One very distinguished voter for Pro Football Hall of Fame inclusion once explained a criterion of his for inclusion in the league’s most hallowed circle: If you wrote the history of football, would you have to include this individual?
Buddy Ryan is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; he should be, but that’s for another discussion, another time. Because the simple fact is that if you were indeed writing a history of the National Football League, that history would be incomplete without Buddy Ryan.
“I think Buddy changed the game of football,” said Mike Ditka, Bears head coach with Ryan as his first, albeit inherited, defensive coordinator. “He is the reason why teams started going to all these three- and four-receiver sets.
“He never let offenses do what they wanted. The game of football is what it is today because of Buddy.”
Ryan did not create great defense. That had been done wholly or in parts by others – Bill George, George Allen, Dick Butkus, and so on. But what Buddy Ryan did echoes down through the history of the NFL, in more a few of its defining moments.
Super Bowl III is always remembered as Joe Namath’s day. Obscured by all that Namath and the New York Jets’ offense did was what the defensive line of Buddy Ryan was doing to the Baltimore Colts, specifically holding them to exactly seven points, on a late afterthought touchdown, a team that was coached by Don Shula and included John Mackey, Jimmy Orr and averaging nearly 29 points per game.
Super Bowl III was beyond cataclysmic for the growth of the modern NFL. And all that was long before Super Bowl XX.
Maybe the best measure of how truly great a coach Ryan was lay in the fact that he managed to turn OFFENSIVE players into fire-breathers.
“He’d say to the offensive line, ‘you fatasses can’t block anybody in practice, how you gonna do it in a game?’” recalled Hall of Famer Dan Hampton. “And [left tackle Jimbo] Covert and [left guard Mark] Bortz would just turn into animals.”
Ryan loved his players. But it was tough love, affection that had to be earned, and once earned, was something they treasured.
At the end of Otis Wilson’s rookie (1980) season, No. 55 may have been the team’s first-round pick, but Ryan was publicly blunt.
“We did OK, but that ‘55’ killed us," Ryan said after one game.
Wilson turned the humiliation into something, becoming a student of the game, his craft, even to the point of cramming for Ryan’s legendary written tests.
“'I’m out of school, Buddy,'" Wilson said he wailed. “'Why you givin’ me these exams?'"
“You need to understand the total package,” Ryan ordered. “I want you to know what everybody’s doing.”
Today that sounds almost quaint; everybody’s supposed to know everybody else’s assignments. But never lose sight of the originator, who beat that concept into every head on his defense.
In the end, Ryan belonged to more than Chicago. He was a Jet. He was a Viking. He was Bear. He was an Eagle. And finally a Cardinal.
He belonged to the NFL, which, exactly as Ditka said, was changed forever by him.
They feuded, on the practice fields, on the sidelines, in locker rooms, even in showers. Yet Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan were joined in football history in one of the great “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” in all of sports.
“We had a helluva run,” Ditka told CSNChicago.com. “Buddy had a helluva run. Was it always as smooth as it might have been? Noooo. But I don’t think Buddy would’ve wanted it any other way.
“We accomplished so much together and we were never as good separately as we were together.”
Ditka saw Ryan about eight months ago.
“I knew he wasn’t doing real well. But you know, he was always a tough guy, right to the end.”
Ryan was Ditka’s defensive coordinator, inherited by Ditka when Ditka was hired by George Halas in 1982 to restore the lost passion to one of the NFL’s charter franchises. Ryan’s players convinced Halas to keep Ryan as defensive coordinator even as head coach Neill Armstrong was dismissed.
Ryan refused to run the Dallas Cowboys’ “flex” defense that Ditka wanted, bluntly declaring that Halas had hired him, Ditka didn’t. Ditka ran the offense, Ryan the defense, and the fire was never far from the surface.
Ryan didn’t care if his defensive players went hard in practice to the point of blowing up Ditka’s offense.
“He’d get those guys going, and I remember yelling at him, ‘Check the schedule. We’re not playing the Chicago Bears this week,’” Ditka said. “But he made us a great offense.
“He attacked you. Always attacked you. All the time. He made you – made every offense – adjust to what he was doing.
“He changed the game of football forever.”
CSNChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 1, we’ll unveil the @CSNPreps Top 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 26.
School: Deerfield Warriors
Head coach: Steve Winiecki
Assistant coaches: Brandon Geuder, Nick Rossie, Mark Januszewski, Steve Downs, Flo Mitran, Quentin Davie
How they fared in 2015: 7-4 (4-1) Central Suburban North Conference. Deerfield made the Class 6A state playoff field and defeated Kenwood in the opening round. The Warriors lost to DeKalb in second-round action.
Biggest storyline in 2016: Can the Warriors reload on both sides of the football?
Names to watch this season: MLB/DE Joshua Maize, WR Charlie Jones
Biggest holes to fill: The Warriors have some DI names in Mazie and Jones, but they return just three starters on each side of the football.
EDGY's early take: Deerfield is always involved in the Central Suburban North conference race. If the Warriors can get a large group of inexperienced starters up to speed sooner rather than later? Deerfield will challenge for a state playoff spot in 2016.