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The story of how Buddy Ryan changed the NFL

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Buddy Ryan with headset Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Buddy Ryan was a whirlwind: loud mouthed, aggressive and entertaining, sometimes to a fault. He was unlike other coaches, and damn proud of it. He was also a hell of a defensive mind.

Buddy Ryan’s coaching philosophy can be boiled down to one simple but effective phrase, coined by, who else, Buddy himself: “No QB has completed a pass while lying flat on his back.” Ryan pretty much lived his coaching life adhering to this, and in doing so altered the NFL.

His impact on the game started in 1968. That year he was hired to coach defensive line for Weeb Ewbank’s New York Jets (Ryan is often incorrectly credited with being the Jets defensive coordinator, Walt Michaels held that position from 1963-73), and under him the Jets line, led by DE Gerry Philbin, flourished. Philbin was a back to back All Pro, DT John Elliott was one in 1969, and Verlon Biggs joined them in the AFL All Star Game. The Jets defense that season was 4th in scoring an 1st in yards allowed, and in Super Bowl III held a Baltimore Colts offense that averaged 29 points a game and scored at least 16 points in every game to just a sole touchdown in garbage time.

Revisionist history paints the game as a watershed moment for Ryan. Ewbank was extremely mindful of the need to protect Joe Namath, who had bad knees before he finished college, and that focus no doubt helped hone Ryan’s philosophy. But readings of Ryan’s time with the Jets lead one to believe that the light bulb didn’t go on for Ryan until on the eve of the Super Bowl when Weeb Ewbank fretted over keeping a clean pocket for Namath. Having been a coach for seven years prior to joining the Jets (including coaching Philbin at the University of Buffalo), and getting career years out of his defensive line that season, it seems far fetched that Ryan spent almost eight years not knowing what he wanted until a singular conversation that probably didn’t take place happened. The supposed fretting and “aha!” moment didn’t materialize in a tangible way in the Super Bowl, there were only two sacks in the game, both by the Colts. Still, Ryan was a cog in the well oiled machine and it solidified his NFL coaching career, later taking him to another Super Bowl with the famed Purple People Eaters of the Minnesota Vikings in 1976.

Fast forward to 1979, where Ryan is in his second year as the Bears defensive coordinator. Constantly fiddling with alignments for situational packages, Ryan draws one up that had his tackles and strong side defensive end line up over the guards and center, the weak side DE against the tackle, and the weak and strong linebackers over the strong side tackle and tight end, respectively. The strong safety and middle linebacker played behind the line, forming an eight man front with six on the line, though only four had their hand in ground. Overloading the box wasn’t a new concept, the 1977 Falcons “Grits Blitz” defense often loaded nine in the box and overwhelmed offensive lines and QBs, giving up just 9.2 points per game, a record in the 14 game era. But rule changes in 1978 designed to increase scoring meant the Grits Blitz couldn’t, and didn’t, last. But for a situational defense, it was worth a try.

Package defenses during this time were named after the jersey of the player that it keyed off of. The Dolphins “No Name Defense” of the 1970s had a 3-4 package years before the 3-4 became a base defense. They called it the “53” after the jersey of the fourth linebacker, Bob Matheson. Ryan’s new package keyed on safety Doug Plank playing as almost a fourth linebacker, the package was named after his jersey number: 46.

Ryan unveiled it during a mid-season game against the hapless Lions, and Chicago won 35-7 and got five turnovers. Ryan would fiddle with it here and there over the years but never saw it as a base defense. Then Mike Singletary arrived.

I was just trying to screw up teams’ blocking schemes until we got some better players. In ’79, when I first started messing with the 46, it wasn’t really a scheme at all, it was just something we tried. We had to do something. And it did mess up some of their blocking patterns. Then we got better at it. And then we got real good at it when the players were better. - Buddy Ryan

In 1981, Singletary’s rookie season, the Bears are 1-6 and facing the “Air Coryell” Chargers, who are in the midst of their best season of the Dan Fouts era, and Fouts himself was having the best season of his career. With nothing to lose, Ryan decided to give the Chargers a heavy dose of the 46, which his team was better suited for with Singletary and second year LB Otis Wilson.

The Chargers had no idea how to stop it. Fouts played horribly, going 13-43 and throwing two interceptions as the Chargers lost in OT 20-17, the Bears kicking the winning FG after an interception. A new defense was born. The 46 Defense and Buddy Ryan became almost synonymous with each other, and it became the dominant defense of the 80s, both in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Ironically, despite its impressive performance against a historic passing attack, the 46 defense was first and foremost a run stopping one. The reduced front meant that interior lineman could not pull, which effectively removed pages from the opposition’s playbook. With Singletary at middle linebacker, running to the inside was ineffective as well. At Ryan’s peak in 1984 and 1985 the Bears had the fewest rushing attempts against as teams pretty much gave up running against them, through a combination of it being futile and being behind in most games. They held the opposition to less than 100 rushing yards in 29 out of 37 games, and under 50 yards 10 times.

