Buddy Ryan’s career was defined by love and hate. Not hate toward Ryan, mind you — although given the way he talked during his legendary NFL coaching career from 1961 to 1995, there was certainly plenty of that. No, this hate had grown in Ryan since his early days in the league. When he finally got a chance to coordinate a defense, that hate became essential, seeping into his teams’ very bones.
The 46 defense, the scheme that made Ryan famous and made the 1985 Chicago Bears the most feared roster in NFL history, was built on one founding principle: to destroy the quarterback, the most loathed figure in Ryan’s universe. “A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back,” an old playbook of Ryan’s read. “We must hit the QB hard and often. QB’s are over-paid, over-rated, pompous bastards and must be punished.”
As the rest of the football world built quarterbacks into demigods, Ryan made it his life’s work to tear them down. And today, following Ryan’s death at the age of 82,* that hate and Ryan’s legacy still permeate the football world, from the Super Bowl dominance of Von Miller to the presence of his sons as coaches in Buffalo to the adoration expressed by his former players. “But even that hate in itself was a pragmatic reflex of Buddy’s,” says Dan Hampton, a longtime Bears defensive lineman and NFL Hall of Famer, who spoke with The Ringer this morning.
[*This is the age that most of today’s media accounts are using, but it should be noted that The New York Times puts his age at 85.]
Ryan was the Jets’ defensive line coach when Joe Namath toppled the Colts in Super Bowl III. In the years that followed, the Jets’ glorification of Namath would shape Ryan’s football philosophy. Hampton recalls Ryan telling stories about former Jets coach Weeb Ewbank, who would ask Namath to stand up at the start of every training camp. Once, as Ewbank informed the room that its priority was to keep Namath upright, Ryan realized his priority would be to put players like Broadway Joe in the dirt.
A decade later, when Ryan was named the Bears’ defensive coordinator in 1978, he got a chance to pursue the purest distillation of that vision. By walking strong safety Doug Plank toward the line of scrimmage and putting both outside linebackers to one side of his formation, Ryan created a system that all but ensured a free rusher on every play.
This was an inherently risky concept, one that left the middle of the field vulnerable to short, quick throws (see: Marino, Dan), but with the right combination of players, the tidal wave of pass rushers would render that advantage moot. And in the early 1980s, Ryan boasted a combination unlike any the game had ever seen. The collective talents of Hampton, Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, Otis Wilson, and Wilber Marshall proved too much for opposing offenses. By 1984, the 46 had become a symphony of destruction. The Bears racked up 72 sacks that season, which remains an NFL record. In ’85, when Chicago allowed 12.4 points per game and took over the world, there was a four-game stretch when its defense outscored opposing offenses 16–13.
On the eve of that year’s Super Bowl, against the Patriots, Ryan gave a speech from which his players inferred that he was leaving after the season to become the Eagles head coach. After an initial moment of shock, Hampton drop-kicked a projector and defensive tackle Steve McMichael impaled a blackboard with a chair. The Bears then laid waste to the Pats, and Wilson and Dent carried Ryan off the field.
Ryan eventually turned the Eagles into a winner, too, making the playoffs every season from 1988 to 1990. But they lost all three postseason games they played in, and his relationship with Philadelphia’s management began to sour when Ryan all but openly supported the players during the 1987 NFLPA strike, electing to stand on the opposite end of the field rather than coach the replacements that Philly sent his way. In 1990, he was fired on the heels of a 10–6 campaign, his third straight season of reaching double-digit wins.
The lasting image of Ryan’s post-Philadelphia career is from the final game of the 1993 regular season, when he was the defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers. The Oilers were 11–4, with a playoff berth already secured. Late in the first half against the Jets, before he could drop back to pass, Houston quarterback Cody Carlson fumbled, forcing Ryan’s defense back on the field. Ryan tracked down offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on the sideline, and as words flew, Ryan tossed a straight right toward Gilbride’s jaw.
As soon as Hampton saw the punch — the game was nationally televised — he called up a few of his old Bears teammates to see if they had watched what happened. “Do you understand what that was about?” Hampton asks now. “That showed you how much he loved his players.” The only thing that rivaled Ryan’s contempt for quarterbacks was his love for his players. “Buddy went to war, as a coordinator, against the opposing team, but he went to war for his players,” Hampton says.
Earning Ryan’s affection wasn’t easy. Singletary has often talked about fearing, early on, that Ryan disliked him. The coach had a reputation for breaking down some players just to build them up, but Hampton says that wasn’t Ryan’s goal. “Basically, what he did was emphasize and illustrate to me about how it was for me to subjugate my individual well-being for the well-being of the team.”
That sentiment, Hampton says, is how Ryan endeared himself to players. Hampton recalls once asking Ryan, when the Bears defense was the toast of the league, what his finest coaching job had been. “Without hesitation, he said, ‘Taking them kids out into the jungle and bringing them all back alive.’” It was a reference to Ryan’s time as an Army master sergeant during the Korean War. “That’s why he was special,” Hampton says. “He knew what it was about. It was important to be committed to the good of the team.”
About a month ago, Hampton and former Bears safeties Gary Fencik and Len Walterscheid traveled to Kentucky to see Ryan for what they figured would be the final time. Hampton says that Ryan remained lucid, and that he was thrilled to see his former players. Fencik even brought the letter that Bears defensive players had written to George Halas in 1981, imploring him to retain Ryan and the defensive staff. Those players understood they were on the brink of something monumental, and without Ryan, they never would have fulfilled their promise.
They read the letter aloud to Ryan line by line, telling stories and laughing along the way. “You could tell Buddy loved it,” Hampton says. “It was a special time. I am so happy that I went to see him one last time.”
He pauses, then sighs. “Very few people,” he says, “will ever have a chance to work with, and play for, someone like Buddy Ryan.”