The Philadelphia Eagles have had more than their fair share of interesting head coaches over the years—Dick Vermeil, Richie Kotite, Andy Reid, etc. Vermeil was an energetic enthusiast who eventually burnt out from the wear and tear that head coaching takes on the body and the mind.
Kotite was perhaps the most inept man ever to wear a headset. Reid is the largest coach in professional sports (history?) and a man who wouldn't show emotion if it bit him in the gut.
And then there was Buddy Ryan.
Where do you start with Buddy Ryan? He certainly had a love-hate relationship with Philly and its fans. He had a flamboyant, brash, and abrasive personality that frequently clashed with his players, other coaches, and the Eagles' owner at the time, Norman Braman. He was aggressive, both with his play calling and his temperament.
And he was one of the best things to ever happen to Philly.
Prior to Buddy Ryan, the Eagles were only six years removed from their Super Bowl appearance in 1980, but this was a completely different team. Former Pro Bowl quarterback Ron Jaworski was aging and coming off a dismal season in which he threw 20 interceptions.
Many of the Eagles' stars from their Super Bowl team—Wilbert Montgomery, Harold Carmichael, Bill Bergey, Randy Logan, Jerry Sisemore—were gone and had yet to be replaced.
Team attendance was down and the Eagles were coming off a late-season collapse that gave them their fourth consecutive losing season.
Enter Buddy Ryan.
Ryan came in highly recommended, fresh off a Super Bowl win in which he had served as defensive coordinator of the 15-1 Bears.
He was brought in as the team's head coach for the '86 season, which started a six-year term in Philly of "Buddyball." "Buddyball" was an expression used to describe Buddy's style of coaching, which was aggressive, flashy, reckless, and sometimes ill-advised, but never boring.
Buddy had built up a pretty impressive NFL coaching resume over the previous two decades. He was the linebackers coach for the Jets in their Super Bowl III upset win over the Baltimore Colts. For the Vikings, he took the Purple People Eaters to the Super Bowl in his first season as the team's defensive coordinator. And his 46 defense sent five Bears to the Pro Bowl in '85, and limited its three playoff opponents to just 10 points in the playoffs.
Buddy guaranteed an NFC East title in his first season as head coach. Buddy later said, “Anybody who knew a thing about football knew we didn't have a chance in 1986. But I knew what would happen...The fans and media would put all the heat on me, and that was okay because I knew I could handle it. It took the heat off the players. I knew what I was doing. You've just got to have the guts to do it.”
Ryan had the guts for it, no doubt about that. While he didn't deliver immediately (his record in his debut season was just 5-10-1), he set a trend for his frequently outlandish and bold predictions. And more often than not, he backed them up.
Ryan was a blue-collar type of guy who could relate to the city of Philadelphia and its fans. He was a Kentucky horse farmer who wasn't afraid to speak his mind. He clashed frequently with the Eagles' management, referring to Braman as “the guy in France” and team president Harry Gamble as “Braman's illegitimate son.”
When the league went on strike in 1987, Buddy told his players to stick together in everything they do. Buddy treated the replacement players as “dumb jerks.” He never put up an effort when coaching them, losing all three games with his "scab" guys. This just earned him the respect of his players all the more.
Future Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White said, “He showed that he was behind us and he was willing to put himself on the line for us. When someone treats you with respect and honesty, how can you not be loyal to him?”
The next season, Buddy transformed the lowly Eagles into a perennial playoff team. The Eagles captured the NFC East title in 1988 and wild-card berths in '89 and '90. More important than that, Buddy gained the respect of the Philly fans, who loved Ryan for his Philly style of play.
However, Ryan's greatest flaw—and what contributed to his eventual firing following the 1990 season—was his inability to win a playoff game. He came close, for sure.
In '88, the Eagles sent a talented young group of players to the playoffs in what was the team's first postseason game since its loss in Super Bowl XV. The team fell short in what came to be known as the Fog Bowl.
In this game, a 20-12 loss to the Chicago Bears, the fog played such a major role in the game that those watching on TV could not even see the action on the field. Cunningham passed for 407 yards and led the Eagles inside the Bears' red zone nine times but couldn't punch the ball across the goal line.
After playoff losses to the Rams and the Redskins in the next two seasons—both teams the Eagles should have found a way to beat—Braman had had enough of Ryan and fired him. Rather than promote defensive wizard Jeff Fisher to be the team's head coach, Braman chose brainless offensive coordinator Richie Kotite.