Passing the ball wasn’t much easier. Putting eight in the box and sending at least five every time, QBs and offensive lines had a difficult time recognizing who was actually blitzing. When they did, the outstanding pass rush talent on the Bears and the unconventional alignment formed an unstoppable defense. As talented players like Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, Dave Duerson, Wilber Marshall and Refrigerator Perry were added who perfectly suited the 46, Ryan shifted its use from a package to a base defense. In 1984 Chicago lead the league in sacks by a mile, in 1985 they finished 3rd; in 1984 they were 3rd in passer rating and in 1985 1st by a significant margin. In 1985 they allowed just 12.4 points per game.

It culminated in one of the greatest seasons and defenses in NFL history. The Bears went 18-1 in 1985, ending the season with a blowout win in Super Bowl to cap off one of the greatest single season defenses the game has seen. The one loss would give a blueprint on how to defeat the 46 but no one knew it at the time. After the season Ryan was deserving of a head coaching job and left to take over the Eagles, installing the same defense with Reggie White as the linchpin. Ryan turned the defense around, but never managed to reach the heights of his Chicago heydays.

Ryan’s defenses weren’t let down by talent. With Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Eric Allen, Seth Joyner, Wes Hopkins and Andre Waters, Ryan had the players and physical play he craved to make the 46 work. But teams started to adapt, and by doing so changed the way the game was played.

In that sole loss in 1985, to the Dolphins on Monday Night Football, the 46 was exposed to be vulnerable to the pass if teams spread the formation. The secondary was already on an island with eight defenders crowding the line of scrimmage, putting a third pass catcher out wide would give an offense leverage against slower, less nimble linebackers.

The Dolphins game plan was simple but effective: they played their tight end far less and went to a three WR, two RB look, keeping both RBs in either to block or chipping with one before releasing; to slow the rush they rolled Dan Marino out of the pocket often. The plan to stop perfection worked to perfection. The Dolphins scored on their first five possessions and led 31-10 at halftime en route to a 38-24 win. At the time the blemish was chalked up to Marino and the Dolphins, who had reached the Super Bowl the year before, just being damned good, and to the electric atmosphere in the Orange Bowl as Don Shula tried to keep his 1972 team as the last perfect team. In reality the 3rd WR, Nat Moore, was the leverage the offense needed to defeat the 46. Moore caught two TDs, the first a short pass that he turned into a 33 yard score, Marino rolled out of the pocket to drop bombs multiple times, and the Dolphins romped.

It's kind of tough to cover those guys on blitzes when they're in that slot as we unfortunately found out. In retrospect, we had some packages against three wideouts that had we played them again, we probably would have gone much more nickel. - S Gary Fenick, who was beat by Moore for the opening touchdown.

We got them in third-and-long and they would block the contain man and then the quarterback rolls out. Every time on third down they did that and Marino specifically was looking for Moore against Wilber[t Marshall]. Wilber at (231) pounds had to be covering Moore who is a (183-) pound waterbug and they would run 'iso' routes on Wilber, get open and convert the first down. - DT Dan Hampton

At halftime Ryan and Mike Ditka, who increasingly fell out of favor with each other during their time together, had a heated exchange on the constant use of Marshall. Ditka felt he was being stubborn in his refusal to take Marshall out of the game. In the end, he was right.

When Ryan took the Eagles job he would face off twice against an offense that was easily capable of replicating the Dolphins success: Joe Gibbs’ Redskins, who in 1983 had already set the NFL record for scoring. Gibbs, a former Air Coryell assistant, was keenly aware of the advantages of passing and of spreading the field. In the 1980s the standard offensive package was two backs, two wide receivers, and one tight end. With nine in the offensive box, the eight man front of the 46 matched up extremely well. But Gibbs was one of the pioneers of the one back offense in the NFL, removing a RB for a TE.

'If some 6-4, 225-pound linebacker was going to blitz,'' said Gibbs, ''I wanted a 6-4, 225-pound tight end blocking him. - Joe Gibbs, 1983

Later, Gibbs would replace the second TE with a WR when Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders were all in their primes. Like the Dolphins against the Bears in 1985, the Redskins three WRs were too much for Ryan and his handle. Gibbs, in so many ways the polar opposite of Ryan, would go 8-3 vs him.

In a copycat league, the Redskins one back offense that set records and won Super Bowls kick started the move to a one back offense that is now the norm. But it took years and a series of dominoes to fall for offenses to evolve from two back to one back. Buddy Ryan’s innovate and dominant 46 defense was one of the first dominoes.

Ryan’s influence was also felt in tangible ways.

Ryan instructed his defenders to aggressively block the QB after a turnover. Today, QBs are specifically protected during turnovers. And for a time, it was possible for pass interference to be called on a punt. So Ryan would have his punter throw the ball high in the air to mimic a punt trajectory. Because the blockers running with the gunners weren’t looking at the ball, they couldn’t know it wasn’t a punt and their otherwise legal act of blocking was instead pass interference. First down Eagles.

“I’ve been in the league a long time and I know the rules. We throw a pass in the air off punt formation and they’ll change the rules. They’ll probably change this rule too.” - Buddy Ryan

They did.

Buddy Ryan was many things to many people. How we remember him depends largely on your age and rooting interests. No matter one’s opinion on him though, he should be remembered as an innovative mind who brought change to the shape of the game.