A NFL icon died on Tuesday morning. Buddy Ryan changed defenses forever.
His "46" defense in Chicago was arguably the greatest in league history, winning a Super Bowl in 1985. As Doug Plank, Mr. 46 himself, explained to The Buffalo News, this was revolutionary. Never before did a coach seek to find the perfect play for every formation and give his players the power on the field to adjust.
Plank details why that Bears defense was special, the sense of pride Ryan created behind the scenes (players feared the coach's wrath), the physical dominance of those Bears defenses and how Rex Ryan can create a similar effect in Buffalo.
On how Buddy Ryan should be remembered: “Everybody that doesn’t know him, that just watches on television, thinks he was a very bombastic loudmouth without realizing how innovative he was, how creative. He’s the first coach that had the willpower to trust his players. He trusted his players in making calls on the field. Most times, coaches want to control everything they can. He gave us a plan that we would work on each and every week.
“When you’re on the field, you can’t sound like Jon Gruden going through all the colors and vocabulary each and every play. You have to get it out fast and quick. We’d immediately line up in a defense based on their formation. So every time their formation changed, our defense changed. There were automatic coverages and fronts. He was the first coach I ever saw to give that much confidence to players to go out and execute the plan.”
On if this was new for its time, finding the best play for every formation: “Absolutely. No question. Coaches want to control everything. They want to control everything on and off the field. And this is saying, ‘No, I’m not going to make the call. You guys are going to make the call.’ Whatever they did, we were in the right defense.”
On Buddy Ryan creating a sense of loyalty: “The fact that you thought Buddy Ryan despised you, it was one of those tough-love scenarios. He would drive you and push you and test you until you finally gave up and said, ‘OK, I’m going to drop this attitude I had coming from my college. I was the star, the hero, No. 1 and I’m going to humble myself and allow myself to become part of this defensive scheme, organization, Chicago Bears.’ You became one of the players that was part of this whole concept. When that happened, you had loyal soldiers. That didn’t happen when Buddy first got there. Every player on that team thought Buddy did not like him. But he developed a loyalty that was unsurpassed in anything I’ve seen in my athletic career.”
On players thinking Ryan hated their guts at first: “He’s just tearing everybody apart. I’m thinking, ‘It’s going to be a long time with this guy. He doesn’t like any of us. He’s not happy.’ He came from Minnesota and Minnesota had an All-Pro safety in Paul Krause that used to line up 20 yards deep. Big guy, 6-2. I like to tackle people. I led the team in tackles my rookie year. That hadn’t been done at the safety position. After a while, he said we’re going to bring this guy closer to the line of scrimmage so he can tackle people, which is what he likes to do and thereby creating the 46 defense. It was nothing more than me taking over the middle linebacker position. Buddy completely flipped the philosophy of football. If you were a defensive end, you could be in pass coverage. If you were a defensive back, you were going to be a pass rusher. That had never happened. How can you change the rules? It didn’t matter who you were or where you were.”
On if this versatility, players shifting positions all the time, is what made the "46" defense special: “It was unpredictable! You’d see Mike Singletary continually yelling and screaming things as the play was going on because Buddy had already given us a sheet of paper that had every defense on it. Every time they shifted and went in motion, our defense changed. It was crazy. Yeah, it was the automatic front and automatic coverage against that formation. That was unheard of. I never heard of anything like it. Even as it was happening, we knew it was innovative and one of a kind. When you saw it work and you were part of it, it was special. It really felt like you were part of an elite group.”
On Ryan's lasting legacy to the game and how he lives on forever: “There aren’t many teams running the 46 defense anymore. But Chicago Bears football, he became such a big part of who they were. The bravado. The aggressiveness. The take-no-prisoners attitude. He became a historical figure in Chicago. There will never be another year like 1985 in Chicago. They may go to the Super Bowl again but never in the manner in which they did. He put intelligence into the defense, always putting players in the right position to make plays. And when you’re in the right position to make plays and you’re a tough, physical, you know, he had no cowards on that team. 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.”
On the need for individual sacrifice in this defense because anyone could rush at any moment: “I look at what Rex has done and it’s hard to take that philosophy and that defense and do it in one year or two years. It took Buddy a while. He improved the personnel and kept adding things to the defense every year and made it more versatile, more unpredictable. So the other thing, too, it’s hard changing everybody’s attitude in a short period of time. I have a lot of respect for Rex and Rob. They were ball boys during that time in Chicago, running around admiring their father. You could tell how much love they had for him. It was unique looking back on it, now knowing their positions in the National Football League.”
On how his son, Rex Ryan, can create a similar effect with the Buffalo Bills: “There were a few years in Chicago when we were firing on all cylinders but things were not right offensively. That’s an important part of any team. You could argue that the Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl with defense alone but, you know what, it’s a balanced attack. It’s offense and defense. If you have very little contribution from the offense, then you have to have a spectacular defense. As we’re seeing now from the most recent Super Bowls, you can have a really good defense but you still need some production from your offense. They need to put some points on the board and occupy some time in the game. You can’t put the defense on the field over and over and over again because everyone gets tired. When we get tired and exhausted, we start breaking down. Every team needs to have a balance between offense and defense. Even looking at the ’85 team, you could say there was a conflict in personalities between he and Mike Ditka. You still have a very representative offensive team. Personnel-wise, staff, play-calling, that was a great marriage with that 46 defense.
"He was one of a kind. He was a humble person. You would never know that initially. He had players who were loyal to him in Chicago. He also understood when your time comes, and you can’t cover and you can’t rush and you can’t get off blocks, then it’s time to move on. So even though he had great relationships with players, he understood the basics of the NFL, which is Not For Long.
“What he did in Chicago as a coordinator was special. 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.”
On the feeling when everyone in the defense is on the same page: “When you’re going through it, sometimes you don’t appreciate it for what it is. But you understand that this is something I’ve never been in before. No one’s ever told me this. No one has ever allowed us as players to make these changes on the field. It was not just in the secondary—it on the line of scrimmage! They would down shift or over shift or under shift and the linebackers were moving. It was all these moving parts talking to each other. It was an amazing thing. It was like a piece of machinery. Everybody’s goal was on Monday morning, sitting in that meeting room, to have Buddy Ryan give you a pat on the back or a compliment. Because then you knew you sacrificed to the max. Whatever it was, you physically dominated your opponent.”
On physically dominating and intimidating opponents: “There were some games — I’m not proud to say this — that we lost and the defense dominated the offense. Maybe we lost 6-3 or 9-6 or something along those lines but when you’re walking off the field after that game and you have a player on the other team come over to you to say ‘You guys were the most physical football team I’ve ever played in my life,’ I tell you what, you don’t forget it. I met a lot of players that I didn’t want to have a friendship with when I played and every single one of them remembers the Chicago Bears and me being part of that team and they say, ‘When we played you guys, we feared you. You were so physical, you could bring harm and injury to everybody on our team.’ Those things, you never, ever forget.
“That Chicago Bears on your helmet, that was your badge. It was like you were in the Wild West and you were the sheriff. And that ‘C’ on your helmet gave you the right to dominate anybody you played against with Buddy Ryan.”
On this attitude coming first from Buddy Ryan: “Pride. Absolute pride. Everybody thinks he was just a big mouth, a loud mouth. But he was so legendary and iconic, most coaches are fearful to lose their jobs so they don’t want to do things. They don’t want to be innovative or creative. That wasn’t Buddy Ryan. Every single week, he was trying something new. He was giving us an edge. And when he finally found the right recipe, look out, that was the ‘46’ defense. That thing was frightening for a number of years.”