The death of Buddy Ryan marks the passing of one of the most beloved figures in the long history of Philadelphia sports.
By Mike Diviney
In the mid-1980’s, I was already a budding NFL fan, and it’s no coincidence that that was the time when Buddy Ryan was rolling into Philly like a tornado.
Buddy’s arrival and the mania that ensued captured more than my interest; it shifted the sports focus of the city to football, and cemented fans’ diehard love of the Eagles forever.
For people of my age, part of our affection for Buddy surely comes from the fact that he was the first coach we really remember. It was only after enduring five more coaches that we realized Buddy wasn’t just special because he was first, but that he was special and first, and will always stand apart for both those reasons.
Of all the players, coaches, and executives that have passed through Philadelphia, none has understood the spirit of the city as well as Buddy did. He was a tough guy from hardscrabble Oklahoma, and his no-BS attitude was a perfect match for Philadelphia, and at the perfect time.
When Buddyball came to town in 1986, interest in the Eagles was lower than usual. Almost immediately, Buddy’s colorful personality changed all that. In five years, the defenses he built and the irreverent stunts he pulled endeared him to the fans and made him the most controversial coach in Eagles history—and, along with Dick Vermeil, the most beloved.
Buddy simply made Eagles football the most fun it has ever been. He made outrageous statements to put all the media pressure on himself so his young team could come together relatively unfettered. A taste of both Buddy’s defensive philosophy and his wit can be glimpsed from an old playbook (as tweeted by Chris B. Brown):
“A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back. We must hit the quarterback hard, and often. Quarterbacks are over-paid, over-rated, pompous bastards, and must be punished… Never miss an opportunity to punish an opponent. We must dominate and intimidate the enemy.”
Whether Philly is a city that always loved defense or a city that so loved Buddy Ryan that it has forever loved defense is unclear. What is not unclear is how influential Buddy was schematically and how philosophically in-tune he was with the Philly fanbase. While distracting the media with a bluster that Eagles fans loved, Buddy went about perfecting the 46 defense with some of the best personnel in NFL history. Teams knew whether they won or lost against the Eagles, they were going to take a beating.
Even in his first two seasons, before Buddy made the Eagles a perennial playoff team, the games were fun. There was a Wild West atmosphere because the defense’s desire to physically abuse opponents came before the team was complete enough to win many games. In a town like Philly, that resonated almost as much as a Super Bowl berth.
In 1987, Buddy’s second season, the players went on strike. When NFL owners proceeded with an embarrassing plan to use replacement players to continue the season, Buddy simply refused to coach them. In Philadelphia, a member of management siding with labor counted for a great deal to the fans; to the players, it was the single most important event that fostered their love and loyalty to their coach.
That us-versus-them mentality that Buddy and his players shared—even against reviled Eagles owner Norman Braman—extended to the fans. Braman was a modern-day aristocrat who did not relate to Eagles fans and owned a chalet in the South of France. When Buddy started referring to Braman as “the guy in France,” Eagles fans absolutely loved it. It probably wasn’t smart for his long-term employment prospects, but it made the years he lasted that much more fun.
Buddy did not really care about who he might annoy or anger. He thought if he won enough games, no one could touch him, and if his team wasn’t winning, no one could help him. So he was going to do it his way for as long as he could get away with it.
It started with Reggie White, the best and most physically dominant defender in NFL history. White used his nearly superhuman strength to routinely dominate double-teams, launch 330-pound tackles with one arm, and generally wreak havoc on opposing defenses. When his linemate Jerome Brown came to town, things were turned up a notch.
The day the Eagles drafted Brown, Giants quarterback Phill Simms remembered his coach, Bill Parcells, coming into the weight room and telling him, “Our life is about ready to get a lot worse.”
Simms asked Parcells, “Well is [Brown] that good?”
Parcells told him, “He’s Reggie White, Simms.”
