The first time I met Buddy Ryan, it was in Philadelphia, where he was the head coach. Ryan started off by saying he "didn't have time for this s--t." Or something like that.
More than an hour later, I felt like I had a better understanding of Ryan, particularly when he said these words: I'm my own man.
If there were a credo for Ryan, it was that. There was never a coach in any sport who did things his own way, to such astounding success, as Ryan did. He constructed historic defenses his own way. He coached them his own way. He destroyed relationships with other coaches his own way. He built lifelong, genuinely tender relationships with his players his own way. He raised football sons his own way.
And he created a legendary coaching career his own way. Ryan was cantankerous and didn't care about the media or how he was perceived. It's why he punched a fellow coach in the face during a game and why he and Mike Ditka ran two separate teams while both were with Chicago. Ditka ran the offense, while Ryan conducted the defense. After the Bears won Super Bowl XX, both Ditka and Ryan were carried off the field by the players. That had never happened before, and it hasn't happened since.
Ryan was divisive. It's true. Yet few were more intelligent or inspired a defense to embody its coach better. The 1985 Bears arguably were the best team in history not solely because they were soaked in talent, or because Ryan invented the 46 defense, a unit that scored more points than it allowed in the postseason. Chicago, and in particular, that defense, was so formidable because everyone bought in, and each player, on the field, became a mini-Ryan: smart, tactical and vicious.
Most nowadays will recognize the Ryan name as those of his two sons. But there is more to Buddy Ryan. So much more.
Ryan's gift was getting the most from his players and combining that with an almost professorial skill. Variations of his 46 defense remain in use today. To hear coaches talk about the scheme now, and Ryan's role, is to hear the way modern Army generals muse about George Patton.
You cannot write the history of the NFL, especially the defensive history, without Buddy.
Several years ago, Bill Belichick, at one of his press conferences, according to a transcript provided by the team, spoke about Ryan's significance. The quote is long but instructive and shows the impact Ryan had on Belichick and others.
"A lot of the success that Buddy had with the 46 defense came in the ‘80s when there was a lot of two-back offense," Belichick said. "It was one of the things that probably drove the two-back offense out. ...
"I think it still has a lot of good applications; a lot of teams use it in goal-line situations. They either use a version of it like a 5-3 or cover the guards and the center and however you want to quite fit the rest of it, but that principle you see a lot in goal-line, short-yardage situations. You see it and some teams have it as part of their two-back defensive package.
"As [the game] has gone to one back and it’s gotten more spread out, if you’re playing that, it kind of forces you defensively to be in a one-linebacker set. You lose that second linebacker, and depending on where the back lines up and what coverage you’re playing, there’s some issues with that. If you’re in a one-linebacker defense and you move the back over and the linebacker moves over, then you’re kind of out-leveraged to the back side. If you don’t move him over, then you’re kind of outleveraged when the back releases and that kind of thing.
"There are some issues there. I’m not saying you can’t [run the 46], but you have to work [the issues] out. In a two-back set, I’d say [the 46] was probably a lot cleaner, and it always gave you an extra blitzer that was hard for the offense. Even if they seven-man-protected on play action, there was always an eighth guy there somewhere.
"You didn’t have to bring all eight; if you just brought the right one and [the offense] didn’t have him [matched up] or somebody would have to have two guys, that creates some problems. I think that’s what where the genius of [Buddy's scheme was]; he had...a different combination and group of blitzes ...depending on what formation you were in; then he ran a blitz that would attack that formation and then when you changed formations, he would change blitzes.
"Now, plus the fact [he] had Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, [Otis] Wilson, [Wilber] Marshall, that was a pretty good group there. You could have probably played a lot of things, and that defense would have looked pretty good, especially when they put Hampton on the nose. That was pretty unblockable."
To me, the best defensive mind in history is Belichick. But Ryan is up there.
He was part of two Super Bowl-winning teams decades apart, coaching the Jets defensive line in 1968 before later being defensive coordinator of the 1985 Bears.
Many teams have tons of talent and don't win. That wasn't the case in Chicago. Ryan was able to corral all of that talent into a unified force.
Ryan's players appreciated his gruffness. Sports on Earth's Doug Farrar remembered that Ryan's "three-pronged grading scale while watching film with his players had specific designations: 'dumbass, horses--t, assh--e.' Once in a while, Dent said, you might hear, 'Good play.'"
It was the type of attitude that led Ryan, as defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers, to punch his then-offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, in the face on the sidelines in 1993. The Oilers were winning by two touchdowns, and Ryan had instructed Gilbride to run the football. Ryan wanted to protect his defense.
Gilbride ignored Ryan's wishes. Eventually, Ryan punched Gilbride in the face.
That was Ryan—crusty, a fighter and a genius.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL.