It's a number synonymous with defensive excellence in the National Football League. You think Buddy Ryan and the 1985 Bears. But many youngsters don't know Doug Plank.
Plank, who was recently hired as the Jets' assistant secondary coach and will work primarily with the safeties, was a 12th-round pick of the Bears in 1975. Buddy Ryan, the father of Jets head coach Rex Ryan, became the Bears defensive coordinator in 1978 and he would name his famous "46" alignment after his hard-hitting safety.
"I played the middle linebacker in the alignment, so he just circled my number," Plank told newyorkjets.com this week. "He never referred to anybody other than as a number or you had a nickname — you were never known as just your last name. Sometimes he called me Blondie, sometimes he called me 46, but that's how he would write things on the board as far as alignment and things like that."
In the 46, Plank would move up inside the box and join the four defensive lineman and three linebackers. The concept was simple: Load up at the line and pressure from all angles, take away the run and get after the quarterback. At any moment, Ryan could blitz eight defenders or he could just rush four while the corners were left man-up on the receivers and a free safety roamed deep.
"We had a lot of different coverages and blitzes and defenses that were named after other players," Plank said. "It just so happened that this one, the 46, was one that worked and worked immediately.
"I think one of the first weekends we used it was against Dan Fouts and the Chargers and it was a big upset. We completely caught them off guard and shut down their passing offense. Then Buddy just continued to tweak it, improve it, and there were personnel changes throughout the early Eighties. By the time the Bears got to the '85 season, it was almost unstoppable except for the Miami Dolphins."
It Began with the Bears
The '85 Bears were perhaps the most dominant defensive team in NFL history. They won 15 games during the regular season and then became the first club to go through the playoffs without allowing a point by blanking the Giants and Rams. Then the Monsters of the Midway destroyed the New England Patriots, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX.
Plank's last NFL season was 1982. Now 55, he has partial feeling in his left leg, he got a shoulder replacement last year and will eventually have both his knees replaced. Plank laid his body on the line every time he stepped on the field.
"I had one speed which I could go at, which was full speed. There was no half-go, there was no three-quarters," he said. "If I wasn't at 100 percent effort 100 percent of the time, then I just wouldn't have had a career in the National Football League."
Under Ryan, Chicago developed a tenacious mindset. The defensive genius built loyalty and consensus and the Bears defenders never wanted to let Buddy or each other down.
"There were some very emotional moments and he had the ability to get the most out of people," Plank said.
Following his playing career, Plank ran multiple Burger King franchises before turning to broadcasting out in Arizona — including Cardinals preseason games in the early Nineties when Buddy was head coach and his twin sons, Rex and Rob, served as defensive assistants — with Fox Sports.
Then he became defensive coordinator with the Arizona Rattlers in the Arena Football League, eventually became head coach of the AFL's Georgia Force in 2005, and twice was named AFL Coach of the Year, in 2005 and 2007. Most recently he still served as a broadcaster of NFL games for Sports USA Radio.
"I had been around people my whole life in terms of hiring and leadership and all those sorts of things," he said. "I felt very natural in terms of trying to guide players and get them motivated and excited and team camaraderie. That's what sports are all about."
Rex Ryan, who coincidentally is 46 years old, has known Plank for more than 30 years. Plank absolutely loved playing for Rex's dad and he knows the Ryan trademark when he sees it.
"When you watch someone run the defense like Rex can run it, it's different," he said. "When people in America were watching the Ravens play defense, a lot of people can copy that defense and make it as part of their package but it wouldn't look the same. The reason being is because the guys who installed it and the guys who operated it are not the same.
"And I know one thing: When you watch this defense run with the right mindset, it's difficult to try to overcome."
Bringing Attitude to the Deep Middle
Plank hasn't sat down with the Jets' safeties yet, but he likes the group he has inherited.
"They have the size, the speed, all the variables necessary," he said. "I just believe in every one of us, we all have a personality and there is a good and a bad, there's a happy and a sad and there's a passive and an aggressive."
"What's my job? What's Doug Plank's job? My job this year is to bring out the best in these players from an effort standpoint — play every play like it's your last."
The 46 has returned to the NFL and this time he's wearing Green & White. Occasionally you will still see a fan donning Plank's jersey at Soldier Field. That number equaled attitude and Rex Ryan has brought a welcomed face and mentality to New York.
"I've played for coaches who were able to reach out and touch your heart and your emotions, and I know what kind of difference it made," Plank said. "In terms of being in a huddle with a group of men, it's an attitude that these guys are not scoring. If they are going to gain a yard, they're going to pay a price for it. We're going to pound them."