On this day in 2016, former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator/Philadelphia Eagles head coach James “Buddy” Ryan died at age 85. This post was originally published on July 2, 2016, in honor of the 1985 NFC Divisional Playoff game between the Bears and New York Giants at Soldier Field and a celebration of Ryan’s football acumen.
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The NFL community is celebrating the life of coaching legend Buddy Ryan, a man partially responsible for one of the darkest days in the storied history of the New York Giants.
A mercurial coaching lifer, Ryan stalked high school, college, and NFL sidelines for almost forty years. He was the defensive line coach for the New York Jets team that put an exclamation point on the AFL-NFL merger by defeating the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Ryan also served as defensive line coach for the Minnesota Vikings’ fabled Purple People Eaters line of the 1970s.
He was best known as the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears from 1978-85 and head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1986-90. One of football’s most brilliant and innovative minds, Ryan was the creator of the fearsome 46 defense.
Named for former Bears safety Doug Plank (who wore No. 46 during Ryan’s early tenure with the Bears), the 46 defense put as many as eight men on the defensive line for the purpose of overpowering opponents’ blocking schemes.
It inspired confusion, as it produced blitzes from just about anyone on the defense, with the primary goal of sacking the quarterback. The 46 defense symbolized the philosophy of its creator as Ryan once quipped, “A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back.”
Although versions of the 46 defense still exist in today’s NFL, the best example of its execution was by the Bears during the 1985 season.
Led by a trio of Hall of Famers (defensive ends Richard Dent and Dan Hampton and linebacker Mike Singletary), the Bears’ defense destroyed virtually every opponent they faced in 1985.
During the regular season, the Bears led the league in points allowed per game (12.4) en route to a 15-1 record and home field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs.
Their Divisional Playoff opponent was the New York Football Giants.
In 1985, Bill Parcells’ third season as head coach, Big Blue finished the regular season with a 10-6 record, earning a Wild Card berth. In the Wild Card Game, the Giants beat the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers 17-3, avenging a Divisional Playoff loss from the previous season.
The Giants’ defense was anchored by Hall of Fame linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson and stewarded by a young defensive coordinator named Bill Belichick. They ranked fifth in points allowed (17.7). The Giants offense wasn’t too shabby either, as they were ranked sixth in points per game (24.9).
The Giants had momentum on their side going into that Jan. 5, 1986 matchup against the Bears. They made short work of the 49ers and the Bears hadn’t played since the regular season finale. The Giants were looking to make history on that sunny, blustery day in Chicago.
Unfortunately for the Giants, they would be on the wrong side of history.
The Bears pummeled and punished the Giants throughout the game. Quarterback Phil Simms was sacked six times. The most memorable sack was the first one. Dent, whose agent had threatened to hold him out of the postseason due to a contract dispute, pounded Simms at the Giants 12-yard line for the first of his three and a half sacks.
The sack forced punter Sean Landeta to attempt a kick from three yards into his goal line. When Landeta dropped the ball to make the kick, the brisk January wind at Soldier Field changed the direction of the ball, causing it to go off the side of his foot.
The ball went right into the ground, bouncing a short distance before it was scooped up by Bears safety Shaun Gayle. Gayle returned the ball five yards for a touchdown, the shortest punt return for a touchdown in NFL history.
Simms was held to 14-of-35 for 209 yards. Running back Joe Morris, the regular season touchdown leader with 21, gained 14 yards on his first carry. He was held to 18 yards on his next 11 carries and missed much of the second half after he was concussed by Dent.
The Giants offense went three-and-out on nine of their first 11 possessions, 0-for-12 on third down conversions, and 0-for-2 on fourth down.
By the way, The Giants were shutout 21-0.
The Bears also shutout the Los Angeles Rams (24-0) in the NFC Championship Game, holding Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson (who gained a playoff record 248 yards and scored two touchdowns in the Divisional round against the Dallas Cowboys) to 46 yards and caused him to fumble twice.
The Bears completed their postseason run by annihilating the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.
The 1985 Divisional Playoff still remains one of the darkest days in Giants history more than three decades later.
Center Bart Oates won three Super Bowls with the Giants and 49ers. In an ESPN interview commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Bears’ victory in Super Bowl XX, Oates recalled the game and the pressure Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense put on the Giants during the Divisional Playoff.
“It was total confusion,” Oates said. “They just dominated. To me, it felt like a 42-0 game. I think we could have played another eight quarters and would not score a touchdown against them. Our schemes and personnel just didn’t match up with them.”
Both the Hoodie and the Tuna respected Buddy Ryan’s genius as well.
Belichick, in advance of a 2012 matchup against the New York Jets coached by Rex Ryan (the elder of Buddy Ryan’s fraternal twin sons), marveled at the efficiency of the 46 defense.
“He had by formation a different combination and group of blitzes so depending on what formation you were in, then he ran a blitz that would attack that formation and then when you changed formations, he would change blitzes,” Belichick said.
“Plus the fact (he) had Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, (linebacker Otis) Wilson, (linebacker Wilbur) Marshall, that was a pretty good group there. You could have probably played a lot of things and that defense would have looked pretty good, especially when they put Hampton on the nose. That was pretty unblockable.”
Parcels said in an interview on Sirius XM Radio, “That 46 defense was something that was really an old-time defense modernized by Buddy Ryan. It was really a defense that was used back in the ‘50s in pro football, but Buddy modernized it to use more linebackers in the front.
“And it was a defense that he knew exactly what kind of personnel he was looking for to fit in the defense. And he got those (players) and he put them in there and integrated them into the system. It really was something to contend with for several years.”
Inspired by the pummeling they took by Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense in the 1985 Divisional Playoff, the Giants went into the 1986 season with a vengeance.
Led by Simms, Morris, and Taylor (who won both Defensive Player of the Year and NFL Most Valuable Player), the Giants posted a franchise best 14-2 record. They defeated the 49ers 49-3 in the Divisional Playoff and the Washington Redskins 17-0 in the NFC Championship Game on their way to a 39-21 dismantling of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.