan was a player's coach at a time when that wasn't normal. He sided with his players when they went on strike in 1987. Ryan couldn't insult the replacement players enough and had no interest in dealing with them. The Eagles went 0-3 in those games, possibly costing the Eagles a playoff spot. Ryan didn't care. He was loyal to his guys and that paid off for him for years. Players loved the fact their coach was so supportive of them. The Eagles went 6-4 after the strike and set the tone for the next few years.
Landry had embraced his replacement players and also had starters cross the picket line and play during the strike. In one of those games, Dallas beat the Eagles 41-22. A few weeks later the starters came back and the first game was against Dallas. Ryan intentionally ran up the score, winning 37-20, to show Landry he didn't appreciate what happened during the strike. Openly going after a legend like Landry just didn't happen back then. Doing that made the players love Ryan all the more and fans began to love him as well.
Dallas had owned the NFC East for two decades. Ryan was telling them, "No more." The Eagles never lost another game to Landry and didn't lose to Dallas again until late in the 1991 season. Ryan dethroned the biggest bully in the division and had a lot of fun doing it.
Fun is an important word. Ryan made the game fun. He had a way of making any situation "us against the world." The City of Philadelphia loved that and bought in to his sales pitch over and over. Ryan let his players have fun. They wore black cleats, which the NFL didn't allow. They made a rap video called "Buddy's Watchin' You." Ryan didn't like calling players by their names, but somehow the rest of the world came to know them as Randall, Reggie, Jerome, Seth, Clyde, Eric, Andre, Wes and Byron. Other coaches wanted players who would be quiet and toe the line. Ryan let his guys show their personalities. He gave them a lot of freedom, as long as they played well on Sunday.
Because of the style of offense and defense the Eagles played, they were a great fit for television. There were some incredible moments and great games. Cunningham took a huge hit from Carl Banks, but slid off it and hit Jimmie Giles with a short pass for a touchdown. That was an amazing play. There was the time Clyde Simmons scooped up a field goal the Giants had just blocked and he then ran it in for a touchdown. That won an overtime game. Cunningham made another sensational play when he hit Fred Barnett for a 95-yard touchdown against Buffalo. Words can't describe that play. You have to go see it. Keith Byars had the block of a lifetime when he blindsided college teammate Pepper Johnson. Trying to list every big hit on defense would be impossible so I'll simply mention the Bounty Bowl and the Body Bag Game. The fact that specific games have names should tell you all you need to know about how memorable they were.
The Eagles were not a great team back then, but they were must-see TV. They were fun and compelling. They didn't play like the other teams in the NFL. The defense had the most exotic blitz package of any team in the league. They also took more chances than the rest of the league. Cunningham might throw for 300 yards or he might run for 100 yards. He also was used as a punter on occasion. He averaged just under 50 yards per punt for Ryan, including a 91-yarder in 1989. The key to the passing game was tight end Keith Jackson, who was an athletic pass catcher. Fullback Keith Byars also caught plenty of passes. The Eagles were always interesting. When things really worked, they could be incredibly fun to watch.
Ryan's personality, the team's style of play and the great individual talent on the field combined to turn Philadelphia into the Eagles' city. You can argue about who the city loved more prior to Ryan's arrival, but there is no question that the city has been all about the Eagles since then.
Beyond Philly, the Eagles have become one of the top franchises in the NFL. I think Ryan is a big reason for that. He was given unique talent like Cunningham and White and helped them become major stars, the Ultimate Weapon and the Minister of Defense. The Eagles weren't just good under Ryan, they were a team you had to watch. You just never knew what might happen. The Donovan McNabb years helped the Eagles' brand grow tremendously, but Ryan and his players started the process of making the Eagles into a compelling franchise.
Hard-hitting defense has always been part of the Eagles' DNA as an organization. From Chuck Bednarik to Bill Bergey and beyond. Oddly, most of the great players were linebackers or defensive backs. Ryan focused on the defensive line. He inherited a great player in Reggie White, but then drafted Clyde Simmons and spent a top 10 pick on Jerome Brown. Ryan traded for Mike Pitts and signed Mike Golic. Ryan called that the most talented defensive line he ever coached, which is really saying something. To this day, the Eagles build around the defensive line. Ray Rhodes did it. Andy Reid did it. Chip Kelly did it. Doug Pederson is doing it now that he's the coach.
Buddy Ryan changed the game of football and the Eagles' organization. His schemes told defenses what to do and offenses what not to do. It is fitting that he passed away when he did. In the Super Bowl, you had Ron Rivera as head coach of the Panthers and Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator of the Broncos. Rivera played for Ryan in Chicago and Phillips coached for Ryan with the Eagles. You also have Ryan's sons Rex and Rob coaching together in Buffalo. This is their first time working together in years. You also have the Eagles moving back to the 4-3, just like Ryan had them do when he took over in 1986.
Goodbye, Buddy. You will never be forgotten.
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