As a long time die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, my absolute favorite era was during the Buddy Ryan years. “Buddy Ball” was a popular term used back then that described a hard-nosed and hard-hitting style of play.
When I think of the Buddy Ryan era, I think of three things: Dominating defensive play, Randall Cunningham, and a coach that wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Some people will remember that era…much like the current Andy Reid era…as ultimately being a disappointment because we never even won a playoff game (let alone a championship) with Ryan at the helm. That is the only blemish on an otherwise great era of Philadelphia football.
After winning the 1985 Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears as their defensive coordinator, Ryan came to Philly in 1986 and brought with him the famed “46 Defense” and a “take no crap, punch em’ in the mouth” attitude. In Philly, defense and attitude goes together like peanut butter and jelly (or a cheesesteak and beer).
Ryan’s first order of business was to build the defense. He already had DE Reggie White, who joined the team in 1985, FS Wes Hopkins who was drafted in 1983, and SS Andre “Dirty” Waters who was a UDFA in 1984.
Ryan went on to draft players like LB Seth Joyner, DT Jerome Brown, DE Clyde Simmons, LB Bryon Evans, and CB Eric Allen as well as acquire DT Mike Pitts via trade. All of these players formed the dominating defense known as “Gang Green”.
Randall Cunningham was already on board too as the backup but Ryan converted him to starter beginning in 1987. Defense was Buddy’s passion so even though he drafted players like RB/FB Keith Byars, TE Keith Jackson, and WR Fred Barnett, he left the offense alone and let “Randall be Randall”.
Even though he couldn’t win a playoff game, Ryan’s tenure was a time when things were never boring. Eagles fans had the pleasure of witnessing one of the greatest defenses of all time as well as the electrifying Randall Cunningham.
So, in case you’ve forgotten or you are not old enough to remember, here are some highlights of the Ryan era between 1986 – 1990:
Some quotes from Buddy (sources linked):
– On 1985 first round draft bust OT Kevin Allen: “He looks like a USFL (United States Football League) reject,” Ryan said sarcastically. “He doesn’t look like a No. 1 draft choice to me. He doesn’t fit in my plans.“
– On running back Earnest Jackson: “Trade him for a six pack; it doesn’t even have to be cold.”
– On himself: “I think with me what you see is what you get. But some people don’t like what they see.”
– On the Cowboys: “Buddy doesn’t have many rules but one of them is don’t lose to the Cowboys.” (actual quote was from Mike Golic about Ryan)
– During the week leading up to the famous “Body Bag Game“: “They’ll have to be carted off in body bags.”
– On roster cuts prior to his first season as coach: “It was so easy my wife could have made them, and she didn’t even know these guys.”
The Bounty Bowl, 11/23/89. This was the infamous game where Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson accused Buddy Ryan of placing a bounty on kicker Luis Zendejas. Eagles rookie linebacker Jesse Small appeared to have sought out Zendejas after a kick-off and put a brutal hit on the unsuspecting kicker.
Zendejas was visibly knocked silly as he stumbled around after trying to get up. The back-story was that Zendejas was cut by Ryan the previous year in a way that left the kicker irritated. He called Ryan a coward for not telling him face to face and thus is theorized that this was the motivation for the bounty.
Zendejas stated that during his time with the Eagles, he often saw Buddy offer players $100 for the “hit of the week” (but it really was for the “big play of the week”). He firmly believed he told Small or someone to “take him out”.
The Bounty Bowl II, 12/10/89. This game was dubbed part two of the Bounty Bowl because it was only two weeks after the first one and this time the game was in Philly. The only thing of significance (besides beating them for the second time), was that Jimmy Johnson and the Cowboys were pelted with snowballs at the end of the game.
The Body Bag Game, 11/12/90. Ask any long-time Eagles fan what their favorite Eagles game of all time is and you might hear them reference this game. Buddy Ryan had stated during the week leading up to this game that “they’ll have to be carted off in body bags” (referenced previously).
His words pretty much rang true as 11 different Redskin players were taken out of the game, including two quarterbacks. They ended up have to finish the game with their emergency QB, RB Brian Mitchell.
There was just ferocious hitting in this game and it epitomized the Buddy Ryan era.
The Fog Bowl, 12/31/88. Not exactly a pleasant memory for Eagles fans but it certainly has to go down as one of the oddest games in Eagles history (and NFL history as well).
It was a divisional playoff game at Soldier Field in Chicago. The weather started out like a normal winter day for Chicago and not even that cold. But in the second quarter a heavy and dense fog rolled in and severely limited on-field visibility to about 10 – 20 yards.
Players stated they couldn’t see the sidelines or first down markers. It was really an unbelievable site and trying to watch it on television was impossible. I remember having to rely on the announcers and even they didn’t know what was going on until someone from the field relayed it to them.
Randall Cunningham and the Eagles clearly outplayed the Bears but could never get the ball in the endzone and thus lost the game 20-12. Had the fog not rolled in that day, perhaps Buddy Ryan would have gotten his first playoff victory and Eagles history would have to be re-written.
There are two more games I’ll mention here but they technically were not during the Buddy Ryan era. They occurred in 1991, the year after he was fired. However, even though Buddy wasn’t the coach for these games, it was definitely his defense that performed in them.
This one doesn’t have a famous name unless we want to call it the “Sack Bowl“, but it was on 9/16/91 when the Eagles sacked Cowboys QB Troy Aikmain a whopping 11 times during a 24-0 blowout in Big D. How can you not love a game where your defense just utterly dominates? Simply awesome.
Then last but not least, the “House of Pain Game“. It took place on 12/2/91 in Houston’s Astrodome. At the time, the Oilers were known as a team with a good defense and Warren Moon with the vaunted “run and shoot” offense.
Ryan despised that offense and later termed it the “chuck and duck”. But in that day in the Astrodome, Jerome Brown quipped “they brought the house, we brought the pain”.
Oilers receivers dropped like flies after taking ferocious hits by the Eagles secondary. The Eagles defense held that high-octane offense to just two field goals as they won the defensive battle 13-6.
Buddy Ryan was viewed by other people outside of Philadelphia as an arrogant, obnoxious coach with a big mouth. He was the kind of coach other teams and their fans loved to hate. To some, he was viewed as a villian and later on as a choke artist who could never win a big game.
However, he was revered in Philadelphia because he took on the persona that embodied Philly’s blue collar mindset. He was no-nonsense, shot straight from the hip, and was a genuine person.
He let his emotions show and that is probably what endeared him the most to Eagles fans. That and fielding the greatest defensive team in Philadelphia history.