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The Ryan Family Defense: How Buddy Ryan invented the 46

How Buddy Ryan invented the 46 defense, dominated a Super Bowl with it, then passed his wisdom to his sons Rex and Rob.

The following is a chapter from the bookBlood, Sweat & Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today’s Game, published in 2010 by Sports Illustrated Books.

The scene was remarkable not just because it was poignant but also because it was so unusual. The 1985 Chicago Bears had just finished off a 46–10 deconstruction of the overmatched New England Patriots to win Super Bowl XX in the Louisiana Superdome, and the giddy celebrations had begun on the field. Chicago coach Mike Ditka, beloved by these Bears, was lifted onto the shoulders of some of his players—this came as no surprise. But then the strangest thing happened: Suddenly there was Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan being hoisted by linebacker Otis Wilson and defensive end Richard Dent, Ryan’s right leg over Wilson’s left shoulder pad and his left leg on Dent’s right pad, both men laughing, while the rumpled old coach, stuffed into his Bears sweater, awkwardly tried to keep his balance. A defensive coordinator getting a victory ride?

Only once in the intervening years has a Super Bowl title been as convincingly built on defense (in 2000, by the Baltimore Ravens). But the ’85 Bears were more than their defense. They had become a pop cultural phenomenon, with a celebrity coach, Ditka; a celebrity quarterback, Jim McMahon; and a celebrity nosetackle turned tailback, William (the Refrigerator) Perry. They had released a kitschy, funky video—The Super Bowl Shuffle—that was recorded long before the championship game and had become a ubiquitous hit. And, to balance the scales of fame against the frivolous, the Bears also had the seriously gifted Walter Payton, maybe the best running back in the history of the game.

Still, what pulled it all together into winning football was a defense that redefined every essential element: strategy, speed and size, along with intimidation. The ’85 Bears went 15–1 in the regular season, losing only to the Miami Dolphins on the first Monday night in December. Eleven times in 16 regular-season games they held opponents to 10 points or less. Statistics tell only a part of the story; these Bear defenders were scary-good, putting real fright into opposing players. In the postseason they proved even more intimidating. The Bears shut out the New York Giants (21–0) and the Los Angeles Rams (24–0) on consecutive frigid, windswept weekends at Soldier Field. The Giants and Rams combined for a total of 311 offensive yards in eight quarters, with four turnovers to the Bears’ one. It was a display of domination seldom seen at the highest levels of any major sport, and it matched perfectly the city of Chicago’s hard-ass self-image.

Surviving the Shuffle: How the ’85 Bears tempted fate with classic video

Behind this success was a 51-year-old football lifer whose only break from playing and coaching the game he learned growing up in Oklahoma was to serve as a master sergeant in the Army during the Korean War. James David (Buddy) Ryan had been coaching football since he latched on at Gainesville (Texas) High in 1957, but almost three decades later in Chicago he created the perfect amalgam of coach, system and personnel. Ryan had been hired by Bears head coach Neill Armstrong in 1978, and he so inspired his defensive players that when Armstrong was fired after three seasons, they successfully petitioned owner George Halas to keep Ryan in place.

The single most important factor in Ryan’s rise in Chicago came early in his tenure there, while he was in the throes of frustration with the way his unit was performing. Ryan devised a defense that moved balls-out safety Doug Plank to middle linebacker. Ryan called it the “46” because that was Plank’s jersey number, and it would challenge evolving NFL offenses like as no defense had before.

On the night before the Super Bowl in the Bears’ team hotel in New Orleans, the defense gathered, as it would on the eve of every game, for the ritual viewing of one reel of inspirational game film. First Ryan gave a speech; the players were well aware of the rumors that Ryan would be leaving the team after the game (which he did, to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles). “Quivering lip, tears, pretty emotional,” recalls Gary Fencik, the team’s veteran safety and defensive captain.

The reel chosen by Ryan was film of a midseason game in which the New York Jets were trying to play the Bears’ 46 defense, having poached the basic concepts from Bears tape. The Jets version was a poor imitation of the real thing. Bears defensive end Dan Hampton jumped from his chair. “I’m sick of watching the f---ing New York Jets try to run our defense!” Steve McMichael, the tackle who played inside Hampton, took up the cause by heaving a folding chair so hard that it became impaled in the chalkboard. “Then,” says Fencik, “we went next door and ate milk and cookies.”

Less than 24 hours later they crushed the Patriots. And scored the karmic total of 46 points.

