NFL AM: Greatest Defensive Minds In League History


Buddy Ryan Dead At 85

The NFL community and more importantly the Ryan family suffered an enormous loss as former head coach and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan died late Monday evening.

The Buffalo Bills, who employ Rex Ryan as their head coach and Rob Ryan as their assistant head coach-defense issued a statement.

“Terry and Kim Pegula and the Buffalo Bills organization want to express their deepest sympathies and condolences to Rex, Rob and the entire Ryan family on the passing of their dad, Buddy Ryan. Buddy was a legend in our league in so many ways. His defenses were innovative and he was a master at putting his talented and tough players in a position to succeed. He was a real game changer and much of his philosophies and defensive tactics are still utilized effectively by teams today. Buddy’s influence will be carried on by defensive coaches for generations to come, but none more so than by Rex and Rob. Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with the Ryan family today.”

Later in the day, Rex Ryan expressed his feelings about his father in a statement.

“On behalf of the entire Ryan family, we want to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their sympathies, prayers and warm thoughts with the passing of my dad. He was many things to many people–outstanding coach, mentor, fierce competitor, father figure, faithful friend and the list goes on. But to me and my brothers Rob and Jim, he was so much more. He was everything you want in a dad–tough when he had to be, compassionate when you didn’t necessarily expect it, and a loving teacher and confidant who cherished his family. He truly was our hero.”

“For Rob and me, we’ve had the great fortune of sharing the coaching profession that he was so proud of and cherished so much. There is no way we can possibly begin to measure how much football we have learned from him over the years and we are forever thankful to him for instilling within us his unwavering love for the game of football.”

“While today is a tough day for all of us in the Ryan family, we are consoled in knowing how much dad was loved by so many and the love he gave back in return. Though we will miss him dearly, we take comfort in knowing that his memory will live on through all of us.”

To call Buddy Ryan a great defensive mind almost seems like a disservice.  He was a revolutionary in the game of football as his “46” defense completely took the league by storm and led the 1985 Bears to what many believe to be the greatest team of all-time.

“The ’85 Bears would not have been the ’85 Bears without Buddy Ryan,” former head coach Mike Ditka told ESPN Radio.

“You know, they [the defense] did what Buddy wanted them to do on defense. And fortunately we were good enough where our offense would get to the point where they could compliment some of things they did on the defense. But there’s no question, we won the Super Bowl because of our defense. You’d have to be a fool to say otherwise. We had great players on offense in Walter Payton and Willie Gault and some of the other guys we had, our offensive line, but our defense is why we won.”

Ryan was every bit the revolutionary as Don Coryell and Bill Walsh.  Unfortunately for him, his greatness will likely always been somewhat underrated due to his lack of playoff success as a head coach as he was 0-3 with the Philadelphia Eagles.  Still, he’s fondly remembered in a city that spews hate nearly as much as cheesesteaks.

Was Ryan the greatest defensive coordinator in the history of the NFL?

When you think about the schemes he created and dominance of those 1985 Bears, it seems so. With that said, arguments can be made for the late Eagles DC Jim Johnson and former Bengals, Steelers and Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Johnson rarely had elite talent in the front seven on those Eagles teams he commanded and still found ways to have elite, pressuring defenses.  From 2000-07, Johnson’s units rank tied for first in the NFL with 342 sacks, second in the league in 3rd down efficiency (34.3%) and red zone touchdown percentage (43.0%), and fourth in fewest points allowed (17.6 per game).

LeBeau created the zone blitz when he was with Cincinnati in the late 80’s and was honored with induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame back in 2010.  When with the Steelers, he moved his proverbial “chess pieces” around as well as anyone and the defenses were keyed by the likes of Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson and later James Harrison and Troy Polamalu.  LeBeau was a major reason why many of those players will be inducted into Canton.

Who Are The Best Defensive Minds Today?

Although his defensive genius has been almost replaced by his overall “guru-ness” (made up word), New England Patriots Darth Vader-clone Bill Belichick won a pair of rings as a DC with the New York Giants under Bill Parcells.  Belichick’s defenses have been consistently good in New England despite somewhat of a carousel of defensive coordinators (and assistant coaches in general). Belichick impacts the game on all sides of the ball as much as any head coach ever, but let’s not forget that he is a defensive genius at his core.

Denver Broncos Super Bowl winning defensive coordinator Wade Phillips should be mentioned on the all-time list, but since he’s still actively coaching and somehow not in the Hall of Fame, we’ll leave him here.  Phillips has been a defensive genius throughout his entire career and his failed stops as a head coach shouldn’t discount that (although they often do).

Phillips was recently given the PFWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

The other winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award was Jacksonville Assistant Head Coach-Defense’s Monte Kiffin.  Most of Kiffin’s great work was done in the late 90’s, early 2000’s with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as his 2002 Super Bowl winning team is often considered to be in the Top 3 defenses of all time.

“It is an honor to receive this award with Coach Wade Phillips, as he is one of the best in the business,” said Kiffin. “I have so much respect for Wade, his father, Bum, and his family, and what they have done for the game of football. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great coaches, as well as many outstanding players, during my career, so I owe everything to those guys. Lastly, I want to say ‘thank you’ to Paul Zimmerman for the impact he has made on the football community and for sharing the game we love with so many people.”

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer waited far too long to get his head coaching opportunity, but he’s certainly making the most of it as he’s transformed the Vikings into a division champ.  Before Zimmer was wearing purple, he was in Cincinnati leading the Bengals defense year after year and making Marvin Lewis look good.

Todd Bowles has only been the head coach of the New York Jets for one year, but he did some amazing things while in charge of defense in Arizona.  Bowles has a very aggressive philosophy which makes it very uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks.

There are plenty of great defensive minds like Pete Carroll, Marvin Lewis, Bob Sutton, Jack Del Rio and Mike Smith that should also get their own blurbs, but there simply wasn’t enough space.


About Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein is the managing football editor for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade.  Charlie has hosted drive time radio for NBC and ESPN affiliates in different markets around the country, along with being an NFL correspondent for ESPN Radio and WFAN.  He has been featured on the NFL Network as well as Sirius/XM NFL Radio and has been published on Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN as well as numerous other publications.