Ditka vs. Ryan: Grudgematches 1986-1989
Typically, a rivalry in the NFL is forged after year upon year
of continuous play between two teams. Bears-Packers and Bears-Lions are the
league's two oldest continuous conflicts, stretching back to 1921 and 1930,
respectively. Although the Philadelphia Eagles began league play in 1933, the
Bears have played them roughly every other year. The 34 total games between the
two pale in comparison to the 165 played between the Bears and Packers.
The Bears-Eagles series did gain rivalry status between 1986
and 1989, however, when opposing head coaches Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan faced
off with one another. The best part about it: Chicago dominated.
James "Buddy" Ryan began his career as Bears defensive
coordinator after being brought on by head coach Neill Armstrong for the 1978
season. Following Armstrong's firing after the 1981 campaign,
many players and staffers thought the head coaching position would be given to
him. Defensive tackle Alan Page wrote a letter to Halas, imploring the aging
owner to retain Ryan. The letter was signed by all of Chicago's defensive
players. Halas was driven in a golf cart to address the defense on the practice
field. According to a 1988 aritcle by the Chicago Tribune's Don Pierson, Halas
told the players that "Buddy Parker is a fine coach, you have nothing to worry
about." Halas re-signed Ryan to a new deal as coordinator before hiring Mike
Ditka as head coach, which happened on January 20, 1982. Thus began the famous
To say Ryan's defenses were stellar for the Bears from
1982-1984 would be an understatement. The defenders usually led the NFL in all
defensive categories, even when the team's record was poor in '82 and '83. And
Ditka, although he preferred a more conservative 3-4 alignment, gave Ryan full
reign over his unit. Safety Dave Duerson (1983-1990) has stated that Ditka only
interfered in a defensive meeting once, when Ryan told him to "get out, this is
my team, these are my players."
During halftime of the 1985 loss to the Miami Dolphins, the
ill feelings came to a head. After Ryan refused Ditka's orders to insert a
cornerback to cover WR Nat Moore instead of linebacker Wilbur Marshall, Ditka
offered to take Ryan outside to resolve the situation. "We can do it any way
you want to. We can go right out back and get it on or you can shape your ass
up," Ditka recalls. Whether the fight ever occurred is a mystery, but Chicago
did lose the game en route to its Super Bowl 20 victory. The night before the
game, Ryan announced he was leaving to become head coach of the Eagles. Players
and Ryan cried before DT Steve McMichael (1981-1993) threw a chair that stuck
into the wall to dry the group's tears with testosterone. With Ryan's
departure, and a 1986 matchup already scheduled between Chicago and
Philadelphia, an intense rivalry was born.
September 14, 1986 featured the first matchup of Ryan and
Ditka at Soldier Field. Ditka remained diplomatic as the media questioned him
on his reunion with his bitter former assistant. "I don't have a psychiatric
degree, so if you guys want to talk football, we can talk. The guy that was
here in 1982, I liked, but he's not here anymore," Ditka told reporters. At the
same time, Ryan didn't see fit to muzzle himself. He told one publication that
the Bears "didn't have a chance" to repeat as world champions. "Any team in
history has a tough time. You just can't do it. Too many things have to go
right for you." To this, McMichael, never a huge Ryan fan, responded "The old
fat man has been talking a little stuff in Philly, ain't he?" Eagles running
back Mike Waters called the Bears "pansies" and "babies" prior to the game,
which Chicago won in overtime, 13-10 on a Kevin Butler field goal.
The following season, Chicago and Philadelphia again faced,
this time in Veteran's Stadium. Most bantering between the two coaches was
silenced, as this would be the first game played after the NFLPA called a
strike. The contest would feature replacement players, better known as "scabs"
on each side of the ball. The field generals looked at the "scabs" in entirely
different ways, which probably influenced the outcome of the gane, Ditka
embraced the players as "the real Bears," while Ryan called his team "the worst
bunch of football players I've ever seen." The AFL-CIO in Philadelphia
threatened a disturbance at the game, and the Teamster's union circled the
field with semi trucks. Bear players arrived for the game at 5 a.m. to avoid
the conflict, just over 4,000 fans showed up, and Chicago prevailed 35-3.
The teams didn't meet during the 1988 season, an eventful
campaign for both clubs. Ryan's Eagles took the NFC by surprise, winning the
East with a 10-6 record, their first winning season since 1981. In Chicago, the
team rebounded from key personnel losses, injuries, poor treatment by the media
and a Ditka heart attack by compiling a 12-4 record and securing home-field
advantage throughout the playoffs.
