PRO FOOTBALL ’86 : COACHES PLAYERS TEAMS AND TRENDS TO WATCH THIS SEASON : How Much Hot Air Is Needed to Get Eagles Off the Ground? : RYAN’S TIME HAS ARRIVED
One day last January, this town woke up and found that it had a football coach who cared not a bit what anybody thought of him, and who proceeded to cultivate that image at every opportunity.
Buddy Ryan hit the City of Brotherly Love like a punch in the stomach. He was there to coach the Eagles, not to compete in a popularity contest. Naturally, he immediately became the most popular personality in town. Does that tell you something about Philadelphia?
His new employer, a multimillionaire car dealer named Norman Braman, gushed that Ryan was “the next Vince Lombardi of the National Football League.”
Ryan returned the compliment by insulting everybody in sight, especially his players.
But he promised the fans, “We will win the (NFC East) division,” and issued some basic rules to the squad: coats and ties on trips and chin straps fastened at all times on the field.
The town quickly learned that everybody had better keep his chin strap fastened when Ryan is around. With the season yet to start, he has alienated about half a dozen other coaches in the National Football League, including his former boss, Mike Ditka of the Bears; Miami’s highly respected Don Shula and Detroit’s Darryl Rogers.
He has made it clear that even Braman had better not interfere in the football side of the franchise, as he did last season when the Eagles had Marion Campbell, a more mild-mannered coach. He has gotten his players’ attention by showing no regard for past performance or tradition.
Ryan, in short, has stirred things up in Philly.
He hasn’t won a game that counts--the Eagles will open at Washington Sunday--but he’s getting away with murder right now because he arrived on a roll as the outspoken architect of the so-called 46 defense that the Bears used to flatten the rest of the NFL last season.
The Eagles’ highlight film, entitled “New Coach, Bold Approach,” opens with the Bears carrying Ryan off the field after crushing the Patriots, 46-10, in the Super Bowl. It shows Ryan at his first Eagle press conference. It shows Ryan coaching the Eagles in their spring mini-camp. It even shows a couple of ’85 highlights. But mainly it shows Ryan.
It never shows--never mentions-- Marion Campbell. A surge in season ticket sales is credited directly to Ryan’s presence, as is a dramatic rise in the television ratings during the exhibition season. During his weekly radio call-in show, the switchboard is ablaze for an hour and a half. Listeners seem to call for the privilege of being insulted by Ryan.
Host Don Henderson of WCAU said: “I’ve been here 25 years and there hasn’t been anything in this market that I’ve been associated with that had the kind of impact that this show has had.”
With Ryan, you get not vanilla but straight Tabasco. Tact is for diplomats. Ryan, 52, doesn’t waste the time. He’s always been that way. If sometimes less than charming, he is at least forthright and consistent.
“I’d be crazy to change,” he said last week. “Why would you change? If you try to be somebody else, you’re fooling yourself.”
Ryan, at first blush, doesn’t seem offensive. He looks a little and even sounds like the countrified spokesman on the Bartles & Jaymes commercials. He doesn’t rant and rave or shout, but the words are lethal.
Is it a phony front? Inside that short, squat body is there a heart as large as an eagle’s nest? Does Buddy Ryan really yearn to be loved?
Whatever his plan, Ryan has enlisted the assistance of the local media to deliver messages to his players and the Eagles’ front office, avoiding the interoffice mail. The media have not protested. The front office doesn’t dare.
“The media likes him,” said Ron Ried, a veteran football writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, one of two major newspapers that cover the Eagles. “You’re never struggling to get a story as long as he’s around, talking.
“In fact, the reverse is sometimes a problem. You may have a feature prepared, and then Buddy will come out with something outrageous. I can’t remember another coach who had less regard for watching his words or speaking cautiously.”
Rich Hofmann of the Philadelphia Daily News said Ryan has never uttered those story-killing words off the record or no comment.
“Absolutely not,” Hofman said. “I’ve never heard him say that.”
Go ahead, ask anything.
“I try to give ‘em something to write,” Ryan said. “They’ve got a job to do, and so do I.”
Some remain wary. Sports editor Frank Dolson of the Inquirer wrote last week about “the Eagles’ short, stocky Mouth That Roars.”
While conceding that “Ryan has revived excitement in the local pros,” Dolson added, “You have to wonder . . . if the new coach in town is really the fearless . . . tyrant he appears to be, or if his repeated oral outbursts conceal an insecurity that would hardly be surprising in a longtime assistant embarking on his first head job in the big leagues.”
The policy doesn’t sit very well with some of the players. Backup quarterback Matt Cavanaugh, acquired in a trade from San Francisco this year, was accustomed to Bill Walsh, a more urbane coach with a different style.