“Here comes a beating, no matter if we win or lose, so let’s take a beating and see if we can win this thing somehow,” Simms told 97.5 FM. “Truly, it was that hard.”
Those Giants games were wars, but at the time, the Eagles’ main rival was definitely the Dallas Cowboys. Buddy knew that, of course, and took every opportunity he could to embarrass the Cowboys. No Eagles fan can forget their match-ups in the 1987 season, which opened with the Cowboys pounding the Eagles’ replacement players with many of their regulars.
Buddy responded two weeks later, running up the score of a 37-20 game in the final moments with a fake kneel-down from quarterback Randall Cunningham that led to a meaningless touchdown. For every Eagles fan, and especially for a young, budding fan, a coach who had the balls and the gall to do that to Tom Landry was extraordinary.
There are many example of Eagles-Cowboys games from that era that are seared into memory. I can remember many exact scores from games of that era. Who can forget the Bounty Bowl, when Jessie Small knocked kicker Luis Zendejas unconscious? Or the Pork Chop Bowl, when Buddy had almost choked to death the night before another game against the Cowboys?
Most infamous, however, was the Fog Bowl. As it turned out, that was the Eagles’ best chance to win a playoff game under Buddy. If Buddy had been able to show up his former boss, Mike Ditka, with whom he had shared a savage rivalry, at Soldier Field would have been incredibly sweet.
That a ridiculous fog rolled in when the Eagles were already down (because they’d had two touchdowns called back on questionable penalties) and made it basically impossible for either team to score, was really a bitter pill to swallow.
Even though Buddy was gone by 1991, his defense authored the most memorable chapter in Eagles history: the House of Pain Game, after which Jerome Brown quipped, “They brought the house; we brought the pain.”
Supporting White and Brown in a smashmouth defense for the ages were other of Buddy’s picks. With Andre “Dirty” Watters and Wes Hopkins manning the safety positions, no receiver wanted to cross the middle. Eric Allen became one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Byron Evans and Seth Joyner played as well as any linebackers in the league for the time Buddy was here, and for a couple seasons after he left. Mike Pitts and the underrated Clyde Simmons (121.5 career sacks) participated with Reggie and Jerome in their weekly stampede to behead opposing quarterbacks. The only weak link on the defense was cornerback Izell “Toast” Jenkins, but the others more than made up for his shoddy cover skills.
In the end, it must be noted that Buddy never lead the Eagles to a playoff win. His teams lost in the playoffs for three straight years, and watched as their divisional rival Redskins and Giants won two Super Bowls apiece during his tenure.
Excuses could be made—Ryan’s rivals were Hall of Fame coaches Landry, Parcells, Jimmy Johnson, and Joe Gibbs—but the real reason the Eagles failed to achieve ultimate success was that Buddy only cared about one side of the ball. The intense loyalty he fostered with his defense was so strong that it almost alienated his own offense. Buddy often asked “Scramblin'” Randall Cunningham to improvise some big plays, and thought his defense was so great it could win the game on its own.
No NFL team could win with just one side of the ball being effective. Buddy was a schematic genius on defense, but he knew basically nothing about offense, and that’s really why he was unable to take the Eagles further than he did. It doesn’t even really matter, though. That his legacy is still so strong, and that his death resonated so loudly in Philadelphia, just speaks to the fact that Eagles fans loved Buddy for reasons beyond the playoff scoreboard.
Every week was a new adventure. The cast of characters was unforgettable. The literal blood the Eagles’ defense extracted from their opponents scabbed into a figurative glue that bonded those guys together. It was palpable.
As young fans of that era, that bond extended to us. That is a powerful thing for a teenager, and probably why we are all still diehard Eagles fans. Everything we have enjoyed about Eagles football in the decades since Buddy used to run off the field without shaking the opposing coach’s hand—a big snub every week that worked in Philly—started with Buddy Ryan. Thank you for everything, coach. RIP.
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