- Ron Jaworski, NFL analyst / writer
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Editor's Note: The following is the first in a series of excerpts from Ron Jaworski's book, "The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays."
I remember, during one game in which I was playing quarterback for Buddy Ryan's Philadelphia Eagles, coming to the sideline to get the next play from offensive coordinator Ted Plumb. In the middle of our conversation, Buddy stuck his head in and screamed, "Run the G--damn ball!" I asked him what he wanted, a "power-O" or one of our other standard calls in the Eagles playbook. He spat back, "I don't give a s---! Just run the G--damn ball!" Buddy simply did not know the plays. He had no real understanding of our offensive scheme. The one thing he did know was how to stop one.
If Buddy comes off sounding like a master sergeant, it's probably because that's exactly what he was. When he was barely eighteen, Ryan left his small farming town of Frederick, Oklahoma, to join the army, later serving two years in the Korean War.
After being discharged from the army, he returned home to play football at Oklahoma A&M. Buddy coached at a number of southwest high schools in the late fifties before making the jump to the college level. My former ESPN Matchup colleague Sam Rutigliano knew him in the mid-1960s when Buddy was coaching at the University of Buffalo. "Even then, Buddy Ryan was the kind of guy who'd pull the trigger before the target was up," said Sam. "He'd say and do whatever he wanted. Buddy didn't give a crap about anyone's feelings. He always did things his way, but he was also a smart and very funny guy whom his players loved."
Buddy's first job in pro football could not have come at a better moment. He was hired by the New York Jets in the winter of 1968, in time to be part of their Super Bowl championship season. And the most influential concept of Buddy's football life came from the guy who gave him his first job in the pros: Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank. Weeb put a lot of emphasis on protecting his "meal ticket," quarterback Joe Namath, whose knees were in bad shape even before his rookie season as a Jet in 1965. Ewbank spent hours refining and teaching intricate pass blocking schemes, including a technique he'd developed with Paul Brown called "cup" protection (in which a semicircle formed around the quarterback, with the linemen interlocking their hands to avoid both holding calls and arm slaps from pass rushers). This clearly made an impression on Buddy. He figured that if Weeb thought it was so important to keep Namath from getting hit, then, as a defensive coach, Buddy needed to come up with whatever he could to hit the quarterbacks of other teams. More than anything else, pocket pressure became the most significant principle of his entire defensive philosophy. This was a truly groundbreaking idea when pro football, especially as played back then in the NFL, was totally defined by the running game.
Buddy continued to spread his "gospel of aggression" when he coached one of the great front fours in history, the Purple People Eaters of the 1970s Minnesota Vikings, which included future Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Alan Page. When Vikings assistant Neill Armstrong was hired to be head coach of the Bears in 1978, he asked Ryan to come with him as his defensive coordinator, and Buddy jumped at the opportunity. Now he could run a defense his way, experimenting with ideas that those once above him had found too radical. It didn't happen overnight.
Buddy wanted opponents to throw against the alignment. Heck, he was daring them to do it.
Chicago was a mediocre team, and Buddy's early Bears defenses didn't have the best talent. But they did like to hurt people -- which made them just the kind of players he liked. The NFC Central was still known as the "Black-and-Blue division," and Buddy's boys lived up to that name every Sunday. But blood and broken bones didn't translate into many wins, and in 1981, a 1-6 start put the Bears at the bottom of the standings.
Chicago's next game would be against one of the league's best quarterbacks: the Chargers' Dan Fouts. He and the rest of the Air Coryell juggernaut were the NFL's top-ranked offense, and they came into Soldier Field that Sunday as two-touchdown favorites. "I still remember Neill Armstrong's speech he made at the hotel the night before we played the Chargers," safety Gary Fencik recalled. "Neill basically said we didn't have any chance of winning the game. But Buddy had some new defensive schemes to try and put added pressure on Fouts, force him to hurry his decisions."
Ryan switched gears, abandoning his standard alignments and, for the first time, leaning heavily on strategies deployed from the 46. "Using my jersey number to identify that defense wasn't unusual," safety Doug Plank explained. "There were a lot of coverages and blitzes Buddy labeled by a specific player's number, and in this defense I had a lot to do, so that's where the name came from."
