You knew when Buddy Ryan walked off the concrete-like carpet at Veterans Stadium on that chilly January day in 1991 that you were never going to see anyone in charge of the Eagles quite like him again. The only difference of opinion was whether that was a good thing or a bad one.
The debates were waged in barrooms and locker rooms. They dominated the newspaper coverage and radio air waves. They continue even today after Ryan died in Kentucky on Tuesday morning at the age of 85.
Buddy Ball, the goring brand of defense that brazenly targeted opposing quarterbacks, was the quintessential roller-coaster ride in Philadelphia sports history. Enormous wins against division rivals the New York Giants, Washington Redskins, and Dallas Cowboys would always be followed by devastating defeats in the playoffs.
The best example came during Ryan's final season and in his final game. On a Monday night in mid-November 1990, the Eagles not only beat the Redskins, they knocked them out, sending six players to the sidelines with injuries, including the first- and second-string quarterbacks. It became known as "The Body Bag Game," one of the signature moments for a defense that should have been good enough to win the Super Bowl but could not even register a single playoff victory during the Ryan era.
Fifty-five days after that bludgeoning on national TV, Washington returned to the Vet and ended the Eagles' season and Ryan's controversial coaching career in Philadelphia with a 20-6 playoff win. The head coach briefly benched quarterback Randall Cunningham in the middle of that game, and owner Norman Braman, the primary target of numerous verbal assaults from his coach, deemed the move "embarrassing." Braman fired Ryan a few days later.
"You know, I've been fired before, but usually it's for losing," Ryan said. "I've never been fired for winning before."
The truth is he was fired for going winless in three playoff games while simultaneously infuriating his owner with antics that were over the top and in poor taste even when the world was not nearly as politically correct as it is today.
Still, it was all so entertaining.
Ryan never came close to sniffing the Super Bowl as the Eagles head coach, but he was the man in charge when the Eagles played in a couple of bizarro bowls.
There was the Fog Bowl in Chicago, a New Year's Eve playoff game against the Bears in 1988. The Eagles thought for sure they were going to win before everything turned hazy as two weather fronts collided along Lake Michigan.
"I thought we had the best team in football the year we lost the Fog Bowl," wide receiver Mike Quick said.
The Eagles still felt that way in 1989, when they won five of their final six games heading into the playoffs, including a 27-0 Thanksgiving Day victory in Dallas that was labeled "The Bounty Bowl" because Buddy allegedly placed bounties on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas and quarterback Troy Aikman.
Rookie Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson blasted Ryan after the game, but the NFL cleared the Eagles after a brief investigation. Quick suggested the league might have been mistaken.
"We had some things with a couple teams," Quick said. "At times there were some incentives to go after a player or two. Some of the things we did could not be done in today's football world. This was an old-school time. That's the way we played defense. We went after people. You were allowed to do it, and we took full advantage of it."
Quick said criticism that Ryan did not pay enough attention to the offensive side of the ball was somewhat justified but not entirely.
"He didn't spend a lot of time on that side of the ball, but that's not uncommon even today," Quick said. "He knew defenses and how to break down protection of the offensive line. He relied on the Ted Plumbs and Doug Scovils. He drafted offensive players and picked offensive players, but he was better at getting guys for the defense."
And the best of his defensive players pledged their lifelong loyalty to Ryan.
"One of the most difficult things about being a coach on any level is being able to extract confidence out of players," linebacker Seth Joyner said by phone. "Once you get to the pro level, I think everybody has the ability to be a decent player. But the difference between an average player, a good player, and a great player is what they think about themselves as players."
Ryan made sure Joyner, a three-time Pro Bowler, thought he had the ability to be a star.
"I remember after my rookie year, I went in for my exit interview, and Buddy asked me what I had planned for the upcoming months," Joyner said. "I told him I was going back to school and taking some classes. He said, 'You're going to either be a student or a football player. The offseason program begins Feb. 28. Your foot is in the door. Kick it open.' That let me know I was good enough to play in the league and be a starter on his team."
Joyner's loyalty was cemented a few years later when he was holding out of training camp for a new contract, and he received a call from his head coach just before training camp started.
"He told me he knew I'd be holding out and I might be seeing some things in the media but not to pay any attention to it," Joyner said. "He ranted and raved in the paper about somebody taking my job, and I knew I could just laugh at it. I knew what it was. He always had your back 100 percent."
Joyner signed with the Arizona Cardinals after Ryan took the job as their head coach in 1994. A couple of weeks ago, Joyner and former Eagles defensive lineman Clyde Simmons visited Ryan one last time at the coach's horse farm in Kentucky.
"We knew the end was drawing near," Joyner said. "It was an opportunity to go see him one more time and let him know how much we cared about him."
Not all the Eagles offensive players under Ryan felt the same way as Joyner, but Quick always stood up for his last NFL head coach. He warned Braman against firing Ryan after the loss to Washington.
"That dude was special to me," Quick said. "I was really fortunate to be able to play under Buddy. I have nothing but love and respect for him. A lot of the offensive guys didn't get to know him the way that I did. I was in the latter part of my career, and he'd always ask me if I wanted to practice because he knew I had bad knees. He'd just flat out ask me, "Number 82, do you need work today?' "
The debates outside the locker room about Ryan were not always kind. A lot of Eagles fans loved him then and still do now. But others could not get beyond the three disappointing playoff losses that produced just one touchdown.
That part still bothers the players, too. Not only did the Eagles fail to win a playoff game under Ryan, they also have been haunted by the premature deaths of teammates Jerome Brown, Reggie White, and Andre Waters.
"That's something that will haunt me forever," Quick said. "I know I was still fortunate to be in the position I was in, but the talent on those teams we had the last couple of years, I know we could have gotten more out of it. And now you watch the footage of guys like Reggie and Jerome jumping around and Andre making plays, and it really makes you think about your own mortality."
Tuesday was the day to remember James David "Buddy" Ryan, the father of the most ferocious defense in Eagles history. He's gone now, but the debate about what he meant to football in Philadelphia is not likely to end any time soon.