Bears

Buddy Ryan's unique path to Bears and the letter that kept him in Chicago to build Super Bowl defense

Buddy Ryan's unique path to Bears and the letter that kept him in Chicago to build Super Bowl defense

Legendary Bears defensive coach Buddy Ryan passed away at the age of 85 Tuesday.

Ryan was defensive line coach for the New York Jets under coach Weeb Ewbank and part of the staff that won Super Bowl III with Joe Namath. It was Ewbank’s obsession with protecting Namath that led Ryan to conclude that if keeping the quarterback from being hit was everything to an offense, then getting to the quarterback should therefore be the prime directive of the defense.
 
“If they ‘block’ [with] eight, I’ll rush nine,” Ryan once said. “Because I’m going to get him. If the most important thing is to protect the quarterback, then mine is to get the quarterback.”
 
Ryan broke into coaching in 1961 as the defensive line coach for the Buffalo Bills of the then-AFL. Fittingly perhaps, son Rex is the current Buffalo head coach (and other son Rob is the assistant head coach) and Ryan attended a Bills game last season. Ryan went to the Minnesota Vikings as defensive line coach in 1976, where he had a hand in the achievements of the “Purple People Eaters” (Carl Eller, Alan Page, Gary Larsen, Jim Marshall) before coming to the Bears as defensive coordinator on Neill Armstrong’s staff.
 
George Halas had a hand in hiring Ryan, a factor in 1982 when Halas fired Armstrong but retained Ryan after members of the defense signed a letter, written by Page, by then a member of the Bears, and Gary Fencik to Halas, imploring Halas to keep Ryan. Fencik, initially terrified that Halas would not take kindly to the player input, recalled later sidling over to the defensive coaches and reminding Ryan, “Buddy, now remember who wrote that letter for you.”
 
Ryan did remember, and in 2011 wrote a letter of his own to his players:
 
To my guys,
In 1981, many of you signed a letter to George Halas that saved my job. Now I’m writing a letter to all of you to say thanks. I wish I could be there to say it in person, but this will have to do.
Thank you to the Super Bowl champion 1985 Chicago Bears, the greatest team in NFL history. You gave me the best memories of my coaching life.
I’ll love every one of you until the day I die. I told you this a long time ago, and it’s still true.
You guys will always be my heroes.
Coach Buddy Ryan, 46

 
Ryan, the real center of ESPN’s “30 for 30” special last January on the 1985 Bears, clashed mightily with coach Mike Ditka, to the point of a fight in the shower room at halftime of the Bears’ loss to the Miami Dolphins in 1985. He remained with the Bears through the 1985 season and its historic finish in Super Bowl XX, then left to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. He went on to coach the Arizona Cardinals, famously declaring, “You’ve got a winner in town” upon his hiring, and finished with a 55-55-1 record as a head coach.
 
While Ryan never again reached the victory pinnacle he and the Bears achieved in ’85, he was remembered just as well for many of the individual achievements his players managed because of his influence.
 
Dan Hampton first met Ryan on a trip to Halas Hall before the 1979 draft (in which the Bears made Hampton the fourth-overall pick). The two watched film together and Ryan told Hampton directly that he hoped the Bears would draft Hampton. When Hampton struggled badly in a game his rookie season against the New York Jets, Ryan looked straight at Hampton in a team meeting and said, “Big Rook, I expected you to always be one of those ‘core’ guys, to always be there and fight your [butt] off. You didn’t do nothin’ but embarrass yourself.”
 
Ryan had tears in his eyes, as did Hampton, who that night made a vow, “that never again would I let Buddy Ryan down,” Hampton said. 
 
When Ditka arrived from the Dallas Cowboys to become Bears coach in 1982, he told Ryan that he wanted the Bears to run the “flex” defense that Tom Landry operated in Dallas. Ryan flatly refused, declaring to his players, “He is the head coach. He has the right to run whatever defense he wants. Now, I won’t run it. I’m going to be down on my farm in Kentucky. But he can run whatever he wants.”
 
Ryan did finish his days on his farm in Kentucky, but he ran his “46” defense. Period.

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

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USA TODAY

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu
3. Joel Iyiegbuniwe

1. Roquan Smith
2. Nick Kwiatkoski
3. Jonathan Anderson

1. How good can Roquan Smith be?

Making sweeping observations from shorts-and-helmets practices in OTAs is often a fool’s errand, but Smith looked the part while running around the practice fields of Halas Hall after being drafted in April. His quickness and instinctiveness stood out — as they did at Georgia — and his football intelligence and work ethic were praised by coaches and teammates. 