Buddy Ryan: An SI photo tribute

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Shelbyville, Ky. April 2009

It has been spring for a month on the calendar, but there is winter in the air in the horse country of central Kentucky. A dark overcast sky spits out periodic snow flurries. The Kentucky Derby will be run in less than two weeks, but warm sunshine, fancy hats and mint juleps seem impossibly distant. Late in the afternoon Buddy Ryan pulls up in a dust-covered pickup truck alongside a horse barn where he rents stall space. He owns 16 horses—four broodmares, four yearlings born just this spring and eight colts. They are not the type of horses bred to win the Triple Crown, but they keep a man busy just the same. Ryan is wearing a Jets windbreaker (in honor of his son Rex’s recent hiring as head coach—as well as his own first job in the NFL) and shuffling with a limp because a horse stepped on his right foot a few days earlier. As he fills plastic feed tubs, he stops to point out a January foal he’s unofficially named Jetty.

Buddy moved here with his second wife, Joanie, in 1996, after the Cardinals fired him from what would be his last coaching job, but retirement hasn’t been all easy. Joanie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2001, and two years later Buddy moved her to an assisted living facility in Louisville. “She’s not doing good,” says Buddy on this day. “But we go to mass every Sunday, and she seems to like that, so it’s O.K.” In the winter of 2005 Buddy fought off a case of encephalitis. (Rex came down to Louisville and raised hell with the hospital staff, telling them, “This ain’t Johnny Bumf--- you’re treating here.”) The illness left some holes in Buddy’s memory, but not when it comes to football.

It was a long journey that had brought Ryan to that evening in New Orleans, sitting atop his players’ shoulders, the most famous defensive coordinator in football, and then carried him to this barn smack in the middle of Kentucky’s horse industry. The wind blows harder as Ryan moves from stall to stall, filling the feed tubs and making sure the horses have water, using a black rubber hose to fill up the pails.

The horses’ names tell the story of Ryan’s life. One broodmare is named Bayside Girl, for Joanie, who was born and raised in Bayside, Queens. Another mare is Fired for Winning, which happened when Ryan was dismissed as coach of the Eagles following the 1990 season. One colt, still actively racing at the time, is named Forty-Six Blitz. That one makes Ryan smile. Buddy always wanted to raise horses, so when his coaching career finally ended, he brought Joanie to the green hills and bought some stock.

After the horses are fed and watered—“put up,” in the parlance of the business—Ryan drops onto a couch in a cluttered tack room just off the shedrow. Two wary cats scurry to cuddle at his feet. “So what do you want to know about the 46?” he asks. “There wasn’t all that much to it at first.” He laughs, because of course there was a lot more by the end.

Raised in the Oklahoma panhandle town of Frederick, Ryan was a lineman on the local high school team, but after graduation, instead of taking his game to college, he enlisted in the National Guard. “I went in when I was 16,” Ryan told Sports Illustrated in 1986. “No one had much money back in Frederick, so a bunch of us joined the National Guard to get that extra $40 a month. Then the sumbitches went and mobilized us.” At 18 he was a master sergeant, leading a platoon in Korea.

Ryan was back home before his 19th birthday, a grown man, and a lineman at Oklahoma A&M, which would later become Oklahoma State. “I was more mature than most of the other players,” he says. “You would expect that.” There he met his future wife, Doris, the homecoming queen, and they were married while still in college. Buddy became a coach, first in high school and then in college, 12 years at six different addresses.

From the Vault (1994): Buddy Ryan inspires both love and hate

Ryan’s first NFL job was with the 1968 New York Jets. Weeb Ewbank had three assistant coaches on that team, and Ryan ran the defense that would eventually shut down the Colts 16–7 in Super Bowl III, shocking the football world. “We really weren’t very creative on defense with that team,” says Ryan. “We played a straight 4–3 and tried to gap teams a little bit. Offset some. Get off the ball quick.” This would become a Ryan signature, using linemen who were too quick off the ball to be easily blocked to disrupt offenses trying to control the line of scrimmage. On that Jets team, Ryan did it with defensive end Gerry Philbin and tackle John Elliott.

“We had a great defense on that team,” says Ryan, “but the coaches didn’t call nothin’. [Middle linebacker] Larry Grantham called all the defenses. But there wasn’t a whole lot to it. Like I said, we weren’t creative, but we were pretty good. Everybody found out in that Super Bowl.”

Ryan stayed in New York for eight seasons before Bud Grant hired him in 1976 to run the Minnesota Vikings’ defense. The Vikings made the Super Bowl in Ryan’s first season with Grant but were beaten by the Oakland Raiders 32–14 in a game that was never close. “We got beat clean,” says Ryan. When reminded that Hall of Fame wideout Fred Biletnikoff had a good game against his defense, Ryan sniffs. “S---, everybody had a good game.”

Ryan spent just one more season in Minnesota before Neill Armstrong brought him to Chicago as defensive coordinator. “That,” Ryan says, “was the first time I was a true defensive coordinator.” It was not necessarily an enviable job. The proud Bears possessed eight NFL titles, but none since 1963 and just one since 1946. They had gone 9–5 in the previous year under Jack Pardee, and that had been the team’s first winning season in a decade. Ryan assessed his hand quickly. “When I got there,” he says, “we didn’t have many good players.”