The first time I covered a Super Bowl, my assignment was Buddy Ryan.
Just Buddy Ryan.
It was the year Mike Ditka's Chicago Bears and Ryan's "46 defense" literally blitzed through the NFL. There was no doubt they were going to destroy the pre-Belichick New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. I have never gone into a game knowing so clearly that a quarterback was going to have a bad day. New England's starter, Tony Eason, was benched without completing a pass.
Yes, I was there to chronicle Ryan's masterpiece as a defensive guru, try to understand what made him tick, figure out where his ideas came from. I don't know that I got to the bottom of it, but he was a memorable subject, cranky, fidgety, rebellious. When Chicago's blowout win ended, the defensive players hoisted Ryan on their shoulders while the rest of the Bears hoisted Ditka, with whom Ryan had sparred.
It was rich material, but three decades later, I can see that the big-picture story from that time was Ryan's part in the evolution of pro football strategy, the eternal chess match between offense and defense. He's a crucial figure ultimately responsible for giving the Ravens an important place in that history.
The modern chess match began when running games were still the bedrock of offenses and Green Bay's Vince Lombardi devised a scheme based on what he called a "run to daylight" philosophy. Rather than run through a specified hole in the line, Packer backs were given a choice of holes and ordered to pick the open one where there was "daylight" instead a defender's body.
The Packers piled up titles with that blueprint in the 1960s until Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys, concocted a defense that worked against it. Landry's linemen were told just to stay in their holes, or gaps, rather than run to the ball. It was a tough idea to master and the Packers still beat the Cowboys, but suddenly, there was no daylight. It meant offenses had to come up with a new way to move the ball.
Inevitably, the air game beckoned. San Francisco's Bill Walsh devised a short-route passing game that revolutionized the NFL like no idea before or since. Five-yard passes replaced 5-yard runs. The era of the franchise running back was replaced by the era of the franchise quarterback – an era still going strong.
The 49ers won four Super Bowls with Joe Montana executing Walsh's vision, but meanwhile, defensive coaches were tinkering with schemes that would work against it.
Enter Buddy Ryan.
He deduced that since everything now depended on the quarterback, a defense should endeavor to destroy the quarterback. His "46" scheme was all about wreaking havoc, disguising blitzes, pressuring quarterbacks into mistakes.
Basic defensive strategy has never been the same. It used to be all about stopping the run. Since Buddy Ryan, it's been about pressure as much as stopping the run.
The next evolutionary spin came in Baltimore with Marvin Lewis as the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 2000 and Rex Ryan, Buddy's son and protégé, on the staff. Lewis said earlier this week that Ryan's "46" had a "huge impact" on him, as did coaching alongside Rex, who espoused his father's aggressive philosophy.
Taking advantage of the athleticism of Ray Lewis and others, Lewis molded a defense as fierce as Buddy Ryan's in Chicago and even faster. A Super Bowl triumph ensued, and though Lewis left, Rex Ryan stayed and coached under the new coordinator, Mike Nolan, and eventually took over the unit.
Wielding the latest iteration of the scheme his father invented, Rex led a blitzing, chin-out Ravens defense that was so dominant the words "Baltimore" and "defense" remain intractably associated in the minds of most pro football fans a decade later.
When Buddy died earlier this week, his "46" masterpiece in Chicago was hailed again, and as usual, Baltimore's 2000 unit was pegged as its only challenger in the greatest-ever debate. But the reality is those units were related. One begat the other philosophically. The tenets of Baltimore's defense were hatched in Buddy's mind and produced a winning era. Buddy deserves a tip of the cap here, maybe more.