TO THE VERY end, Buddy Ryan believed the Philadelphia Eagles were his team.
When he was fired yesterday, he should have realized the Philadelphia Eagles are Norman Braman's team, and Braman wanted his ball back.
It became popular in Philadelphia to call what Ryan orchestrated over the past five years in reviving the comatose Eagles "Buddyball." This morning it is once again "Bramanball."
For five years, they struggled, this odd couple of owner and coach. Ryan won games and the respect of his players. Braman made money but felt like Rodney Dangerfield. He never quite got the respect he felt he deserved from his coach.
The media will say that Ryan was fired because he couldn't win the big one. Or that the final straw came when he benched quarterback Randall Cunningham in Philadelphia's opening-round playoff loss to Washington on Saturday. Or that Ryan really couldn't coach against the big boys like Joe Gibbs.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Ryan is the latest coaching casualty in the NFL because he didn't read Braman's lips. Braman kept telling him, in essence, to shut his mouth. But Buddy couldn't stop talking.
"Braman called me up and said he was letting Buddy go because he said Buddy could not take the team to the next level," said Robert Fraley, Ryan's agent. "Everyone that knows what has been going on knows that is a crock. It had nothing to do with coaching; it had to do with what Buddy said, not what he did."
A year ago to the week, the Eagles were drummed out of the playoffs in the first round by the Los Angeles Rams. In the dressing room after the game, Ryan said something like, "If I don't get a new long-term contract before the start of training camp, I won't be coaching here next year." Ryan had one year left on a five-year contract.
Two days later, I talked with Braman by phone. He told me, "I know that Buddy is the best possible coach I can have for my team. I was going to give him a new contract, but now if I did, it would be like I got bullied into it by the things he has been saying. I'll give him one, but only when I think it is time to give it to him.
"The strange thing is," Braman said at the time, "that Buddy and I get along fine. We have never had a bad word between us. When he is with me, he shows the greatest respect to me as an owner. But then I read these things he says in the paper, the same respect isn't there. I know he likes to talk and say things that get attention, but after a while they become irritating."
"All through the season," Fraley said yesterday, "Braman told me and Buddy that a new contract was no problem. Buddy was going to be renewed. It was the same line every time. As soon as the season was over, there would be a new deal. Heck, he told that to Buddy within the last two weeks."
Braman, however, would not pull the trigger. He was angry when the team got off to a slow start, and very upset when holdout tight end Keith Jackson returned after missing a handful of games, saying he did it for Buddy while knocking Braman for being cheap at the same time.
The Eagles had a roller-coaster ride in 1990. Cunningham reached new heights at quarterback. At times, Philadelphia had the most devastating defense in the league. The Eagles mauled the Giants in Philly to stop New York's 10-game winning streak. They pulverized the Redskins later in the year, injuring 10 Washington players in the process. It was generally agreed among coaches throughout the league that if a team was to knock off the San Francisco 49ers this year, it was going to be the Eagles.
But then the wheels came off Saturday against Washington. Cunningham played his worst game in years. Ryan benched him for one series of downs in the third quarter, trying to find a spark in veteran Jim McMahon. When none came, Cunningham went back in. Cunningham said later he was embarrassed. Ryan was ripped in the press.
Joe Montana, Roger Staubach and almost every great quarterback that ever played the game could be pulled because he wasn't getting the job done, but not Randall Cunningham? What gives here?
Ryan was a great motivator and an outstanding judge of talent with the Eagles. In the offseason, he visited the players himself and on draft day made the picks. In his second year, he got rid of the popular Ron Jaworski and said Cunningham was his quarterback.
Ryan was a terrific coach for the Eagles even if he never won a playoff game. Yet Ryan has no one to blame but himself. All he had to do was play the game with Braman, show him proper respect, and he would have been the head coach of the Eagles for a long time, which is what he really wanted. Then again, if he played that game, he really wouldn't be Buddy Ryan.