Buddy Ryan’s introductory press conference as new coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1986 began with this ridiculous statement: “You got a winner in town.” Two weeks before that press conference, Ryan was carried off the field by the Bears after their Super Bowl XX victory, lionized as the architect of the 46 defense, and now here he was “in town” to duplicate his success and there was no reason not to believe him if only because he said so. As coach of the Eagles he won one NFC East title. Yet if you poll Iggles sycophants who throw half-full beer cups at the children of Cowboys fans, Buddy Ryan won Super Bowls in each of his five seasons, even though his actual playoff record was 0-3. In fact, one of the Top 10 Philadelphia sports moments was when Buddy tried to sock offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride in the jaw, even though this happened while he was a defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers. (He missed on that punch, too, by the way.)
This is actually what Buddy Ryan brought to Philadelphia: WIP sports talk radio idiocy, The Wing Bowl, the 700 level anarchy in Vet Stadium. He brought out the self-mythologized, entitled, Calvin-pissing-on-Aikman’s-jersey side of Philadelphia sports fandom. If you can’t win anything, create a spectacle. Spectacles sometimes have more impact than actual wins and erase actual losses from the historical record. Who needs rings when you can cripple a kicker?
That’s what’s so amazing about Buddy Ryan’s Eagles legacy. Dick Vermiel’s teary-eyed press conferences almost brought a real-life Super Bowl winning team in 1980-81. He and Andy Reid, who won important playoff games for the Eagles more often than not, would both still probably lose out to having a stadium named after them in favor of Buddy. Winning percentages didn’t mean half as much as the perception that Ryan’s insane defense-over-offense bluster was somehow more important than whatever the scoreboard said at game’s end.
Now that there’s actual math to show the true value of wins and losses for most professional sports leagues, Buddy’s never gonna be revealed as any sort of genius for what he did as a coach. And imagine the outrage-takes that would result from Buddy’s petty battles with Tom Landry that carried over to Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboy teams? He’d be run out of town real quick in the modern NFL. But what if there is some mystical side to winning that undermines all those empirical formulas? Because Buddy Ryan was the living embodiment of the Rocky statue of Philadelphia sports—touch it and its existence is real, even though what it represents is pure fiction. And that’s why Buddy Ryan always won: because it felt like he did.