Ford: Buddy Ryan's bluster has softened his failure

Buddy Ryan watches a past game in preparation for another game.

History is as fresh as yesterday, still moving under the microscope, still capable of becoming something different when it is finally preserved forever in amber.

The historical view of Buddy Ryan in this town has stabilized in the years since he was fired by Norman Braman in 1991. After 25 years, Ryan's varied and unpredictable personality has narrowed to the caricature of the wisecracking bully who united both a team and a city.

That's true enough, looking through the other end of the binoculars, and Ryan, who died this week at 85 after going a full four quarters with cancer, would certainly approve the shorthand version of his biography with the Eagles. He was an awful lot more, though, and there was more nuance to the man than one would think, even if Ryan would have laughed at the word.

Most of that is gone now, lost to history just as those three playoff games were lost, never to be recovered. That is part of his legacy, too. There was a winner in town but not after the winter solstice.

The retrospectives this week on Ryan's career in Philadelphia, now so neatly drawn, make you consider how the legacies of the team's two most recent head coaches will change and harden as history grips them, and time draws them and their own nuances further away. Andy Reid and Chip Kelly, both incredibly large on the sports landscape here in their respective times; both of whom, like Ryan, left with a winning record but without winning.

Calendar pages fall and stack one on top of the other, and it's fair to wonder how high the paper tower will rise before the next championship. Not counting Doug Pederson, the Eagles have had 12 non-interim head coaches since their last title. Five of them are dead now, and another three are in their 80s or will be before the year is out. All 12 of them came in with the intention of breaking the streak that started after Buck Shaw's triumph in 1960. Some, like Dick Vermeil, left with the city's affection. Some, like Joe Kuharich, left otherwise. Only Ryan failed so consistently in the biggest games and is still remembered fondly.


What made Buddy Ryan so popular in Philadelphia?

It isn't likely Reid or Kelly will get the same gauzy treatment when viewed through the lens of history. One guy hid his personality, and the other couldn't, and that might be the downfall for both of their legacies.

Reid won 10 or more games in six of seven seasons during his best years in Philadelphia. He won 130 regular-season games and another 10 playoff games by the time he left, more than doubling the win total of the previous career leader, but he never won the heart of the city.

Because he is still coaching a contender, it is possible that the memory of Reid here will be altered slightly before it crystallizes, in the same way that Vermeil's memory was changed when he won the Super Bowl for St. Louis. Instead of remaining tragically married together - the city worn out and the coach burned out - Vermeil shook the ashes from his coat and cried his tears of joy for another lover. We still couldn't hate him.

If Reid wins a Super Bowl in Kansas City, the reaction will be different, and his success will be measured more by what he failed to do for the Eagles than what he was able to accomplish with the Chiefs. Aside from that, his legacy in Philadelphia is almost set. Over time, Reid will remain respected but not adored, and, religion aside, never the guy you'd prefer on the next barstool.

Kelly is a different matter entirely, and the path of his career will almost definitely compose the words of his Philadelphia epitaph. Should his super-genius act succeed in San Francisco or elsewhere - and should Eagles coaches still be chasing Buck Shaw - then it will be the organization that is scolded by history for not seeing the plan through.

Sure, he was a smart-ass, but no more than Ryan. Yes, he won, but didn't win anything of note, just like Ryan. The two men were more alike than different, even though their specialties were on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage. Both believed in attacking and putting the opponent on its heels.

In their pragmatic souls, public relations took a backseat, because winning cures all personality flaws and the Band-Aid of universal popularity won't cover up losing. It turned out both were a little bit wrong there. Ryan probably wouldn't have been fired if he hadn't gone out of his way to antagonize the owner. Kelly committed a worse sin against Jeffrey Lurie. He ignored him. If Kelly wins with another team, he'll get forgiveness for that sin in Philadelphia. If not, he will be marked a con artist for eternity.

Ryan escaped that fate, even though his talk and his walk never matched up here. His bluster turned out to be that of a carnival barker, but the show was so entertaining Buddy Ryan will live forever as the profane uncle who made you laugh and the guy who fit right in on the next barstool. That history is written now, and there is a long list of former coaches who would take it for their own.