“It’s a difference in philosophy,” Cavanaugh said, tactfully. “Bill was much more prone to tell you face to face what he’s thinking. Buddy would just as soon tell the press and let you read it in the paper the next day.”
On his radio show the night before the draft last spring, Ryan was asked about Ohio State running back Keith Byars, who missed most of his senior season with a foot injury.
Ryan told listeners, “Our medical staff has rejected Byars.”
The next morning the Eagles drafted Byars in the first round.
Ryan chuckled. “We wanted that to get out,” he said. “We were hoping somebody would pick it up and write it, but nobody did. He’s a franchise player.”
Apparently, Ryan is convinced that the printed word carries more clout than a gentle hint. If the press’ job is to file controversial stories with lively quotes, Ryan willingly holds up his end.
“But they’ll turn on me just like all the rest of ‘em,” Ryan predicted.
So far, the regularly assigned reporters say, Ryan hasn’t complained about anything they’ve written, and they haven’t complained about being used.
“It’s still a honeymoon period,” said Ed Wisneski, the Eagles’ director of public relations.
There’s no doubt that Ryan is the new darling of the media around the NFL. “Every major newspaper in the country has been in to talk to him,” Wisneski said.
Ryan remained accessible and cooperative for visiting reporters but, Wisneski said, “I kind of cut it off near the end of training camp because so many were coming in and asking the same questions.”
The most important question is whether Ryan can make the Eagles win. Some of the veteran players--the ones who are still around--believe he can.
“It’s been lively, no question,” said Ron Jaworski, who only this week was officially reinstated as the starting quarterback. Ryan and Jaworski are alike in one respect: both have always said what they think.
Or, at least, Ryan says what he wants you to think he thinks.
“I like him,” Jaworski said. “I really do. He’s different. There’s no BS about him. He doesn’t candy-coat anything. He comes straight out and says what’s on his mind.
“At first we were all taken aback by that: What kind of guy do we have here? Especially when we had a Marion Campbell and a Dick Vermeil and, with myself, Chuck Knox out in L.A., everything was behind closed doors if there was a problem.
“This guy, it’s public knowledge with everything. But we’re all men. You’ve gotta be able to handle it.”
Ryan has said: “Ron Jaworski probably runs the huddle better than any quarterback I’ve been around since Joe Namath.”
Secretly, even though he plays offense, Jaworski is probably Ryan’s type of player.
Ryan describes that as “a guy that plays the game to win every day. A guy that will knock people down and laugh at ‘em. Smart and tough, like (Bear safety) Gary Fencik. He wasn’t very good but he was smart and he was tough.”
Mike Reichenbach, the Eagles’ middle linebacker, caught on quickly when Ryan immediately started berating the players openly.
“He does a lot of that to motivate people, but he’s honest . . . point blank. He won’t pull any punches. He gets what he wants accomplished,” Reichenbach said.
Fencik once said: “Buddy makes you lose all pretense and ego. Then he builds you up the way he wants you to develop.”
Tight end John Spagnola, one of the Eagles’ better players, learned that he had been demoted when he reported two weeks late after a holdout this summer.
“Maybe it’s a mind game,” Spagnola said. “Maybe it’s supposed to motivate me, but I think the motivation’s got to come from within.
“But you have to look at the circumstances surrounding it, too. We’ve got a new coaching staff and I wasn’t here, so they had to put somebody at No. 1.”
The Eagles had 21 holdouts the day before camp opened. Ryan was asked if he had a contingency “Plan B.”
“Hell, no,” he said. “If they’re not here, they’d better have a Plan B.”
Ryan got on nose tackle Ken Clark one day, noting that “he didn’t do anything.”
A few days later he said: “He had a great workout. I think he’s decided he’s going to be part of the program.”
It seems to be Ryan’s way of testing his players’ mettle. The ones who succumb to the treatment, he reasons, wouldn’t be tough enough to survive, anyway.
And Ryan does have some favorites. He doesn’t get on Reichenbach much. He can’t even pronounce his name, referring to him, appropriately, as “Rock ‘em back.”
He is grooming Reichenbach to be his new Mike Singletary, the anchor of his defense. For Reichenbach, there is little but praise and kid gloves.
“Mike’s doing all right,” Ryan has said. “I wish some of the others were learning as quickly as he is. The kid is smart and tough. If he keeps progressing, he could make it to the Pro Bowl.”
Reichenbach smiles and responds: ‘He looks for a certain kind of person to play that position, someone that is physical and aggressive against the run but still can play the pass. But the main thing he looks for is someone who can think fast on his feet, on the run. He looks for intelligence first. He expects that from everybody.”