Kotite had some success with the Eagles, finishing 10-6 with the arguably the most dominating defense in NFL history in '91 (first team in history to lead the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed, fewest rushing yards allowed, and fewest points allowed) and even winning a playoff game in '92, but he wasn't kidding anyone. It was Bud Carson's defense and essentially Buddy Ryan's team that won that playoff game.
And even though Buddy never won a playoff game, don't underestimate the positive effect that Ryan had on the Eagles. Buddy restored the Eagles' defense into arguably one of the greatest units in the history of the league.
And what a defense that was.
There was Reggie White, Jerome Brown, and Clyde Simmons on the defensive line, putting the fear of God into the offense on every play. There was outside linebacker Seth Joyner, one of the most underrated player of that defense, roaming the field, blitzing quarterbacks or stuffing the run. There was All-Pro cornerback Eric Allen picking off passes and returning them the length of the field for touchdowns.
And there were the safeties, Wes Hopkins and Andre Watters, putting a vicious hit on anyone who dared go across the middle of the field (See: Pain, House of).
There was a Monday Night Football game at the Vet in 1990 in which the Eagles crushed the Washington Redskins, 28-14. This game personified the Buddy Ryan-led Eagles, as the defense scored three of the team's four touchdowns and knocked so many of the Redskins' offensive players out of the game that it is now commonly referred to as “The Body Bag Game.”
It got so bad that Redskins rookie running back Brian Mitchell had to fill in as an emergency quarterback.
Years later, when asked about the game, Mitchell said, "I never seen nothin' like it. Guys were just falling all over the field...I can't believe no one died that day." No one knows for sure how many players were carted off the field, but rumor says seven or eight Redskins (and The Great Philadelphia Fan Book says nine).
It was Buddy's defensive guys who beat the Houston Oilers in a Monday Night Football game in '91 that came to be known as “The House of Pain.” Although the final score—13 to 6, Eagles—seemed relatively close, it was one of the most dominating performances in the history of the franchise. The Eagles' defense knocked out three Houston receivers, and it got to the point where no Houston player would go across the middle.
The star of the game was linebacker Seth Joyner, who totaled eight tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
Buddy's success came from the famous 46 defense—the same defense he had used and popularized in Chicago when he won the Super Bowl.
The 46 defense essentially is a simple 4-3 formation with up to eight or nine men in the box. It's a blitz-heavy scheme that can be exceptional at rattling quarterbacks and shutting down the opponent's running game. It has its flaws, like every defense. It leaves its cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage, which can increase the chances of a big play, while exposing the middle of the field. But with shutdown corners like Buddy had with both the Bears and Eagles, the 46 can win a lot of football games.
When Buddy had left Chicago to take the head coaching job for the Eagles, he was asked if he would use the 46 in Philly. Buddy laughed and responded, “We wouldn't use that. We'd embarrass ourselves.”
So what defense did Buddy call in his first series in Philly?
The 46. Typical Buddy move. Gutsy, yet successful.
Buddy loved his defense. He perfected it, scrutinized and critiqued his plays, and made his defense into the most feared group of 11 guys in the league. He knew how to draft his defense—picking up Clyde Simmons in the eighth round and Seth Joyner in the ninth. He turned the Eagles into the bad boys of the NFL. And that defense, Buddy spent a lot of time working on it.
Maybe too much time.
One of Ryan's problems was always his offense. With Randall Cunningham, arguably the most versatile and talented quarterback who ever lived, Ryan should have built his offense around his quarterback. He should have drafted playmakers and solidified an offensive line to help develop Cunningham. But he didn't.
He gained a knack for failing to develop his offensive linemen. One of former coach Campbell's first-round picks, a big, huge offensive tackle named Kevin Allen, tested positive for cocaine and was shortly thereafter arrested and jailed for sexual assault. The always blunt Ryan offered the following on Allen: “Kevin Allen was a good football player... if you want someone to stand around and kill the grass.”
During his tenure as Eagles coach, Buddy more or less ignored his offensive line. And it showed. Randall Cunningham spent most of his career playing behind a paper-mache offensive line. Cunningham got sacked at a rate of more times per dropback than just about any quarterback who ever played. Part of it can be attributed to Cunningham's sometimes reckless style of play, but most of it was because of the weak offensive line.
