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Buddy Ryan's legacy extends far beyond 46 defense

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On the day that James David "Buddy" Ryan died at the age of 85, following an intense and lengthy battle with cancer, the enigmatic side of his personality took center stage, as it so often did.

We talk about the time he cold-cocked his own offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, on the sideline during a nationally televised game. We talk about the way he'd make fun of his players, saying once that he'd trade a running back for a warm six-pack of beer. And unfortunately, we talk about the 46 defense -- the scheme he invented as the defensive coordinator of the 1985 Chicago Bears -- as if it were an antiquated part of football history instead of the bedrock of most modern pressure defenses in the NFL.

That surprises a lot of people when talking about Buddy, and it's something that isn't discussed enough. More than half of the defensive coordinators in the NFL have Ryan to thank when they successfully stop the passing machine currently taking over the NFL.

Here's something else we don't talk about when we talk about Buddy: The man was so much more than the 46. He was so much more than bluster and hype. The man was a savant, and he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

"Buddy was a true genius as far as defensive football," Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said during Super Bowl week.

The bare-bones theory behind the 46 -- the offense has 11 guys, the defense has 11 guys and the quarterback isn't blocking, so someone is coming free -- was innovative for the time. Like many current NFL defenses, the scheme utilized simulated pressures and speed mismatches to create not only a pass rush, but the constant fear of a pass rush when it might not even be coming.

The eight-man front made the Bears nearly impossible to run against, forcing teams to pass. When they passed, they were typically unequipped to deal with an eight-man blitz, especially when Ryan would overload one gap with three defenders. But that wasn't the smartest thing Ryan created on the white board.

Ryan understood that the vastly different scheme would cause increased preparation time from opponents during the week, and sometimes he would not run the 46 more than five or 10 times per game. Instead, he employed Automatic Front Coverages (AFC), which would be decided during the week. This allowed the defense to instantaneously shift into a different formation and coverage based on the personnel sent out by the offense.

At the time, it served as a choking mechanism for Ryan. Teams already reeling from their inability to move the football were rendered completely incapable. Today, it is a staple in nearly every NFL defense, from Seattle's all-encompassing 4-3 to Bill Belichick's whirlwind of fronts and lineups.

"Every time they lined up, it could be a blitz, it could be zone, it could be man," Eric Hipple, a former Lions quarterback, said on an older ESPN documentary about Buddy Ryan's defense. "They got very sophisticated with what they could do from a basic front and it was really tough to read it."

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If it sounds complicated, that's because it was. Luckily for Ryan, in his eight years as the Bears' defensive coordinator, he developed eight Pro Bowl players. That might have been one of his greatest calling cards -- creating a stable of players that did not want to play for anyone else.

When Neill Armstrong was in the midst of what would prove to be his last season as head coach of the Bears, Ryan's players (led by Gary Fencik and Alan Page) penned a letter to legendary owner George Halas -- possibly the most intimidating figure in NFL history -- and begged him to keep Ryan on the staff beyond the 1981 campaign regardless of who he hired as the next head coach. It read, in part:

Dear Mr. Halas,

We the undersigned members of the Bears defensive football team are concerned about the future of our team. We recognize that with the disappointing season the Bears have had this year that there may be changes in the coaching staff and/or the administration of the team. Our main concern is over the fate of Buddy Ryan and the other defensive coaches.

We feel that if there is to be a change to the coaching staff, Buddy Ryan should be retained in order to avoid a setback for our defense. We feel we are a good defensive team and with their help, we can be a great defensive team in the near future.

Sincerely,
The Chicago Bears defensive team

Halas' response?

You want him? You got him.

From there, Ryan had the freedom and autonomy to develop one of the more impressive coaching trees in recent NFL memory. Former Vikings head coach and current Ravens assistant Leslie Frazier, current Panthers coach Ron Rivera, former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary and current Rams coach Jeff Fisher all studied in a frantic scheme that forced them to become versatile. Every player knew every position -- another benchmark of the modern NFL defense.

"Buddy gave me my coaching start in this league, and for that I am forever grateful," Fisher said Tuesday. "His knowledge, passion for football and the love he had for his players and coaches are traits that have shaped and influenced so many careers, including my own."

In interviews since, all of those coaches noted that Ryan was a master motivator. Their descriptions are less about a haphazard blowhard and more about a military-bred attitude, a subtlety and quiet intensity that we associate with the likes of Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin.

Surprised to hear those names mentioned in the same sentence? Keep digging into Buddy Ryan's butterfly effect on the National Football League. The man was much more than a few jokes and a good defense.

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