The Associated Press

PHOENIX ─ When Buddy Ryan took over the Philadelphia Eagles in 1986, he stood with the NFC East's four other coaches who were asked to pick the division winner.

After the other four all picked the New York Giants, Ryan pronounced: "I pick the Eagles. I'm never about to say we're going to lose."

For the record, Ryan's Eagles finished fourth at 5-10-1, saved from last place by the division's perennial doormat, the St. Louis Cardinals. Now he gets to coach those Cardinals, transplanted to Phoenix in 1988 and this year bearing the new moniker of "Arizona Cardinals."

Let's hear it again, Buddy.

"We plan on winning the Eastern Division," he says. "It's the toughest division in football and it has the Dallas Cowboys. But I have an excellent football team."

The funny thing is, he may be right.

It's one of the strangest marriages in football ─Coach Buddy Ryan and owner William V. Bidwill.

Ryan was supposed to be out of the loop for a head coaching job after his nationally televised roundhouse right at Kevin Gilbride last year while defensive coordinator of the Oilers. Bidwill was out of the loop with Arizona fans, who tired quickly of his bad team and high ticket prices shortly after he moved there six years ago.

The images are reversed: Bidwill is getting points for hiring Ryan as coach and general manager, and Ryan is praised for bringing to an improving team such free agents as Seth Joyner, Clyde Simmons and Wilber Marshall, all defensive stars who grew up in his "46" defense.

This time, though, Ryan himself has been the draw.

Soon after he was selected in January to coach the Cardinals in place of Joe Bugel, the promotion department began erecting billboards with his likeness and "BuddyBall" written above it. Season ticket sales have doubled to nearly 50,000.

This came although Bugel had won four of his last five games and improved the Cardinals to 7-9, their best record since they did the same their first year after moving from St. Louis. Even worse was that Bidwill let Bugel twist in the wind while he decided whether to fire him.

What got Ryan hired was some unusually creative thinking in the Cardinals' front office.

"When we talked about hiring a coach, we stressed that we needed a name, that we couldn't get by like some teams with this year's hot assistant," says Joe Rhein, the team's executive vice president and a former league office executive. "We were unpopular for firing Joe and the only way we could recoup was to bring in someone like Mike Ditka or Buddy, who had a strong identity that he could transfer to the team."

What Ryan brings is both coaching ability and a frankness that endeared him to fans in Philadelphia as he built the Eagles into a playoff team.

What he doesn't bring is tact.

Ryan was fired in Philadelphia after three straight playoff years for his blunt denunciations of owner Norman Braman. And he got the defensive coordinator's job in Houston only after the Oiler defense collapsed in Buffalo in the 1992 playoffs.

So the questions in Phoenix are:

¨ Can Ryan maintain a harmonious relationship with Bidwill, who is often silent but can wield a quick ax?

"Look out for the lock truck," says Joe Gibbs, who was an assistant in St. Louis before becoming head coach of the Redskins. "That's what they tell all new coaches. When the lock truck shows up, you'll come to work and find out you can't get into your office."

¨ Can Ryan coach beyond the first-round playoff level? He was an assistant on the Jets team that won the 1969 Super Bowl and ran one of the best defensive units ever on the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears.

But in Philadelphia, he would beat the Giants or Redskins one week, then lose the next at home to a team like the Colts or Cardinals. Those losses would be just enough to cost the Eagles a division title and home field in the playoffs. They went without a playoff win until after Ryan left.

Ryan may have less trouble with Bidwill than he had with Braman simply because he's also general manager, and because of the salary cap. In Philadelphia, he would lash out at Braman for failing to get a player he needed. In Arizona, Bidwill can plead salary cap limitations when he doesn't get the players. Read Next Article