“He’s learning well,” Trevathan said. “He’s doing a good job of learning. He’s learning the little things that you need to learn in this defense. Now it’s all about putting on a show and going out there and rocking.”

And that’s what’s going to be fun to watch in Bourbonnais: How does Smith play with the pads on? Chances are, the answer to that question will be “well,” setting the eighth overall pick on a path to being a mainstay of this defense for years to come. 

That’s not to say Smith doesn’t have plenty on which to work during training camp. But he left Georgia as a sort of “safe bet” in the draft, and nothing he’s done to this point has changed the view of him that he’s likely going to be a good one. 

2. Can Danny Trevathan stay healthy?

In terms of size and athleticism, Trevathan and Smith profile similar to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the inside linebacking tandem that was the spine of the San Francisco 49ers defense during Fangio’s time there. But for Trevathan and Smith to reach that lofty bar — or even to come close to it — Trevathan needs to be more available than he was his first two years with the Bears.

This isn’t questioning Trevathan’s toughness — far from it. That he returned for Week 1 of the 2017 season 10 months after rupturing his patellar tending (an injury that can be a career-ender) was impressive, and that he was immediately productive upon returning was even more extraordinary. But Trevathan missed three games in November due to a strained calf, and coupled with a one-game suspension and the seven games he missed in 2016, the 28-year-old has only played in 21 of 32 games since signing with the Bears. 

Trevathan is confident he can improve his production in 2018, given he wasn’t able to participate in last year’s offseason program practices. He’s entering his third year in Fangio’s defense and feels better prepared after going through OTAs and minicamps this year. It’s just now about him staying on the field to make sure that work pays off.

“I’m more comfortable with this defense, I’m more comfortable with the guys and the calls that we make,” Trevathan said. “I take pride in being correct and working my tail off and making the defense better. And the more that I can be out there — which I plan on being out there a lot — it’s going to help us tremendously.” 

3. How big a role will Nick Kwiatkoski have?

The Bears didn’t draft Smith because they felt like they absolutely needed to upgrade over Kwiatkoski, who’s acquitted himself well in 25 games since being picked in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. But Kwiatkoski has dealt with some injury issues, and for as solid a player as he may be, the Bears’ defense needed (and still needs) more great players. Drafting Smith gave the Bears a shot at adding a great player.

It also leaves Kwiatkoski in the same spot he was in a year ago, when the Bears entered the 2017 season with Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman as their unquestioned starting inside linebackers. Smith still has to earn that starting spot, but the safe bet is he will, relegating Kwiatkoski again to reserve duties.

And that’s a positive for the overall health of this defense, having a player good enough to start ready to play if needed. But it also raises this question: What do the Bears do with Kwiatkoski if he’s one of their four best linebackers, but isn’t one of their two best inside linebackers? 

So for the purposes of watching training camp practices, seeing if Kwiatkoski gets any reps at outside linebacker will be an interesting storyline to follow. 

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

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USA Today

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

Maybe this is what happens when a team is coming off a 5-11 season and has won only 14 games over three years. Maybe it's just another example of the Chicago Bears being overlooked and underrated. Regardless of the 'why,' a recent poll of NFL experts has provided more fuel for the Bears in 2018.

ESPN's Field Yates asked 43 insiders and former players for their list of the top under-25-year-old starters in the NFL and not a single Chicago Bear made the cut.

No Jordan Howard. No Mitchell Trubisky. No Allen Robinson.

Not a single Bear.

The most shocking omission is Howard, who finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2016 and sixth last year despite facing defenses that focused their entire game plan on stopping him every single week. At only 23 years old, he's clearly one of the top young running backs in the NFL and warranted a spot on this list. 

Instead, the Rams' Todd Gurley, Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and Giants rookie Saquon Barkley got the nod.

Howard has more rushing yards than Gurley over the last two seasons and trails Elliott by only 179. Barkley has yet to take a snap in the NFL.

The Bears were recently named the most underrated team in the league heading into 2018 and this is just another piece of evidence justifying that claim. A winning season will change the national perception of players like Howard, who with another year of high-end production should find himself at or near the top of many of these lists next offseason.