Pro Football / Bob Oates : From Ryan, Expect the Unexpected

This seems to be Buddy Ryan year in the National Football League.

The leader of the Philadelphia Eagles has become the game's most widely discussed new coach. He is also a source of constant wonder to others in pro football.

They wonder how he ever dreamed up his wild, unpredictable defense.

They wonder if the Chicago Bears can win the NFL championship again without that defense.

And they wonder if Ryan will be able to transfer his magic, or whatever it is, to Philadelphia.

Can last year's defensive coach of the Bears win with this year's Eagles?

At West Chester, Pa., where he is in charge of a training camp for the first time in his 25-year coaching career, Ryan, 51, promised only one thing.

"We'll play offense the way we play defense," he said the other day.

So it would seem that the Eagles, with Ron Jaworski at quarterback, are about to unleash a wild, unpredictable offense, one inspired by a wild, unpredictable coach who never before coached offense.

"As a defensive coach, I do know what bothers defenses," Ryan said, defensively. "The more (offensive) looks you throw at the defense, the more you bother us."

The Eagles, in other words, are about to stress the multiple in multiple formations.

"I'm all for it," Jaworski told Philadelphia football writers.

On either side of the line of scrimmage, Ryan wants a gambling, aggressive, versatile team that has one goal: to confuse the opponent.

This means that although the Eagles are facing a formidable 1986 schedule, they could field one of the NFL's most entertaining teams--if they have the talent to play Ryan's game, and if the players believe in the new coach.

As yet, they may not have the talent, quite, although they can count on one great running back if Ohio State rookie Keith Byars makes a 100% recovery from his January foot operation.

As for the other condition, there is some evidence that the Eagles already believe in Buddy Ryan.

When he asked them to, they reported to training-camp a week earlier than necessary, voluntarily giving up a week of their summer vacation for the privilege of letting Ryan toughen them up.

"The things that he demands, he reminds me of me," said Dick Vermeil, a training camp visitor and the intense former Eagle coach whose burnout drove him out of coaching into a CBS announcers' booth.

In part, the Eagles came in early so as not to miss what their bluff, gruff new coach would say next.

Ryan usually makes it a point to say what he thinks.

During offensive practice one day, tight end John Spagnola stopped for a brief conversation with Eagle owner Norman Braman. Ryan broke that up in a hurry.

According to the Associated Press, Ryan shouted at Spagnola: "When you're on this field, you're mine!"

The wire service also reported that when running back Michael Haddix came in overweight, Ryan barked: "You look like a USFL guard--a reject USFL guard."

Asked what he plans to do when a player breaks one of his new rules, Ryan snapped: "Nobody breaks my rules."

In short, the new coach is charting a course as an authoritarian character reminiscent of former Green Bay Packer Coach Vince Lombardi. In player relations, Lombardi was frequently harsh, and yet he was well loved.

So is Ryan, who differs strikingly from the usual crusty, bad-tempered types who are gruff enough but unloved.

Exhibiting another Lombardi attribute, Ryan makes friends slowly. He says that a father figure--such as a coach, an editor or a ship's captain--must refrain from fraternizing with the help.

Thus Ryan appears to be popular in spite of himself. And what football players think of him is in the record. Last winter, for example, when the Bears heard that Ryan, with Coach Mike Ditka's blessing, might leave, they protested strenuously.

Even before that, the Ditka-Ryan feud was one of the NFL's continuing stories of 1986.

If Ditka isn't fond of Ryan, though, George Halas was. The late founder of the Bears hired Ryan before he hired Ditka. In fact, when interviewing Ditka, Halas stipulated that Ryan must stay.

Tough and smart himself, Halas knew a tough, smart guy when he saw one.

Ryan has had the same reputation for a good three decades. He was in the Army at age 16 and a master sergeant at 18--in a line company in the Korean war.

Son of a Frederick, Okla., paperhanger, he has preferred football all along to either soldiering or paperhanging. On 1950s' Oklahoma State teams, Ryan lettered at guard for four years.

His hobby is horses. He and his wife have three children and a horse farm in Kentucky.

As a young coach, Ryan admired Lombardi, who in one respect couldn't have been more different. Lombardi specialized in repetitive, orthodox, football. Happily for sports fans, Ryan doesn't.

An off-the-wall strategist who believes in eight-man lines and persistent diversity, Ryan will call any play in his game plan except one. He won't call the play he used last time.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World