Rozner: Buddy Ryan legacy much more than a number
To say the Bears played a terrible football game in Detroit on Oct. 19, 1981, would be a bit of an understatement.
It might also be redundant.
The Bears played almost exclusively terrible football in those days, so the 48-17 beating on Monday Night Football wasn't exactly shocking. It was their fourth straight loss and sixth in seven games to begin the '81 season.
"It was chaotic," Doug Plank told us Tuesday morning on the "Mully and Hanley Show" on WSCR 670-AM. "We didn't know how to run that defense and that was Mike Singletary's first year.
"He was coming in and out and giving the signals, and if you've ever tried to listen to an excited Mike Singletary, it sounded like a different language. No one had any idea what Mike was saying."
It was around that time that defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan had invented the "46 defense," so named for Plank's jersey number, because of the role Plank played in the unusual formation and attack scheme.
But the Bears spent most of that season trying to get comfortable in Ryan's innovative arrangement, and the Detroit game was a debacle.
From the time Walter Payton was drafted in 1975, the Bears were mostly about Payton carrying 30 to 40 times, and hoping the defense could keep the team in the game.
This was still true in 1981. Jim Finks was beginning to build a Super Bowl champ, but in the last year of head coach Neill Armstrong's tenure, the offense was still Payton and nothing else.
He was alone again - except for Ryan and a few talented defenders who were growing into monsters.
A week after the Detroit game, the Air Coryell offense led by Dan Fouts arrived at Soldier Field as an 11-point favorite. The 1-6 Bears looked like no match for the 5-2 Chargers, who were averaging 34 points a game and 461 yards on offense.
"That week we practiced and we communicated and we had the 46 defense down. I'm sure Dan Fouts had no idea what he was in for," Plank said. "We pressured him the entire game.
"They had the ultimate offense for that time. They didn't huddle. They lined up with Hall of Famers across the board and the 46 defense came out that day and spanked the Chargers."
Fouts went 13 of 43 for only 295 yards with 2 TDs and 2 INTs. The Bears pressured Fouts and hit him repeatedly. Payton ran for 107 while the Chargers rushed for only 61.
Finally, Gary Fencik's interception set up the winning John Roveto kick with 5:30 left in overtime, and the home team pulled off the NFL upset of the year, 20-17.
It was the coming out party for the 46. It was the proof Ryan needed. And it might have been the day Fencik and Alan Page decided they would beg George Halas to keep Ryan on board even when Armstrong was fired at the end of the season.
A legend was born - and he died Tuesday at the age of 82 on his ranch in Kentucky.
Buddy Ryan was adored by his players, admired by those who tried to copy him and despised by every offensive coordinator who had to account for free-running linebackers.
He was also worshipped by Bears fans, who understood what Ryan meant to the 1985 Bears, the best football team of all time because of the greatest defense in NFL history.
"He was iconic. He was like no other coach I ever had, and that's saying a lot considering I played for Woody Hayes, Mike Ditka and Jack Pardee," Plank said. "When I think of him, I think 'innovative.' He did things on defense I never thought were possible."
Ryan lived a full and colorful life.
He was a Super Bowl champ in Chicago and New York, helping orchestrate the defense that held Baltimore to 7 points when Joe Namath and Jets pulled off one of the greatest upsets of all time.
He was the defensive line coach of the Vikings' "Purple People Eaters" that went to three Super Bowls in the '70s.
He was a head coach. He was a sergeant in the Army during the Korean War. He was a husband, father, grandfather and horse lover.
And he was a hero to his players, who learned that once he broke them down, he could build them back up and into champions.
"Down underneath the gruff personality and coarse language, he really respected and loved his players," Plank said. "Look at the way he ended in Chicago, with the players carrying both him and Mike Ditka off the field (in Super Bowl XX). That says it all."
That is legacy aplenty for one lifetime.
• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.