Buddy Ryan, one of the toughest cusses ever to barrel through the NFL landscape, died Tuesday at 82.
All you need to know about this guy’s personality is that he wasn’t intimidated by Don Shula. It doesn’t get much bolder, or different, than that.
In 1986 Ryan got his first NFL head-coaching opportunity with the Philadelphia Eagles and brought to it the same boisterous, challenging approach that marked his long career as an innovative defensive assistant. In August of that year, before the regular-season intensity had even kicked in, Buddy blasted Shula for what he perceived as cheating in an exhibition game.
“The rule of the National Football League are that you can only huddle 11 guys,” Ryan said after a 20-15 loss to the Dolphins at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium. “Everybody except Shula. He can huddle 15. That’s ridiculous, what they let him get away with. It’s because he’s on the rules committee.
“Our guys played hard enough to win, made a couple of dumb mistakes, but I hope that we get to play them again. I hope to hell we get to play them again.”
Shula’s reaction was a classic dismissal, neither diving into the pit with Buddy nor flinching at allegations that the Dolphins were running groups of players on and off the field in an illegal manner.
“It seems like Buddy Ryan has got something to say about everything,” Shula said. “Anything he would say would not surprise me too much. He’s said bad things about the guy he worked for in Chicago (Mike Ditka) and some of his draft picks. That tells you a little bit about Buddy Ryan.”
The Eagles and Dolphins did play twice more with Ryan as Philadelphia’s head coach. Miami won each time, at the end of the strike-marred 1987 season and in 1990. Publicly challenging a legend like Shula, however, was emblematic of the attacking style that won the loyalty of his players, particularly on the defensive side.
When the Eagles fired Ryan following a 43-35-1 run as head coach plus an 0-3 record in playoff games, Jerome Brown said “It’s going to be hard. We’re going to have problems. I’m not saying anything against any future head coach, but we’d do things for Buddy that we wouldn’t do for another coach. I’d sell my body for Buddy.”
There were a few more interesting matchups between Ryan and Shula’s teams.
Super Bowl III, the astonishing 16-7 upset of Shula’s Baltimore Colts by the AFL champion New York Jets, is forever remembered as the victory that Joe Namath guaranteed. The MVP award did go to Namath, who passed for 206 yards and no touchdowns, but New York’s defenders did the most damage, forcing five Baltimore turnovers and limiting the Colts to one score, and Ryan was the coach of the Jets’ linebackers and defensive linemen.
Later Ryan gained fame as the inventor of the “46” defense, a scheme that Chicago used to devastating effect in the course of a 15-1 Super Bowl championship season in 1985. That one loss, however, came on a December Monday night game in Miami’s Orange Bowl.
With Chicago trailing 31-10 at halftime, Ditka and Ryan, his defensive coordinator, almost got into a locker-room fight. Several Bears players had to separate the two.
Ryan also cooked up his own feud with the Dallas Cowboys. He was accused by Jimmy Johnson, then the Cowboys’ rookie head coach, of offering a bounty to his players for injuring Troy Aikman.
“I have absolutely no respect for the way they played the game,” Jimmy said after the Eagles’ 27-0 victory at Texas Stadium. “I would have said something to Buddy, but he wouldn’t stand on the field long enough. He put his big, fat rear end into the dressing room.”
Buddy made a joke of that last bit, saying he had been on a diet and actually thought he looked fairly trim.
There are way too many stories about Buddy to fit into one edition of any publication so we’ll stop there. Anytime you see his sons in action, however, or hear them roar, a little bit of the cantankerous old coach will remain on display for the entertainment of NFL fans.
Rex Ryan is head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Rob Ryan, Rex’s fraternal twin, is Buffalo’s assistant head coach, the one with the flowing locks.