Five times as quarterback for the Eagles, Cunningham was the NFL's most-sacked quarterback. Six times he led the league in yards lost. His first season with the Eagles was a disaster.
Used primarily on third downs, Cunningham dropped back to pass 281 times for the year. He was sacked an NFL-record 72 times (David Carr would later break this record with 76), an astonishing 25.6 percent of his dropbacks. The Eagles' offense on the whole gave up 104 sacks that season, an average of six or seven per game.
No team can win football games with an offensive line like that.
Not only did Buddy ignore his offensive line, but he failed to give Cunningham the proper coaching he needed to develop into a great passer. The fact that Cunningham was able to average 3,000 passing yards and throw for over 20 touchdowns four straight years and even win an MVP award says volumes about Cunningham's natural talent as a quarterback. Perhaps no quarterback in league history has done more with less than Cunningham; second may be current Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Buddy used to simply tell Randall to go out there and make three or four big plays. And Randall almost always would. There was the 95-yard pass to Freddie Barnett, where he eluded Bruce Smith in the end zone. There was the play on Monday Night Football against the Giants, where he was hit by Carl Banks, and still managed to throw a touchdown pass. Or there was the time against Arizona, where the play broke down and Cunningham took off running down the left sideline for a touchdown.
Buddy never surrounded Cunningham with so much as an elite receiver or running back. For four consecutive seasons, Cunningham—the team's quarterback—was the Eagles' leading rusher. During that span, his leading receiver was a tight end or running back three times.
No disrespect to Keith Jackson, the All-Pro tight end the Eagles had during that time, but if Cunningham had had a playmaking, legit No. 1 wide receiver, he would very likely be in the Hall of Fame today.
Cunningham remains, to this day, probably the most undercoached football player of all-time. With proper coaching, he would have been a perennial league MVP. As it is, he still won a league MVP in '90 with just a mediocre group of receivers and running backs.
I'll even go as far as to say that if Cunningham had been blessed with Andy Reid as his head coach and an offensive mastermind like Brad Childress as his quarterbacks coach, the Eagles would have won multiple Super Bowls during the late '80s and early '90s.
It's a shame that Buddy focused so little on Cunningham, and also a wonder that the team still managed to make the playoffs every season. That's a testament to Cunningham's natural skills as a quarterback and Buddy's ferocious defense.
Cunningham was always said to have mixed feelings about Buddy, but in one particular incident, he didn't hide his displeasure.
It was after Buddy's final playoff game in 1990, a game that eventually cost him his job. In that game against the Washington Redskins, the Eagles were trailing just 13-6 in the third quarter. What happened next just added to Buddy's controversy as a head coach.
Buddy removed Randall from the game for a series and inserted his backup quarterback. In a playoff game. Down by just one score.
Now, the backup was Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jimmy McMahon, formerly of Buddy's 1985 Bears, but understand that Randall was the league MVP that season after passing for 3,466 yards, 30 touchdowns, while adding 942 rushing yards along with five scores on the ground, and accounting for 77 percent of the team's offense. His 942 rushing yards were the most by a quarterback since Bobby Douglass's 972.
Some say Buddy panicked. Some say he wanted to ignite a spark in the team. (How ironic is it that years later, another Eagles head coach would later pull his star quarterback down by just one score in a must-win game?) Whatever the motive was, it didn't work. McMahon threw three straight incompletions, the Eagles punted, and the Redskins marched down the field for another touchdown to make it 20-6.
And that was it. Buddy didn't have much to say about it after the game, telling his team afterwards, “Remember, guys, the coach decides who plays.” It was questionable moves like this that, along with his rocky relationship with Eagles' management, that led to Buddy's departure from Philly.
The season before, Buddy had received a lot of negative media attention following a bold prediction that he failed to uphold. Before the team's playoff loss to the Rams, Buddy was asked if he thought Rams star running back Greg Bell would be a problem for his defense. Buddy laughed and said Bell didn't scare him.
In the wild-card matchup, Bell ran for 124 yards and a touchdown and the Rams prevailed, 21-7. It was not one of Buddy's finer moments as a head coach.
He sure was no Andy Reid, whose dry and very boring press conferences can often make for painful listening. Buddy would say what was on his mind, whether it was controversial or not. When he cut Eagles wide receiver Cris Carter during training camp in 1990, his reasoning for doing so was “he only catches touchdowns.”
