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.

Putting Bill Belichick’s complimentary comments about the Bears in context

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USA TODAY

Putting Bill Belichick’s complimentary comments about the Bears in context

Bill Belichick had plenty of good things to say about Matt Nagy and the 2018 Bears during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. Some of the highlights:

 

On the Bears’ season as a whole:

 

“The Bears have lost two games, one on a game when they were in control of the game and another one they lost in overtime. This really looks like a 5-0 team to me, if you change one or two plays. You can say that about a lot of teams, but that’s the league we’re in.”

 

On Mitch Trubisky:

 

“I think he’s done a good job of getting ball to the players that are open or in space and letting them be playmakers. He has a lot of them. That’s the quarterback’s job is to deliver the ball to the playmakers and let them go. I think he’s done a good job of that. He’s a tough kid, which I respect. That’s what we would ask our quarterbacks to do, to make plays to help our team win, to get the ball to the players that are open and in space. It’s not about stats. It’s about doing what you need to do to win.”

 

On Tarik Cohen’s usage:

 

“He plays about a little bit less than 50 percent of the time and he’s in a lot of different places, he’s hard to find. He’s a dynamic player that can run, catch, really threaten every yard of the field from sideline to sideline, up the middle, deep. You can throw it to him, you can hand it to him and he’s elusive with the ball and he’s elusive to be able to get open so the quarterback can get him the ball. Those are great skills to have. Any one of those is good and he’s got several of them.

 

“He’s very hard to tackle. But they do a great job mixing him, not just putting him in the game but who he’s in the game with, what the combinations are and then where they locate him and so forth. There are a lot of multiples. It’s hard. Coach Nagy does a good job with that and he’s a special player that you gotta know where he is at all times.”

 

On Trubisky’s 54-yard bomb to Taylor Gabriel on Sunday:

 

“That’s about as good a throw and catch as I’ve seen all year. The execution on that was like 99 out of 100. It was a great, great throw, great route, great catch. There was like a few inches to get the ball in there 50 yards downfield and that’s where it was.”

 

On Akiem Hicks’ impact, who played for the Patriots in 2015:

 

“He’s hard to block. It doesn’t make any difference what the play is, you can run to him and he’s hard to block. You can run away from him, and he makes tackles for loss on the back side. He’s quick and can get around those blocks when there’s more space back there because everybody is going to the front side. He can power rush. He can rush the edges with his quickness. He’s a very, very disruptive player. He’s hard to block on everything.

 

“I appreciate all of the plays he makes. He makes plays on all three downs, against all types of plays, whether it’s reading screen passes or power rushing the pocket to help the ends, to help (Leonard) Floyd and Mack and (Aaron) Lynch rush on the edge. He’s a powerful, disruptive guy. (Eddie) Goldman has done a good job of that. (Bilal) Nichols has done a good job of that too. They have some really powerful guys inside that are hard to block, and they change the line of scrimmage in the running game and the passing game. It really creates a problem, frees up the linebackers in the running game and helps the ends because the quarterback can’t step up in the pocket in the passing game.”

 

On Matt Nagy:

 

“Obviously he's done a great job, as has Ryan with building the team. They have a lot of good players. They have a really experienced staff and they do a great job in all three areas of the game. They're good in the kicking game, they're good on defense they're good on offense. They have highly-skilled players in all three areas.

 

“It's a well-balanced football team that does a lot of things well. Run the ball. Stop the run. Throw the ball. Rush the passer. Intercept passes. Return kicks. Cover kicks. Cover punts. They're at the top of the league in all those categories. Turnovers. Points off turnovers. It doesn't really matter what area you want to talk about, they're pretty good at all of them. That's why they're a good football team.

 

“Coach Nagy and his staff certainly deserve a lot of credit. It's not a one-man band. They're all doing a good job. It's a good football team. I'm sure there will be a lot of energy in the stadium this week. It will be a great test for us to go into Chicago and be competitive against them.”

 

While listening to Belichick rave about the Bears, this missive from former Patriots general manager Michael Lombardi stands out:

 

“Whenever Belichick tells the media on Mondays or Tuesdays that he has already moved on to the next game, trust me, he’s not lying. I worked with Bill for five years in Cleveland, and then during the 2014 and 2015 seasons in New England. Belichick treats every game like a Super Bowl; no detail is too small, no possible scenario or situation goes overlooked. I have heard Belichick break down a bumbling Jaguars team as if it was the reigning two-time Super Bowl winner and treat Blake Bortles like he’s the second coming of Aaron Rodgers. Belichick does it with tape to back up his claims, only showing his team the opponent’s greatest strengths. (With Bortles, I swear, he must have used George Lucas to doctor the video.) No Patriots opponent is underestimated or taken lightly — EVER.”

 

One of the myriad things that make Belichick the best coach in the NFL — and maybe the best coach in NFL history — is how he never takes an opponent lightly, and then how he’s so successful at scheming against what an opponent does best.

 

The Bears are undoubtedly better in 2018 than they were in the John Fox era, or when these two teams last met in 2014 (when New England waxed a moribund Marc Trestman side, 51-23). And a lot of Belichick’s points are valid – that throw Trubisky made to Gabriel was outstanding, for example.

 

But Belichick talks this way about every team he faces. And that, again, is part of what makes him the best at what he does.

Under Center Podcast: What will we learn about the Bears against the Patriots?

Under Center Podcast: What will we learn about the Bears against the Patriots?

On this week's Under Center podcast, JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin look at how Bill Belichick and New England will attack Matt Nagy and the Bears on Sunday, and if Mitch Trubisky can get to the point where he can reliably lead a late-game scoring drive like Tom Brady is so good at doing.

You can listen to the whole thing here, or in the embedded player below: