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Buddy Ryan, NFL innovator, dies at 85 years old

NFL innovator Buddy Ryan, the father of Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan, died Tuesday morning. He was 85.

Arguably no coach changed how defense is played quite like Buddy Ryan.

Through his 35 years in the NFL, he dizzied offenses with a playbook full of pressure, simulated pressure and overall mayhem. Ryan’s crowning achievement, of course, was the 1985 Chicago Bears. That defense is widely considered the best in league history. After a dominating 55-10 triumph in the Super Bowl, the coordinator Ryan was carried off the field by his players.

Ryan also was a head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals where he compiled a 55-55-1 record and had stints as the Houston Oilers defensive coordinator and the defensive line coach for the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings.

Before all of this, Ryan coached the Buffalo Bulls' defensive line in college 1961- '65.

His son, Rex, has tried to continue his father’s legacy as a coach himself in Baltimore, New York and, now, Buffalo.

"He was many things to many people --- outstanding coach, mentor, fierce competitor, father figure, faithful friend and the list goes on," Rex Ryan said in a statement. "But to me and my brothers Rob and Jim, he was so much more. He was everything you want in a dad--tough when he had to be, compassionate when you didn't necessarily expect it, and a loving teacher and confidant who cherished his family. He truly was our hero.

“For Rob and me, we've had the great fortune of sharing the coaching profession that he was so proud of and cherished so much. There is no way we can possibly begin to measure how much football we have learned from him over the years and we are forever thankful to him for instilling within us his unwavering love for the game of football.

“While today is a tough day for all of us in the Ryan family, we are consoled in knowing how much dad was loved by so many and the love he gave back in return. Though we will miss him dearly, we take comfort in knowing that his memory will live on through all of us."

This off-season, Rex Ryan has said multiple times that he's out to restore the Ryan name in 2016. The Bills' head coach hired his twin brother, Rob, in "going for broke" with Dad's health declining. As he explained, it’s “a pride thing,” a “family pride thin” that is “certainly a big deal for me.”

Fiery and fiercely determined, Buddy Ryan never minced words through his coaching career.

Former Chicago Bears safety Doug Plank, the one who the “46” was named after (Plank wore No. 46), said Ryan was the first coach ever to use specific plays for specific formations. Players were empowered to audible to certain blitzes based off the offense’s alignment.

A defensive end could drop into coverage. A cornerback could blitz. A linebacker could show blitz, back off, then blitz. Players were all on a string with pressure coming from, literally, every angle possible.

Ryan changed the rules of defensive football forever.

“What he did in Chicago as a coordinator was special,” Plank said. “He created concepts that were unheard of and he managed and motivated players to play at a level that was not seen before in the National Football League.

“It was all these moving parts talking to each other. It was an amazing thing. It was like a piece of machinery.”

Most players initially thought Ryan hated them, Plank said. The coach was brutal behind the scenes. But it all created a deep sense of loyalty.

“He had no cowards on that team,” said Plank, who played for Chicago from 1975- ‘82. “That’s one thing every player would never want — to be in the meeting room and have Buddy turn that projector off, the light off and say ‘You’re a coward. Why didn’t you sacrifice yourself?’ Whatever it was, you were always going to protect the guy who was next to you. You were never going to let anything bad happen to him. You were going to hit, tackle, take people on every chance you got.”

Added Bills Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, “When you play a Buddy Ryan defense, you knew you were in for a battle. He proved it when he went to the Super Bowl and won the Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. He was a great coach.”

Most outsiders remember Ryan’s brash personality off the field just as much. He once tried to punch Houston offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on the sideline and was often at odds with Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka. Yet no coach before him was as creative, as daring. And his ’85 defense is probably the best ever.

That Bears team held their opponent to 10 or fewer points 14 times including 10 total points in three playoff wins. It finished No. 1 in yards allowed (4,135), points allowed (198), rushing yards (1,319), first downs (236), rushing touchdowns (six), interceptions (34) and takeaways (54). Linebacker Mike Singletary was named the defensive player of the year, while Singletary and defensive linemen Richard Dent and Dan Hampton all made the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now, Rex and Rob Ryan hope to make their father proud in Buffalo. Both have repeated just how important it is to restore the family name after going through turbulent seasons themselves.

After suffering a stroke and battling cancer, Buddy Ryan had been confined to a wheelchair. Now, he’s gone.

His legacy is secured.

“He developed a loyalty,” Plank said, “that was unsurpassed in anything I’ve seen in my athletic career.”


For more on Ryan's "46" defense, here is Tim Graham's story from 2013.

Here is Graham's story on the wild early years that shaped Rex Ryan.

And also here is last year's Sunday story on the Art of the Blitz with thoughts from Doug Plank, who played in Ryan's defense.


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