It seemed like Karma, then, that the Eagles were scheduled for
a divisional playoff game at Solider Field on New Year's Eve 1988. Ditka again
took the high road when asked about Ryan, calling the matchup "just another
game." "Our team will play their team. I doubt that he will make any tackles,
or I will make any catches. Team against team, that's what it will be," Ditka
said. But as usual, Ryan chose the opposite route. Ryan called the Eagles'
personnel "better than the Bears at every position except middle linebacker," a
nod to his former best student, Mike Singletary. Ryan also proclaimed the
Eagles to have home field advantage in Chicago, since he never lost a playoff
game there, unlike Ditka. Added to the verbal barrage in 1988 was former Bear
safety Todd Bell, now playing weakside linebacker in the 46 for Ryan. Bell was
fired up before, during and after the game, taunting Bears players and decrying
his treatment by Ditka and the Bears' organization while he played there. By
the time the actual game got started, after the prior week of media frenzy, the
temperature was unusually balmy for December 31st along Lake Michigan. Chicago
opened up a 17-9 lead on Ryan and the Eagles, thanks to several major gaffes
committed by Philadelphia. Then suddenly a fog decended upon the field which
shrouded the stadium and created perhaps the most peculiar football game in
history. The Bears held on to win despite the Eagles penetrating Chicago's
25-yard line nine times. The recalcitrant Ryan was brave as he met the media,
giving credit to the Bears' defense-but not their coaching. "Credit the Bears.
And hold your head high," he told his players. "You have nothing to be ashamed
It's doubtful that either coach could sense that their Monday
Night matchup on October 2, 1989 would be their last, but it certainly seemed
that way. Even the Soldier Field crowd got into the feud in a big way. Fans
displayed banners that read "Ryan's no buddy of ours," chanted "Bud-dy, Bud-dy"
constantly, and even pelted the coach on the field with french fries in an
allusion to McDonald's commercials in which Ryan had starred. Chicago won this
final matchup 27-13 and harassed Eagles QB Randall Cunningham all night,
despite him throwing for 401 yards. After the game, Ryan said "you don't lose
that many times to anyone and stay in this league long." The Eagles' defense
was joined on the field by another Bears castoff, Al Harris, and Todd Bell
again showed his fervor against Chicago by getting into a heated arguement with
Richard Dent. Bell broke his leg in the contest.
And finally, Mike Ditka hit back at Ryan after the game, after
remaining silent on the subject for nearly four years. Sounding like the
quintisenntial Ditka, he said "I'm the duck and it's like water off a duck's
back" in reference to Ryan's constant remarks. "He's just jealous. You know
what they say. Empty tin cans make the most noise, and he's an empty tin can.
This game is between the Bears and the Eagles, not Ditka and Ryan. We all know
who would win that one. Ditka, hands down," the Bears' icon said. Perhaps
Bears' safety Shawn Gayle finalized the feud best when he suggested a solution.
"Maybe what we could do after the game is all the players circle our cars in
the parking lot and we let the two of them go at it."
This final matchup between the two coaches may have been the
crescendo of each team's success. Chicago held a 4-0 record after the Eagles
victory, but would lose eight of the next ten to finish 6-10. Many point to
this season as the beginning of the end for Mike Ditka, who was fired three
years later. Ryan's teams would finish 11-5 and 10-6 in 1989 and 1990, but
the outspoken coach was released after the 1990 season for failing to win a
playoff game. Ryan served a two-year stint with the Arizona Cardinals in '94
and '95, after which he retired to his horse ranch in Kentucky. Ditka also
tried to reprise his glory from 1997-99 with New Orleans, who also fired him
after three frustrating seasons. Ditka "retired" to continue to make millions
on endorsements, restaurants and broadcasting jobs.
As an amusing epilogue to this story, Buddy Ryan finally
managed to beat the Bears while coaching a preseason contest against Dave
Wannstedt in 1995. Chicago held a 16-14 lead with just minutes left, when Ryan
re-inserted his starting players, an unheard of practice in the preseason. The
Arizona first team, playing against players that would soon be cut by Chicago,
moved down the field and kicked a winning field goal with seconds remaining.
After posting an 0-5 record against Chicago from 1986-1994, Ryan's own actions
confirmed he savored that one victory against his former club.
Quotes courtesy Chicago Tribune archives.