By Robert Zeglinski
To some, the 1985 Bears are a relic of a nagging past. It’s a team that’s a symbol of forever unattainable expectations in a Grabowski city. For a franchise that hasn’t enjoyed the same glory in the past three decades, it’s understandable as to why these frustrations have piled up. Still, it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t appreciate the football lore they penned any less.
When significant members of one of football’s most exclusive clubs pass, it becomes increasingly difficult to not have a conversation about the many stories that enveloped from one magical fall season in Chicago. Circumstances become all the more real when the architect of the sport’s most iconic defense is the one that passes.
James David Ryan, known primarily as “Buddy”, defensive coordinator of the Bears and innovator of the famous “46 defense” died last month at the age of 85.
Ryan was a football legend through and through for his defensive genius as well as his brash personality in clashes with the media and sometimes even his own colleagues like Mike Ditka. Above all though, his love for his players is what stood out the most. It’s why in the past weeks, you’ve seen nothing but an outpour of appreciation and care for someone that left an imprint not exclusive to football across so many different people’s lives.
When a man that’s known as “Da Coach” to many fans like Ditka is, swallows his pride in praise of a man who he regularly contended with, it speaks volumes of the galvanizing power and acumen Ryan possessed.
“The 85’ Bears would not have been the 85’ Bears without Buddy Ryan.” said Ditka to Fox Sports.
That seems like such a blanket obvious statement to make saying one of the primary assistant coaches was important to a championship team, but when it’s about Buddy Ryan, it means so much more.
In this day and age, the 46 defense would likely be obsolete given all of the rules implemented in favor of the offense. It’s still an incredibly physical and dangerous game, but the fact of the matter is that football was played on a different scale in the 1980’s.
Men like Ryan took advantage.
“A quarterback has never completed a pass from his back” – an eternal mantra read from Ryan’s old defensive playbooks. Everything he schemed around for his players that absolutely adored him, centered about that prevailing sentiment. Hall of Fame players like Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, and Richard Dent took what Ryan fed them as gospel because they trusted him on a deep level.
The former US sergeant was a consummate leader. It took time for Ryan to grow into his player’s hearts and for him to actually show some kind of affection. Tough love meant breaking down guys not for the sake of breaking them down but for making them stronger people in life not just football. It’s what endeared Ryan to his men from the military to the NFL.
This love was no better exemplified than in a letter to then Bears owner George Halas in late 1981. Some of the famed members of that defense like Gary Fencik and Singletary urged “Papa Bear” to retain Ryan after there were considerations of letting him go. They maintained that what he was building for their team was special and that his coaching and leadership would be a mistake to let go. Such a powerful gesture of course compelled Halas to keep Ryan around, something the organization wouldn’t regret.
A defense predicated on getting after the passer loaded with gifted and grinding athletes that also featured Otis Wilson, Wilber Marshall, and Steve McMichael, became a magnificent well tuned machine. Because there was a free rusher every play by design of what Ryan wanted on the line of scrimmage on his defense, quarterbacks’ lives were never quite safe when playing the Bears.
You don’t even need advanced statistics to tell you how successful Ryan’s unit was. 12.4 points per game, 72 sacks, and only 10 points allowed across three games in the playoffs paints the picture of an orange mass wall. Nobody knew how to solve Ryan’s 46 defense equation.
In his final game as Bears defensive coordinator, Ryan painted his Sistine Chapel. Players drew their own conclusions that he was leaving to coach the Philadelphia Eagles after the Super Bowl against the Patriots when he delivered a powerful pregame speech, and they were rightfully outraged. Ryan was not only leaving for a new career opportunity, but also because of his constant ego driven battle with Ditka. It’s hard to say what played a greater factor in his departure, but the Bears loved him too much to see him go either way. Once they knew, the Chicago defensive players would leave no doubt that day in New Orleans, and for the first time, two coaches were appropriately carried off of a Super Bowl field in Ryan and Ditka.
It wasn’t a match made in heaven but it worked long enough for history to be made.
The Bears of that era would never quite enjoy the same success of that year and neither did Ryan, but a lasting impact was still imprinted.
He built the Eagles into a playoff team in the late 80’s but they were never quite good enough. As his football coaching career began to fizzle in Houston and Arizona, people began to realize just how much he put out on the line for the good of the team and players he led into war each week. Ryan was of a different breed that changed football forever.
This past year’s Denver Broncos were a team built on the strength of one unit, their defense. Winning the Super Bowl on the strength of that defense isn’t something that’s seen often. Their influences in a strong team bond as well as getting after the passer derived from Ryan’s legendary 85’ Bears. Every defensive player of the modern era always has that team in the back of their minds, wanting to emulate that consistency and chemistry. Ryan’s Bears and legacy stand on an envious mountaintop that not many have been able to ascend.
A throwback, Buddy Ryan was a foundational fabric in the hearts of many as we immortalize him for his intelligence, hatred (mostly for opposing quarterbacks and those who dared defy him), but above all, love.
Love for his players and the game as we forever remember one of football’s pioneers.