Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.
He may be rough around the edges, but NFL insiders know it’s tough to beat
Originally published Aug. 18, 1985
The players’ affection is what sets Buddy Ryan apart.
He’s different in other ways, certainly. The Bears’ defensive coordinator is more outspoken than most assistant coaches. He’s more tactless, more creative, more successful. But these aren’t astonishing
qualities in a football coach.
For a coach, the players’ affection is like a fur lining for boxing gloves. It’s not ordinarily considered necessary, or even desirable.
It helps, though. Ryan’s players have shown that. They don’t just believe in him. They defend him.
Ryan wears a bull’s-eye on his career by starting a controversy nearly every time he clears his throat. He says William Perry’s too fat. Or Ron Rivera’s too slow. Or Wilber Marshall’s too immature. Or Mike Richardson’s too careless.
He has detractors. But let them take just one shot at Ryan, and his players will flick it away like a wobbly pass.
MVP on defense
“He’s the main reason for our success,” defensive end Mike Hartenstine says.
“To a man, we say he’s the MVP of our defense,” defensive tackle Dan Hampton says.
“He’s our inspiration,” says linebacker Otis Wilson, whom Ryan called too dumb long before he knew how fat Perry was. “He’s a genius. He’s one of the guys. He’s our enemy. He’s our friend. He’s everything.”
When the Bears lost two straight games last year, giving up key touchdown passes against questionable blitzes, there weren’t any players questioning the blitzes. They blamed themselves for not making
the blitzes work. How could blitzing have been a bad idea if it was Ryan’s idea?
“He has great rapport with his people,” coach Mike Ditka says enthusiastically. “Our people believe in his system and they find ways to make it work, doggone it.”
Sold on system
Last winter, when there was speculation Ryan would be hired away as a head coach, linebacker Al Harris said his successor’s biggest problem would be to convince the players they could stop an offense with anything other than Ryan’s system. “He has us so sold on his system,” Harris said.
“He’s indispensable,” linebacker Mike Singletary said.
He may have a chance to prove it this year, his eighth with the Bears and first in a lucrative three-year contract. As the Bears played the Colts last night, Harris, Singletary and safety Todd Bell were
holding out and likely to miss at least some of the regular season.
Ryan’s defense led the NFL last year. But how good will his system be without three key players?
There are people in the front office who wouldn’t mind seeing the Bears’ offense carry a struggling defense. Ryan’s colorful nature fits in with NFL “group-think” like a Hawaiian shirt with corporate
He rocks the boat. Instead of weighing questions, he answers them.
Sometimes his answer is different from Ditka’s, and Bear executives roll their eyes and ask, “Hey, who’s the coach around here, anyway?” They say he’s not a team man, that he’ll gladly take credit when the Bears win but he never has enough talent when they lose.
The players don’t understand that grumbling. They’ve heard Ryan tell them, “Gentlemen, we lost because I had a bad game plan.”
Where Ryan’s critics see a thoughtless pop-off, his players see unvarnished honesty. Where his critics suspect he wants the defense to secede from the team, his players see a coach who returns their loyalty.
Most of all, the players see a defense that works. And they see a coach whose honesty and loyalty help make it work.
“Anyone can draw up a defense and tell you to go out and do it,” Singletary says. “I’ve talked to players in the offseason who still don’t know what their defensive philosophy is. They don’t know why they do things.
“Buddy explains himself. He says, `This is what we’re trying to do. This is what we have to do to get the job done.’ He gives it to you in plain and simple language.”
Before Perry, the victim of Ryan’s most brutal candor was Wilson. He needed that, Wilson says now. “Coming out of college, I was like running the show.”
Ryan had to take the wind out of his sails to point him in the right direction. For two seasons, he stood next to Wilson on the sideline, explaining each play. When Wilson responded last year, Ryan was outraged he didn’t make the Pro Bowl.
“Buddy puts you in position where you can play your best,” Wilson said.
“His system makes the players better than their physical credentials,” said Hampton, a veteran of three Pro Bowls. “I wouldn’t be as effective in a 3-4 defense.”
He has been accused of sticking inflexibly to his four-man line, to multiple and intricate pass coverages that make rookie linebackers useless. But the purpose of his multiple defense is precisely to be flexible.
“We’ve always got something to stop a team,” cornerback Leslie Frazier said.
Under rules that put defenses on the defensive, the Bears’ variety makes offenses stop and think. The only sure way to stop an offense anymore is to take its ball away, so that’s what the Bears do.
The Bears controlled the ball more than 35 minutes a game last year, tops in the league by far. It wasn’t just because they led the league in rushing.
They had a ball-control defense. They made teams punt after three plays.
The Bears allowed the fewest first downs in the league by 54. The next 19 teams were only 52 first downs apart.
They didn’t succeed just because of the game plans Ryan made on Tuesdays. They also succeeded because of the changes he made on Sundays.
“There are times when we give up a touchdown,” Harris said, “and we come back saying, `Oh, man, they went right through us. What are we going to do now?’ He just settles us down and says, `Here’s the adjustment we’re going to make.’ Seeing him under control, we know it’s going to work.”
“He doesn’t ask us to do anything we’re not capable of,” safety Gary Fencik said.
If they don’t do it, he expects them to take responsibility. He calls it “wearing the hat,” saying, “that play was my fault.”
Defensive players have argued for blame after Bear games. If they’ve let Ryan down on the field, they can’t let him down in the locker room, too.
“If you do something wrong, you wear the hat,” Hartenstine says. “It doesn’t matter who you are.” Monday mornings, Ryan posts all the defensive grades for all the players to see.
“He’s a call-’em-like-it-is coach,” Fencik says. “Where he may lack the tact you’d like to see, I think all the players appreciate honesty in a coaching staff. Even if he screams and kicks your butt, you don’t mind if it’s meted out in a fair fashion.”
Another reason the players don’t mind is they know Ryan doesn’t hold grudges. The day after Ryan called Perry a “wasted draft choice,” he left the field with his arm around him. Four days later, Ryan said, “He’s got a lot of talent.” He was sincere each time.
Cares for players
If Ryan says Dave Duerson isn’t cut out to play strong safety or cornerback, he also calls Duerson an ideal free safety or nickel back. He says it because he believes it, and if he ever believes Duerson has
become an acceptable strong safety, he’ll say that. Things change.
“He really does care for the players,” Fencik says. “People see him as a yeller and a screamer because that’s how he is on the practicefield. They don’t see the other side he shows during meetings. They
don’t see him take the trouble to treat Otis Wilson different from Mike
Singletary and Gary Fencik.
“Nobody else has to see that. I think Buddy has very few pretensions.”
He has no interest in the trappings of authority. He almost never calls a staff meeting. But he never locks his door.
“He talks to you,” Wilson says. “If you have problems, he’ll sit and listen to you. He can relate to you.
“The thing about Buddy is: He can be your friend, too.”