Buddy Ryan performs a valuable public service for the National Football League. He has assumed the role last filled by a television commentator whose presence prompted saloonkeepers to sell bricks for assault upon the little screen. The coach of the Philadelphia Eagles has become a unifying force, a man much of the nation loves to hate.
In addition to his ability to motivate a team, Ryan has the knack of getting under the skin or, in the case of Jimmy Johnson, the hair of opponents or those he perceives as adversaries. The latter includes many members of the media, especially those in the Philadelphia area whose lot in life it is to report on the man's successes, failures and method of operation. Of course, at the moment, Johnson is the most prominent member of the Buddy Ryan Fan Club.
A week ago, while much of America was digesting its Thanksgiving turkey, Johnson found himself unable to swallow the Eagles' manhandling of the Cowboys. The first-year coach became so upset with his team's 11th defeat in 12 games that a few of his remarkably disciplined strands of hair jumped offsides. In a post-game diatribe, he accused Ryan of putting bounties on his quarterback and place-kicker and publicly indicated they would have had a confrontation on the field if Ryan hadn't quickly moved his "fat butt" to the sanctuary of the clubhouse in Texas Stadium.
A league investigation of the charges is under way and should be completed in time for the return engagement on Dec. 10. "When someone makes a big deal out of nothing," Ryan said Wednesday, "I think the league has to check it out. But I think when all the marbles are in, there'll be no question who's the clown."
The issue of NFL justice was raised several times during a telephonic news conference with reporters at Giants Stadium in advance of Sunday's critical contest, which New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells identified as "the division championship game." Although reluctant to belabor the subject, Ryan suggested Johnson's naivete was responsible for the misunderstanding.
And if Johnson allowed himself to become hopping mad, that was his problem. Ryan doesn't plan to apologize for riling someone whose job it is to beat the Eagles. It was his second such triumph in a span of five days, following the ploy that left Minnesota General Manager Mike Lynn promising rule changes as he departed Veterans Stadium the previous Sunday.
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.
It was a couple of years ago that Ryan's Eagles induced a flag by having the punter arch a pass into the air. The players assigned to block the outside pursuit men downfield were penalized for unwittingly interfering with eligible pass receivers. That rule subsequently was tightened.
"I've been in the league a long time," Ryan said yesterday, "and I know the rules. We throw a pass in the air off punt formation and they change the rules. They'll probably change this rule, too."
But NFL rulesmakers always will be a step behind such a devious mind. After all, Ryan had Wes Hopkins, his veteran safety, fake an injury during a game last season to stop the clock. Because Hopkins had returned from a serious knee injury, many observers assumed his career was in jeopardy when they saw him carted off the field. But when newsmen got to the clubhouse, they found him hale, hearty and making dinner plans. Ryan confessed to the subterfuge on his radio show the next night.
The man rarely has hid behind coachspeak. Recall that he roared into Philadelphia in 1986, promising a division championship in his first season even though the team needed a total overhaul. He says now that his prediction and other outrageous statements were designed to take the heat off the team, which promptly went 5-10-1, and place the focus on himself.
Three years later, the Eagles are defending NFC Eastern Division champions and can all but clinch another title by winning Sunday. Yet the focus still is on Ryan. In addition to his TV and radio shows, during which he fields questions from an audience, he has authorized a 900 telephone number with his taped comments. Callers are greeted with a welcome to the "Buddy Line."
On the eve of the Eagles' first game against the Washington Redskins, he reportedly entertained the public with the observation that the Washington safeties were "terrible." The subject was broached during a telephone news conference with Washington writers before the return engagement in November. Ryan denied making the statement. When one scribe persisted, saying he personally had monitored the tape, Ryan hung up. End of interview.
Alas, there were no shocking disclosures on Wednesday's edition of the "Buddy Line." He announced no bounties, trashed no opponents and sounded, as much as possible, like a conservative coach measuring every word for impact. But Ryan's comments, pledged a recorded voice, will be updated Thursday.
There still is ample time for the man to offend someone, to assume center stage in Giants Stadium before Sunday's kickoff. Stay tuned.