Buddy Ryan, architect of Philadelphia's free-wheeling, trash-talking, playoff-losing Eagles, was fired today by owner Norman Braman in a decision that surprised no one.
In recent weeks, Ryan wanted credit for resurrecting the Eagles to playoff status. Instead, he got the blame for a multitude of sins, including his personal war with Braman, the team's disappointing postseason performances the last three years and its reputation for cheap talk and late hits.
Ryan's tempestuous five-year reign was as good as over in the third quarter of last Saturday's 20-6 wild-card loss to the Washington Redskins. The final straw may well have been Ryan's highly-controversial benching of quarterback Randall Cunningham in favor of retread Jim McMahon.
The game still was in doubt at the time. The Redskins led, 13-6, when McMahon came into the game. A Super Bowl quarterback in Chicago who had thrown nine passes all season in Philadelphia, McMahon threw three feeble incompletions and the Eagles punted. Washington marched to its second touchdown of the game for a 20-6 lead. Cunningham returned on the next series, but the Eagles never challenged again.
Later, Cunningham called the move as "insulting." Braman echoed a similar sentiment, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Seven points behind and he embarrasses Randall before a national television audience."
This morning, Braman made the following assessment: "This obviously is not an easy decision to make. Buddy Ryan has done a good job with this football team. I feel, however, that in order for the Philadelphia Eagles to ascend to the next plateau, a change in coaching is necessary."
Speculation on Ryan's successor already has focused on former Colts coach Howard Schnellenberger, now at the University of Louisville; former Colts player David Shula, now an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys; and Rich Kotite, Ryan's offensive coordinator. Kotite seemingly has a supporter in Cunningham, who, while stung by his benching, said he did not want to see the Eagles lose the assistant coach if Ryan were fired.
Ironically, Ryan got the Eagles job in 1986 after Jim Mora and David Shula rebuffed Braman. He was the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears at the time. In the news conference that introduced Ryan to Philadelphia, Braman heralded him as the next Vince Lombardi. Ryan never quite lived up to that billing.
Defense and personnel decisions were his strength, though. His drafts were solid, his defense, featuring the famed "46" scheme, even better. Ryan's first team went 5-10-1, and his second improved to 7-8.
By 1988, the Eagles turned the corner. They won the NFC East title with a 10-6 record, but lost to the Bears, 30-12, in what became known as the "Fog Bowl." It was the beginning of the end for Buddy.
The Eagles gained wild-card berths the last two seasons, going 11-5 and 10-6. But each season ended with bitter defeat. Their 21-7 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams at the end of 1989 was a stunning upset. This year's loss to the Redskins was even bigger. For the Redskins, it was sweet revenge. The Eagles punctuated a 28-14 victory over Washington in the regular season by taunting the Redskins' injured players, asking if they had enough "body bags."
The Eagles increasingly have been characterized as an undisciplined club, out of control, in keeping with Ryan's bombastic personality. While Ryan was able to construct a strong defense, the Eagles were often victims of poor special teams play and disappearing offense. Three times this season they lost fourth-quarter leads -- against Phoenix, Indianapolis and Miami. Ryan was viewed as a poor game-day coach.
Worse yet, he waged open warfare with the team's front office. He sided with the players in their strike of 1987 and the relationship between owner and coach went downhill thereafter. Last summer Ryan publicly supported tight end Keith Jackson, an All-Pro tight end who wanted to renegotiate his contract with two years remaining.
Ryan had a five-year record of 43-38-1, including 0-3 in the postseason, but went 31-17 the last three seasons. Buddy, who will turn 57 in Feb., should have little trouble returning to the NFL. There are openings in Cleveland and Tampa Bay.
His players supported him vehemently as Ryan entered the final year of his contract this season. Cunningham and defensive end Reggie White campaigned for a contract extension, to no effect. Fans were fairly well split on the subject of Ryan's future in Philadelphia. Early in the season, many called for his ouster. But as the team made its playoff run, a large group serenaded Braman's owners box at Veterans Stadium with chants of "We want Buddy."
Yesterday, when the Philadelphia Daily News asked it readers to vote yea or nay on Ryan, more than 12,000 responded. The final count was narrowly in favor of keeping him, 6,585 for keeping Ryan, 5,744 against him.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, on its editorial page, urged Braman to keep Ryan even in the face of Saturday's loss. To the end, Ryan insisted he wanted to return and said he was "99 percent" certain he would.
This morning, the last "body bag" was reserved for the Eagles' caustic coach.