Buddy was ridiculed for this for years after. But Carter later admitted that he had been struggling with a serious drug addiction at the time and Buddy had released him from the team to help Carter turn his life around.
Buddy never publicly announced Carter's problems. Later on down the road, as an All-Pro receiver for the Vikings (where he would be reunited with Cunningham), Carter thanked Buddy for helping him. Did Buddy say the line about Carter only catching touchdowns to take the focus off Carter?
We'll never know, but it does tell that his players respected Buddy for who he was. There is no denying that Buddy was brash and brutally honest, but his team respected him for that.
Looking back years later, the best part of the Buddyball era seems to be the Eagles-Cowboys games. Buddy certainly did his part in restoring some of the hatred in the infamous Eagles-Cowboys rivalry.
Buddy lost his first-ever game against the 'Boys from Texas, but after he swore Tom Landry ran up the score against his replacement players during the strike of 1987, Buddy vowed never to again lose to the Cowboys. And he kept his word. He won his final seven games against Dallas, and there were some beauties in there.
How about the first time they met after Buddy had accused Landry of running up the score? This time, with the Eagles up 30-20 and in possession of the ball near midfield, everyone expected quarterback Randall Cunningham to take a knee and run out the clock.
Buddy called a timeout and instructed Cunningham to throw it long to tack on another score. The surprised Cowboys secondary committed defensive pass interference, giving the Eagles the ball on the Dallas 1, where Keith Byars ran it in for a touchdown on the final play of the game. Afterwards, Buddy stated, "That last touchdown was very satisfying. I had it planned all along."
The Bounty Bowl was another classic Buddy Ryan moment. In the Thanksgiving Day game in 1989, Buddy was accused of putting a $200 bounty on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendajas (formerly with the Eagles). In that game—a 27-0 win by the Eagles—Zendajas was knocked out of the game with a concussion after a hit by Eagles' linebacker Jesse Small.
The next game between the two teams—just two weeks later—was dubbed as the Bounty Bowl II. The Eagles won this one also, 20-10, in a game that became infamous for Eagles fans (including PA governor Ed Rendell) pelting Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson with snowballs.
There was also the game a year earlier, in 1988, when the Eagles came back from a 20-0 deficit to beat the Cowboys, 24-23, on Randall Cunningham's game-winning touchdown pass to Anthony Toney with just four seconds left on the clock.
Those were just some of the Buddyball moments. Perhaps no coach in the history of sports has hated another team as much as Buddy hated the Dallas Cowboys. And few coaches have had the success against a rival that Buddy did, as he won his final seven and eight of 10 in all against the Cowboys.
In all, Buddy was one of the most controversial, exciting, and debatable figures in the history of Philadelphia sports. Ryan was extremely loyal to his players and earned the respect of the city of Philadelphia. He didn't waste his time being polite with management, reporters, or opposing coaches.
He could be downright rude—Buddy had a habit of walking, or even jogging, directly off the field after a loss, rather than walking to midfield to shake hands with the opposing coach, as was customary around the league—but few coaches in history could relate to their players like Buddy.
In a time when Andy Reid is criticized for failing to win a Super Bowl—although he's still won 10 playoff games in 10 years with the Eagles, including five trips to the conference championship game and a Super Bowl appearance—it's a shock Buddy was so loved in Philly, even though he came up empty in very winnable playoff games, coaxing just one touchdown and 25 total points from his offense in three games.
His legacy in Philly could be seen even after his retirement. In 2002, Buddy received the Bert Bell Memorial Award and thousands crowded the Marriott Hotel to cheer on Buddy Ryan, more than a decade after he had been retired.
Buddy brought the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry back to Philly, and while he may have undercoached Randall Cunningham and failed to win a playoff game, Buddy did take the Eagles to the playoffs on three separate occasions.
He beat the Cowboys seven straight times and anchored one of the fiercest defenses in league history. It's a shame he is always remembered for “what-ifs.” What if Buddy had coached Cunningham? What if Buddy had developed his offensive line? What if he had been blessed with an owner who cared about winning? What if Buddy had just won a playoff game?
I remember Buddy more for what he did. He was obnoxious, loud, cocky, but he was Philly. He epitomized the city. I just wish I could have seen his coaching days.
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