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Buddy Ryan ran the Bears’ 1985 defense, considered the league’s best ever. (Sun-Times media)

Buddy Ryan, and his ’46’ defense, was ‘ahead of his time’

SHARE Buddy Ryan, and his ’46’ defense, was ‘ahead of his time’
SHARE Buddy Ryan, and his ’46’ defense, was ‘ahead of his time’

To call Buddy Ryan the architect of the NFL’s greatest defense is too passive. The coordinator for the 1985 Bears — the founding franchise’s most dominant team — was fiery and stubborn, futuristic and aggressive.

“He was ahead of his time and he was innovative with the way he coached defense,” former Bears coach Mike Ditka told the Sun-Times on Tuesday, after learning of Ryan’s death, at 85, in Kentucky. “But his whole philosophy with football was, you’ve gotta attack people. You attack people on defense.”

That style, embraced by his players and the city itself, was immortalized when Ryan was carried off the field following the Bears’ 46-10 Super Bowl XX win against the Patriots.

“The Bears defense became part of history,” Ditka said. ”And that was a main reason why the ’85 Bears were the ’85 Bears.”

He left to become the head coach of the Eagles two days after the Super Bowl, and would serve in the same role with the Cardinals, but he never earned the same renown he enjoyed in Chicago, where he began as coordinator in 1978.

It was here where Ryan — who battled cancer, a stroke and two falls in recent years — invented the “46” defense, named for safety Doug Plank’s jersey number.

Plank lined up next to the Bears’ three linebackers, putting eight defenders inside the tackle box. Three of the four defensive linemen lined up over the guards and center.

The defense, created originally to rush the passer without superstars, produced Hall of Famers Dan Hampton, who caused havoc inside, and Richard Dent and Mike Singletary.

“What he did was so innovative,” Ditka said. “It took not only guts, courage, knowledge — it took a lot to do what he did, and he did it. And he was successful. He never backed away.”

Ryan galvanized a loyalty in his defenders. In December 1981, Gary Fencik and Alan Page composed a letter, signed by teammates, urging Bears founder George Halas to keep him on staff. When Ditka was hired in January 1982, Ryan stayed on as his coordinator.

“Buddy was brash, intelligent and tough,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said in a statement. “He was a perfect match for our city and team, which is why George Halas took the extraordinary step of keeping him at the behest of his defensive players while transitioning to a new coaching staff in 1982.”

To celebrate the Super Bowl win, players carried Ryan off the Superdome turf alongside Ditka.

“I don’t know who God’s defensive coordinator is on his football team,” former defensive lineman Steve McMichael said. “But he just lost his job today.”

The 1985 Bears led the NFL by allowing 12.4 points regular-season points per game and pitched two playoff shutouts.

“Buddy Ryan was the architect of the greatest defense our league has seen,” McCaskey said. “He was brilliant when it came to the X’s and O’s of the game, but what made him special was his ability to create an unwavering confidence in the players he coached.”

Not at first. Ryan didn’t suffer fools — or rookies — readily.

“Initially when you came on that team with Buddy, you thought that he despised you,” Plank said. “You thought that he hated you, that you were the most despicable person that ever played football.

“By the time you were done with your career there, you had a bond with him that was special. Taking you from laughter to tears in seconds. There just aren’t many coaches that can do that.”

Ryan is survived by three sons, including twins Rex, the Bills head coach, and Rob, his associate head coach.

“He’s put two sons into the league as coaches,” Ditka said. “I think it’s pretty special when you look at what he’s contributed to the game of football and the National Football League.

“I don’t think anybody’s ever done it. And I don’t know if anybody ever will do what he’s done.”

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