Nineteen years ago, Buddy Ryan was a joke.
He brought it on himself. He was uncouth and hyperbolic. Delivering quips with a comedian’s timing, his cleverness with a quote could overshadow his brilliance as a defensive coach.
Then there was that infamous punch line Ryan delivered on the Houston Oilers’ sideline during the 1993 season. Ryan fired his right fist toward offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride’s temple.
Ryan’s glancing blow didn’t end his career on the spot because he was a good coach. He’d concocted the Chicago Bears’ dastardly 46 defense. Nobody else could seem to replicate the belligerent amoeba.
So after humiliating his employer on national television, the Arizona Cardinals hired Ryan to be their head coach in 1994 and arouse a forlorn franchise with his radical defensive system.
Ryan, rarely one to give a damn what others think, hired his twin sons to be defensive assistants. Rex and Rob Ryan had zero NFL experience aside from being ball boys at their dad’s various stops.
People rolled their eyes at the nepotism. It was another example, they moaned, of Buddy’s professional recklessness, the kind of antics that got him fired as Philadelphia Eagles head coach in 1991.
“My sons were very good coaches from the get-go, and they worked for what they earned,” Ryan said last week while on a break from feeding his broodmares in Shelbyville, Ky. “I knew they’d be great.”
The Ryans lasted two seasons in Phoenix. Their ouster was considered a death knell for the 46 defense, apparent validation that it was more fad than revolution because offenses had begun to counter all the chaos and blind aggression.
Buddy never would coach again. The twins slipped back to the college level. Each meandered back to the NFL about five years later as an assistant eager to prove that he not only was his own man, but also that Buddy’s system still worked.
Although the phenomenon needed three decades to take root, what once was viewed as nepotism in the desert is growing into an oaken NFL coaching tree with branches reaching across the league.
“He was just ahead of his time,” Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said of Buddy Ryan.
Ryan defenses have made a significant impact this year. Two of those defenses will be on display this afternoon in Ralph Wilson Stadium. Jets head coach Rex Ryan’s defense is ranked eighth in total yards and first against the run. Pettine, in his first pro season away from Rex Ryan, has transformed one of the NFL’s most passive and boring units into an attacking horde.
“I feel great about it,” Rex Ryan said Wednesday on a conference call with Bills reporters. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. It’s great to see, and obviously I’m very proud of the guys that are heading those defenses up.”
Rob Ryan took over one of the worst defenses in NFL history, turning the New Orleans Saints into the seventh-stingiest total defense so far this year.
Bob Sutton left Rex Ryan’s staff to be the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive coordinator this year. They’re still undefeated because of a defense that ranks 10th overall, first in sacks, first in takeaways and first in third-down efficiency. They owned the NFL’s worst record last year.
San Francisco 49ers veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens when Rex Ryan was coordinator, also is applying many of those philosophies. The 49ers rank sixth in yards allowed.
Buddy Ryan’s legacy also lives through former Bears who became respected coaches. St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher was an undersized defensive back for Buddy and has applied 46 defense elements over the years.
Other alums such as Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and Vikings assistant Mike Singletary don’t ascribe to the 46 but certainly were influenced by Buddy’s over-aggressive philosophies.
“Buddy’s one of the greatest minds to ever coach in the NFL,” said Seth Joyner, a Pro Bowl linebacker for him with the Eagles and Cardinals, “and his sons resurrected the things he did.
“His sons were serious about the job, and where they are at this point in time speaks to that. The evidence is in what these guys have meant to NFL defenses today.”
On the attack
There’s no easy way to define a Ryan defense. It’s conceptual. There’s no base system to illustrate simply with X’s and O’s.
So what is a Ryan defense?
“Aggression,” Bills safety Jim Leonhard said. “You’re going to attack.”
Leonhard knows Ryan defenses inside and out. He played for Rex Ryan with the Ravens in 2008 and joined the Jets when they hired Rex Ryan to be head coach in 2009. Pettine and Sutton also were on staff.
Leonhard spent training camp this year with Rob Ryan and the Saints before signing with the Bills.
“A Ryan defense likes to dictate to an offense,” Leonhard said. “You come after them. It’s trying to get the players to be disruptive.”
That model sounds like common sense. Defenses should be assertive at least, hostile preferably. They should confuse a quarterback and want to make his life miserable.
That’s not a universal precept, however. There’s a reason Buffalo’s previous defensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt, went from winning Super Bowls in the 1990s with his 4-3 system to coaching special teams this year.
Defenses have been reactionary for most of football’s history. The “bend but don’t break” ideal is common. The Tampa 2 defense, popular in the early 2000s, emphasized prudence and not getting beaten deep. Many teams worry about gap control or run fits to contain an offense.
Asked about “fits” at training camp this summer, Bills head coach Doug Marrone recoiled. He called it “the F-word.”
“We attack the run in what we do,” Marrone explained.
Ryan defenses don’t let opponents get comfortable. Prevent defenses? Three-man rushes on third-and-long? Forget those.
“I’ve never been a fan of ‘bend but don’t break,’ ” Joyner said. “I’ve never been a fan of letting offenses do what they want between the 20s, which you see so much nowadays. Teams are racking up yards and then, you know, ‘We’ll bear down in the red zone and make them kick field goals.’
“Do you want to die a quick death or a long, drawn-out death? Against a Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, if you give them time they’ll eventually find somebody. If you’re passive, they’ll pick you apart.”
