When Buddy Ryan told his players he was leaving Chicago for Philadelphia, they didn’t take it so well. Years earlier these men had written a desperate letter to George Halas begging for their leader to remain their leader. This was more than a football coach for the likes of Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael. This was a man. This was a father.
Buddy didn’t have steakhouses in town or high profile guest spots on local radio shows. He wasn’t on the cover of cigar magazines or idol worshipped on Saturday Night Live. His life – seemingly all 82 years of it – was about the game he loved. His legacy is left on a Soldier Field whiteboard featuring the numbers “4” and “6” and in the work of two sons genetically enhanced with his voluptuous personality and hunger for hitting quarterbacks.
Pete Prisco Tweeted yesterday, “Ryan’s defenses in Chicago were as nasty as any we’ve seen. They never played scared. Attacked.” And that demeanor, the anger, the ferocity, made Ryan’s defenses the rightful heir to the thrones of Bill George and Dick Butkus. Can anybody really list something Mike Ditka left behind from a strategic perspective? With Buddy, that list requires a second page of the notebook.
Lovie Smith had successful defenses in Chicago too but they never found their way into the city’s blood stream. They had a soft side, bending but not breaking, in the shell of the Tampa 2 (which was affectionately referred to here as the Lovie Deuce). They were successful without ever being intimidating. Individuals emerged as stars (Urlacher, Peanut) but the collective never did.
With Buddy it was all about the defensive machine and the machine had one goal: make the other team scared to play their game. Buddy’s defenses, specifically in 1985, played offense.
And his coaching job that season is the finest performance by any assistant coach in the history of any sport ever played in this country. Your initial reaction to that comment may be that’s it’s hyperbolic. But it’s not. What grants Ryan this status is the autonomy with which he acted. Every other assistant’s performance one could name falls under the umbrella of the head coach. Not Ryan. Ditka rarely addressed the defensive locker room, let alone tell them what to do. The ’85 Bears defense were authored by a single, steady hand: Ryan.
I owe Buddy Ryan. My love of the Chicago Bears is based on his creation. My success with this dopey site and my yearly trips to Chicago with all the fucking joy they entail are direct results of his work. I can never pay that back. Never.
So rest in peace, Buddy. And thank you.