Today the world lost an NFL coaching giant as the great Buddy Ryan passed away at his ranch in Shelbyville, KY at the age of 85. While the immediate cause of death is not known, Ryan had been suffering from various health issues for many years. Ryan had a long and storied coaching career in the NFL, but is best known for his time in Chicago as the architect of the 46 defense and being the defensive coordinator of the greatest defense of all time, the 1985 Bears.
In addition to serving our country in the Korean War, Buddy Ryan attended Oklahoma State University as well as Middle Tennessee where he earned a Master's degree while coaching at the same time. He got his first NFL gig as the defensive line and linebackers coach of the New York Jets. During Ryan's tenure there, Joe Namath led the team to a victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III in 1968. Despite being one of the best offensive teams in the league, the Colts could really get nothing going offensively and lost the game 16-7. Buddy Ryan had a large part in the Colts' lack of success on offense in that game.
Eventually, Ryan would move on to his first defensive coordinator job for the 1976 Minnesota Vikings- a team which went 11-2-1 behind the stellar defensive line play of Jim Marshall, Carl Eller and Alan Page (it's no coincidence that Ryan also acted as defensive line coach). That team dominated the NFC and went to Super Bowl XI, where they were demolished by the Oakland Raiders. That was the last time the Vikings have been to the Super Bowl.
After two years with the Vikings, Buddy Ryan moved on to their divisional rivals and the team with which he would really make his name- the Chicago Bears. During this time, Ryan devised the 46 defense and helped develop one of the most dominant teams of all time and one that is still remembered fondly to this day.
The 46 is not, as one might think, a 4-6 defense. You'd have to have one hell of a free safety to run a 4-6 base. The 46 defense was named after the jersey number of the strong safety featured in it, Doug Plank. The 46 requires an extremely smart and athletic safety to run it properly, and Plank was one of the few with the talent to make it work.
The basic idea of the 46 is to shift the defensive linemen all to the weak side (which is to say, away from the tight end) and have the strong safety come up in run defense while your corners play press man and your linebackers blitz. The beauty of the 46 defense was that almost every team in the NFL played a basic two-WR, one-TE attack with a running back and a fullback. The 46 limited their options severely, and the fact that the defensive linemen were assigned to gaps between offensive linemen rather than the linemen themselves caused massive confusion for their blocking assignments.
A lesser team might not have made the 46 work, and in fact Doug Plank was retired before the 46 really showed its dominance, but the Bears' personnel was so good and so athletic that nobody had an answer for it- except for one team, and I'll get to that later. The Bears' 1985 run was incredible. During the month of November, the Bears defense outscored the offenses they were facing. During the playoffs, the Bears pitched a shutout until the Super Bowl, where they gave up a whopping ten points, seven of which came up after the Bears were up by over forty.
The one man who did solve the Bears' defense, and the man who gave a glimpse of its downfall, was Dan Marino. Protecting the honor of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, Marino's Dolphins defeated the Bears 38-24 in what would be the Bears' only loss that season. He did so by using multiple-WR sets and a legendary quick release that neutered the Bears' speed rush. However, nobody else had Dan Marino or Don Shula and nobody else could pull that off.
That game gave a short glimpse into what would become of the 46. As the league began to move away from a "three yards and a cloud of dust" rushing-based attack, teams began to use three and four wideouts with regularity and two-tight end sets so there is no "weak" side in the traditional sense. Against that offense, you can't bring up your strong safety in run defense as easily. Also, the NFL implemented illegal contact rules, limiting the defense's ability to play press man beyond five yards. All these factors combined to make the 46 defense ineffective.
Immediately after Ryan's victory in Super Bowl XX, he left Chicago to become the head coach of the Eagles, where he remained until 1990. In Philadelphia, he was instrumental in developing yet another great defensive line which included Jerome Brown, Mike Golic and the late, great Hall of Famer Reggie White. Despite his successful tenure with the Eagles, Ryan was fired after the 1990 season and went on to become an NFL analyst for CNN.
The season after his departure, the 1991 Eagles would boast what many consider the best statistical defense of all time, and certainly one of the most balanced. That team went 10-6 despite star QB Randall Cunningham tearing his ACL in Week 1 and backup Jim McMahon (yes, that Jim McMahon) missing a full month.
Ryan would get another shot in the NFL with the 1993 Oilers as their defensive coordinator. As you might imagine, Ryan's Oilers defense was stellar and helped the Oilers reach the playoffs. However, Ryan's tenure with the Oilers was rocky and he got into an actual fight with fellow assistant Kevin Gilbride on the sideline during a game. Ryan was hired the following year as the head coach of the Phoenix Cardinals, but was awful during two seasons there. That was the last job he would ever have coaching football.
Two of his sons still coach today- one is current Bills headman and noted foot lover Rex Ryan, whose defenses are so good they won several playoff games with Mark Sanchez as the quarterback; the other is former Raiders defensive boss Rob Ryan, who actually looks like a pirate but whose defenses are so bad he managed to get fired by the Saints and replaced by Dennis Allen. Rob is currently working as an assistant under his brother in Buffalo, and all we ask of him is that he beats the Patriots.
Other head coaches to play under Ryan include Jeff Fisher, Ron Rivera and former Niners coach Mike Singletary. Ryan's coaching legacy will live on for as long as NFL football is played.
Buddy Ryan is one of the greatest football minds the league has ever seen. He and Al Davis shared a sentiment about quarterbacks. While Al famously said "the quarterback must go down and he must go down hard,", Ryan said "We must hit the QB hard and often. QBs are over-rated, pompous bastards and must be punished." It's a shame they never worked together. Davis' bombastic offense and Ryan's stifling defense could have run roughshod over the league.
I've often heard it said that one criteria for who should make the NFL Hall of Fame should be, "Can you tell the story of the NFL without this person?" Well, you cannot tell the story of the NFL without the 1985 Bears and Buddy Ryan. I have no doubt Ryan will find his way into the Hall posthumously soon, as did the quarterback he lost to in Super Bowl XI, Kenny Stabler. So rest in peace, Buddy. Heaven has a new defensive coordinator today.