Against the Chargers, Ryan unveiled the first permutation of the 46: a nickel package with a 5-1-5 personnel grouping the Bears had not previously shown that season. It looked like this: Buddy moved Plank from his safety position into the box, as if he were a linebacker. The other two safeties, Fencik and future Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, were also sent in at key moments to apply additional pressure. "We ran that game from the secondary," said Plank. "We were able to communicate Buddy's calls with code words, expressions and hand signals."
At the same time, something was different with the Bears' down linemen. The weakside defensive end lined up outside of the offensive tackle in a wider pass rush position, while the other defensive end and the defensive tackles set up directly over the guards and the center. This became known as a "reduced front," and it forced the interior offensive linemen into awkward and difficult one-on-one matchups. It became the defining feature of the 46. This alignment must have looked like something from outer space to the Chargers, and with good reason. In those days, nobody else was playing with eight men in the box. Buddy wanted opponents to throw against the alignment. Heck, he was daring them to do it.
With eight men crowding the front, the Chargers weren't sure what was going on. If I had been the quarterback that day, I'd have been thinking to myself, How many of these guys are actually going to rush? From which direction are they coming? What kind of protection should I choose? And I'd have to come up with answers for all these questions in the blink of an eye. Plank recognized immediately that this new "Buddy system" could work. "Perceived pressure was a key concept of the 46," he pointed out. "The anticipation of what might be coming was just as important as what then actually did happen. Against the Chargers, we created a sense of urgency for their entire offense, forcing them to play at a more hurried pace than what they usually did. It changed their whole mind-set."
It worked even better than Buddy had hoped. Fouts suffered the worst statistical day of his career, completing only 13 of 43 passes while throwing two interceptions. One of those picks came in overtime from Fencik, which set up the winning field goal for a 20-17 Bears win. "We'd never seen this defense before and weren't prepared to deal with it," said San Diego running back Hank Bauer. "When that happens, it's pretty tough to change the game plan you came in with. And they whacked us around pretty hard."
The most pleasantly surprised people that day may have been the Bears defenders. "You wouldn't think these blitzes would work against a quarterback like Dan Fouts," said Fencik. "But we did pretty well that game and felt that if the 46 could succeed against a Hall of Fame passer, well, then it would probably do just fine against a lot of other, less talented quarterbacks."
Despite their surprising win over San Diego and a few other strong defensive performances, the '81 Bears never got out of the Central Division cellar. By late December, it appeared that Ryan's time in Chicago was coming to an end. After a 6-10 finish, Neill Armstrong was going to be fired, and the rest of the coaching staff assumed that it would be canned along with him. But Buddy's defensive stars went on the offensive. The charge was spearheaded by Alan Page, Buddy's favorite player with the Vikings, who was now finishing his NFL career in Chicago. Page would eventually go on to become a state supreme court justice in Minnesota, and he pleaded a strong case for retaining Buddy in a letter he wrote to team owner George Halas. The note was then signed by the rest of the defensive players. "We did that to cover our butts," confessed Fencik. "The letter basically said we thought Buddy and his staff had done a good job with us, and no matter who was hired as head coach, Buddy and his people should stay on.
"So one snowy day at practice, Halas shows up—which he rarely did at this point in his life because he was eighty-six years old. We were all terrified that he was going to be angry about our petition. He told all the assistants to 'take a walk,' because he wanted to speak to the defensive players privately. He pointed to us and said, 'I got your letter, and I want you to know that in all my years in football, I've never received one like it. I came here to tell you personally that your [position] coaches will be back next year.'"
From the book, "THE GAMES THAT CHANGED THE GAME: THE EVOLUTION OF THE NFL IN SEVEN SUNDAYS" by Ron Jaworski, with Greg Cosell and David Plaut. Copyright (c) 2010 by Ron Jaworski. Reprinted by arrangement with ESPN Books, an imprint of ESPN, Inc., New York and Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
In "The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays," Ron Jaworski takes an in-depth look at seven coaches who exhibited both creativity and courage in bucking established football strategies.