An extreme experiment
Buddy Ryan was disgusted with his Bears defense in the late 1970s.
His reactionary defenses had been sufficient in the past. He ran the defense that helped New York win Super Bowl III and oversaw a Vikings defense that went to Super Bowl XI.
But in Chicago, Buddy needed to devise something unusual. The Bears were poor in coverage and not particularly intimidating against the run. What they had, though, were ferocious hitters in safeties Gary Fencik and Doug Plank.
Buddy’s overarching mission was to screw with the offense. Rather than react, he took charge with confusion and aggression.
He positioned three linemen over the center and guards, forcing the offense into one-on-one blocking situations. Linebackers overloaded one side of the line, creating a mismatch by making a tight end or running back block someone he probably couldn’t. A safety, usually Plank, walked down from his safety spot and became an extra linebacker who could cover or blitz.
Offenses failed to account for all the pressure. The best situation for Buddy’s defense was unleashing a free runner straight to the quarterback, who usually didn’t have time to look at his second read, never mind heave the ball downfield.
The defense was named the 46 because that was Plank’s uniform number.
“When you ask a player to react, then you take away some of his ability to anticipate,” Plank said of the traditional defensive mindset.
“When you operate an attacking defense, you put in those players’ minds, ‘We are dictating this game. We are controlling what happens.’ When you inject that into a game, you start to see things change.”
Buddy Ryan’s new defense originally was designed for third downs. The 46 package developed into an every-down system when Singletary arrived to play middle linebacker in 1981.
Not only was the 46 defense productive, but it also was incredibly fun.
“We loved playing it,” Joyner said of the 46 incarnations in Philly and Phoenix. “You love forcing the hand of an offense.”
Much of the defense’s beauty was the appearance of pressure. The Bears didn’t have to overload blitz all the time. Offensive coordinators still would use maximum protection, leaving their doe-eyed quarterbacks with reduced options.
“There are times you see a quarterback desperately trying to get rid of the football when there’s only a three-man rush,” Plank said, “because there’s an illusion that ‘This is coming, and I have to get rid of this as fast as I can.’
“The key to this game is confusing the quarterback. If you can do that, you’re probably going to win the game.”
Chicago continued to pick up players who were perfectly suited for the 46 and eventually fielded what’s considered the greatest defense in NFL history. The 1985 Bears ranked first in total defense, scoring defense, run defense and interceptions. They were third in pass defense.
“Nobody had an answer for it,” said Plank, who retired after the 1982 season and was a Jets assistant on Rex Ryan’s staff in 2009. “It looked like the Bears had 15 players on the field. It was unfair.”
The Bears posted back-to-back shutouts in the playoffs and pulverized the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Buddy Ryan’s players, knowing he would leave to become somebody else’s coach, carried him off the sideline on their shoulders.
There and gone
Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense annihilated offenses and won a championship 28 years ago. His defense also had success with the Eagles (three straight playoff appearances) and his first year with the Cardinals.
Yet in the copycat NFL, where analysts breathlessly debated whether the quirky Wildcat was here to stay and teams drafted players specifically for it, the 46 defense didn’t spread in the 1990s.
The scheme didn’t circulate for much the same reason it made quarterbacks and offensive coordinators break out in hives: People just didn’t understand it like Buddy Ryan did.
In fact, Buddy would’ve preferred not passing on the defense to his sons. He tried to push them away from coaching, but Rex and Rob were insistent.
So Buddy bought an easel and rented a room at the Mark Motor Hotel in Weatherford, Okla., where the twins had just graduated from Southwestern Oklahoma State. For two days, Buddy gave them a crash course about 46 defensive concepts and then sent them on their way.
Another reason the 46 didn’t take off in the 1990s was a throng of Buddy Ryan detractors. He was unlikable unless you played for him (sometimes even if you did) or shared his DNA. He was irreverent enough that considering him a crackpot was natural.
“He didn’t even have friends on his own staff,” Plank said. “Buddy was his own man.
“It took a while for his sons to grow up and run the defenses in colleges and then in the pros.”
Plank and Joyner stressed that Ryan-influenced defenses are perfect deterrents for today’s spread offenses.
NFL rules encourage scoring, particularly in the pass game. Defenders must be extra careful about hitting quarterbacks and defenseless receivers and are limited in how they can disrupt routes.
Joyner compared the NFL’s pitch-and-catch timing routes to what he sees at seven-on-seven youth camps.
Defenses are learning – and Ryan defenses are showing – that aggression might be necessary simply to keep competition fair against these high-percentage offenses.
Back in Kentucky, Buddy Ryan watches all of his sons’ games on TV and notices other teams using his defense, too.
“A bunch of them are coaching it,” Buddy Ryan said.
He’s 79 and has trouble hearing over the phone, but Debbie Ellis, owner of the farms where he keeps his horses, relayed the questions and answers.
“I still feel like I’m part of the game. Coaches keep using bits and pieces of my defense.”
The Ryan defense finally looks like it’s here to stay.
What Buddy’s brash sons continue to accomplish, plus the Chiefs’ startling turnaround under Sutton and the Bills’ marked improvement with Pettine should lead more teams to adopt their philosophies.
While considering the Ryan coaching tree, Pettine noted, “There are sons, literally. Then there are cousins, with the Jeff Fisher influence. Bob Sutton and I would fall into that category of having worked for Rex. So we’re grandsons.”
That’s an impressive family tree, nepotism or not.