Reichenbach, a third-year pro, was a science major at tiny East Stroudsburg (Pa.) College and came to the team as a free agent. Before training camp, he and Ryan played another kind of mind game in which Ryan would state a game situation and Reichenbach would respond.
“He snaps the answers right off,” Ryan said.
Braman decided to fire Campbell long before the Eagles’ 7-9 season had ended. First he considered David Shula, the 26-year-old son of Don, and later was close to signing Jim Mora, who won two United States Football League titles with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars.
He didn’t think seriously about Ryan until reading a story about him in the New York Times--by coincidence, the morning of the day the Eagles blew a 23-0 last-quarter lead and lost to the Minnesota Vikings, 28-23.
Braman said: “I came to the conclusion, looking at that piece, that Buddy Ryan would be the type of coach I would like to have here in Philadelphia, that Buddy was an individual who is capable of getting 125% out of our players. Secondly, that he really believed in making things happen, rather than just constantly reacting.”
Oh, Ryan has made things happen. He ruffled Don Shula, a close friend of Braman, by complaining that the Dolphins had illegally huddled with too many players to confuse the defense. There was an exchange of words--again, through the media.
Braman shrugged off the incident.
“Don is an outspoken guy and a fierce competitor, and Buddy’s a fierce competitor,” the owner said. “It’s important to stand with your players.
“From the standpoint of candor, he was candid with us in kicking us in the backside to get our players and our draft picks signed, and we did. I think his push on that end was helpful to us.
“When you have an individual who is candid like Buddy, you can’t turn him on and off like a water faucet. And I have no intention to. I welcome candor. It’s an admirable quality that doesn’t exist too much.”
Braman gave Ryan a five-year contract, which is unusually long for a rookie head coach in the NFL.
“I think it’s important that the players and everyone knows that Buddy Ryan is going to be here, and (others) won’t be here,” Braman said.
Ryan has even let the owner know where he stands. During an early practice he saw Spagnola chatting with Braman off to one side and yelled at the player to rejoin his teammates.
“When you’re on this field, you’re mine,” Ryan said.
Ryan, busy preparing for mini-camp, wasn’t present for the traditional NFL coaches’ picture taken during the league’s spring meeting at Palm Desert. Just as well. He may not have many close friends among his peers.
His feud with Ditka has been widely publicized, and the Rams’ John Robinson wasn’t amused when Ryan predicted before the NFC title game last season that Eric Dickerson would fumble three times. As it turned out, Dickerson fumbled only twice.
He annoyed the Giants’ Bill Parcells when he said the Giants might not score in their playoff game. They didn’t.
Since then, Ryan also has offended Shula and Rogers. After the Eagles had spent a week practicing with Rogers’ Lions this summer, Ryan said they “laid down . . . wallowed” and took cheap shots.
He also complained about the facilities, which were poorly supplied and too far from the fields.
“We didn’t come here to practice riding buses,” Ryan said. “We’ll have this game and get the hell out of this town, back where they’ve got towels and soap and all that sort of thing in the rooms.”
Rogers responded: “Practice tempos are a two-way street. The players will set the tempo.”
Ryan: “The players don’t run my team. They might run his.”
Ryan said he won’t be back.
Rogers: “He hasn’t been invited back.”
Ryan was asked recently if such talk won’t arouse opponents.
“They’ll have worse things than that to put on their bulletin boards,” he said.
The defensive players in particular seem to like Ryan’s defense, which reflects Ryan’s personal style.
“I love the concept,” end Reggie White said. “It’s an attacking defense. (Last season) we held back a little bit at times, but that’s the way the 34 is designed. With this defense you just go at it.”
Wes Hopkins, an All-Pro free safety, was more direct: “I’m going to love this defense. I can’t wait to go after some quarterbacks.”
During practice, Ryan seems to take little interest in the offense, idly twirling his whistle while Ted Plumb, the offensive coordinator, runs the show.
But Ryan has some radical ideas about offense, too. He has proposed using third-string quarterback Randy Cunningham to quick-kick on third down.
“They’ll boo us, but we really don’t give a damn,” Ryan said.
It’s worth remembering that in Chicago, Ryan wasn’t hired by any coach but by the late George Halas himself.
“We kind of had the same personality,” Ryan said. “I think that’s the reason he liked me.”
Joan, Ryan’s second wife (of 13 years), said: “Buddy is one of the easiest people in the world to live with.”
Ryan enjoys rattling the Establishment. “It keeps them in line,” he said.
Being a head coach, he has found, is “no different than being an assistant. I always had freedom everywhere I was at.”
And if the Eagles don’t yet say, “Yes, sir,” and, “No, sir,” as the Bears did, he is patient.
Ryan: “Here I hear them say, ‘Yeah.’ They’ll come around . . . because they know I’m honest and I care.”