By Tim Baffoe--
(CBS) When ESPN announced last year that it was going to air a 30 for 30 film on the 1985 Chicago Bears, I rolled my eyes. My reflexive thought was, "What original angle is left to take on that team? This will be nothing more than a cheap rehash maximizing on the 30th anniversary of the Bears Super Bowl win."
I'm stupid. I had seen enough 30 for 30s that I should have known it would be well done and unique, but I suffer from '85 Bears fatigue in having been too young to remember that team yet hearing way too much about it without a championship since.
The framing of the documentary -- the key to its innovation -- is the letter written by the defensive coordinator of that team, Buddy Ryan, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 85. Addressed to members of that defense, interviews with whom dominate the film over representatives of the offense, it creates a bookend to the story of that team that arguably begins with a 1981 letter written and signed by those players to then-owner George Halas, who was prepared to fire Ryan and his defensive staff as he had the offensive coaches before hiring Mike Ditka as head coach.
Ryan's letter, written in failing health as he no longer had the power of speech, is as follows:
To my guys,
In 1981, many of you signed a letter to George Halas that saved my job. Now I'm writing a letter to all of you to say thanks. I wish I could be there to say it in person, but this will have to do.
Thank you to the Super Bowl champion 1985 Chicago Bears, the greatest team in NFL history. You gave me the best memories of my coaching life.
I'll love every one of you until the day I die. I told you this a long time ago, and it's still true.
You guys will always be my heroes.
Coach Buddy Ryan, 46
With all the pomp and circumstance that came and stayed to this day with the '85 Bears, Ryan wasn't given much icon status outside of that locker room, at least not in the way his offensive staff counterpart was. But he never wanted it either. (Not that he was all that telegenic to begin with.)
Where Ditka was a big cigar encircled by fans and media in a restaurant, Ryan was a pipe in his office cursing at game film. Ryan's sound bites could be just as acerbic (ask fans of the Philadelphia Eagles, where Ryan was the head coach following his Bears tenure), but his wit and wisdom that clearly lives on in his coach sons Rex and Rob was saved most for the practice field and film room, where he was known to have an uncanny knack for tearing down the most gigantic of players (sometimes quite unfairly, according to the late Dave Duerson). But Ryan could build them back up into the fiercest weapons of defensive controlled chaos, leading to a player loyalty unseen in coaches across sports that have their names and faces attached to TV shows and products galore.
Speaking of controlled chaos, while best known for his "46 defense" that is still borrowed from in the NFL today, Ryan was a subscriber to psychological warfare as much as X-and-O strategy. Those Bears certainly had on their side their opponents' fear of those junkyard dogs -- ask former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple how he felt having to replace the unconscious Joe Ferguson in a game -- but Ryan was keenly aware of messing with an opponent's head being as important as beating a team physically.
Take his "Polish Goalline" from his Houston Oilers playbook, courtesy of SmartFootball.com:
Then there this from a 1989 Los Angeles Times piece on Ryan during his Eagles coaching period:
Having just watched his Vikings lose, 10-9, Lynn was rankled by the sight of what the Eagles called their "Polish punt team." In a most unusual formation, designed to prevent a blocked kick or a long runback, Ryan sent 14 men onto the field for a crucial last-minute punt. At the worst, the expected penalty for too many men on the field would set the Eagles back 5 yards but drain precious seconds from the clock.
To the surprise of the Eagles, no flag was forthcoming and the safest punt in NFL history was executed without mishap. Was Ryan sheepish about employing such a questionable tactic? Hardly. When Al Meltzer asked during the taping of Ryan's weekly television show about the propriety of having 14 men on the field, the coach did note a flaw in the strategy. "There should have been 15," he snapped.
Such an approach to the game of football was the wily Buddy Ryan. And Buddy Ryan, though an assistant coach in Chicago, was the soul of the '85 Bears. Because of him, there were two shutouts in the same playoffs and just 10 points allowed in Super Bowl XX. Because of him, there was the greatest defense in NFL history hellbent on destroying all in its path.
That's what gets an assistant coach carried off the field at the end of the Super Bowl.
"All of us know of someone in our life," said former Bears linebacker Mike Singletary, "whether it's a grandparent, an uncle, a big brother, who meant so much to you. And you can never say how much you appreciate it. Having the opportunity to go back the couple years and sit down with Buddy and look into his eyes, knowing that there's so much that he wants to communicate but he really can't, it's just very difficult to put into words. But I love Buddy Ryan. And I've told him that many, many times."
If bombastic personalities like Ditka and Jim McMahon were the sizzle that splashed the Bears on magazine covers and talk shows, Ryan and his modus operandi were the steak. There's no celebrity, no Shuffle and no lone Super Bowl title in Chicago without Buddy Ryan.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.
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