Reflections of Buddy Ryan
I still can smell the smoke from his pipe.
And I still can see the sign behind his desk: “If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”
Buddy Ryan was the lead dog, alright. As a strategist and motivator, he was without peer.
I’m not sure there has been another defensive or offensive scheme in the time I have covered the NFL that was as difficult to contend with as Buddy’s 46 defense. Opposing offenses had to no idea how to block it, and really didn’t start to catch on for several years.
How fortunate was I to have had Buddy explain it to me? Once in awhile, he’d even have some of us writers up to his office at the old Halas Hall and put on some game film (it was actually film in those days—not tape).
If being able to outscheme everyone wasn’t enough, Buddy also was able to extract more from his players than almost anyone. My inclination is to believe that motivation from coaches is overrated. But when I go on one of those rolls, I sometimes think back to Buddy and how he was able to get the best out of his men.
He had a rare ability to tear a player down and then bring them back into the fold. Buddy did that better than any coach I’ve ever seen.
He could be brutal. Routinely brutal. In Buddy’s caste system, rookies were just below the equipment guys. Players never were called by name. They either were a number or a nickname. The fierce Doug Plank was “Goldilocks” to Buddy.
He had this way of grading players throughout his career. If the player did his job well, nothing was said. If he missed a tackle, or dropped an interception, the player was “horseshit.” If the player made a mental mistake, he was “dumbass.” If the player made multiple mistakes, he as “asshole.” He also was probably going to need a suitcase soon.
Buddy made his players want to prove themselves to him. And once a player survived Buddy’s battering, proved himself and earned trust, Buddy would go to the mat for him.
Ultimately the way he did this inspired fierce loyalty. Many years ago when Dave Duerson accused Buddy of using racist terms, I received several phone calls from Duerson’s teammates disputing the claim.
When Buddy accepted the job as head coach of the Eagles after the Super Bowl in 1986, I found out what plane he was taking to Philly and purchased a ticket for myself. Onboard, he reminisced about what he had accomplished with the Bears, and what he was leaving behind, and he spoke of his excitement about the opportunity in front of him.
It’s a good memory for me.
The last time I saw Buddy was a little more than five years ago when he was honored at an Eagles-Bears game in Philadelphia. He looked old and frail even then. We would talk on the phone every so often from his horse farm in Kentucky. As the years passed, he remembered less and less.
It was a privilege to know him.