Known for simplicity, Phillips outsmarts Brady, Belichick

Alan Truex

Wade Phillips is one of the most recycled of NFL coaches.  He’s worked for 13 teams in his 37 years in the league.  He worked for nobody in 2014 after being fired by the Houston Texans.

But fortune has turned sharply upward for the amiable defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos.  As he put it in a tweet: “Good year for me, from unemployment to the Super Bowl.”

Indeed, he and the Broncos have advanced to the Super Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., on Feb. 7.  Thanks largely to their No. 1-ranked defense, the Broncos won the AFC Championship Game, 20-18 over the reigning Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots.

The Broncos subjected Tom Brady to the most punishment administered to an NFL quarterback this season:  23 hits.   After the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick sought out Phillips and personally told him, “Good coaching job.”   The next day, Belichick fired his offensive line coach, Dave Diguglielmo.

To the casual observer, it may have looked like Phillips was doing nothing special as the Patriot missiles kept misfiring.  There were no exotic blitzes.

The main change from the norm is that most of the time Phillips deployed a four-man front instead of his usual 3-4.   Ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson moved inside to tackle, while linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware stepped up to the line and rushed from the end positions.

Pro Football Focus reported that the Broncos only 18 percent of the time rushed Brady with more than four players.

That said, this was not the plain-vanilla defense that Phillips is known for using.  Brady found things were not as simple as they looked.  He was sacked four times and threw two interceptions. 

On third down, he would look for Rob Gronkowski and see him triple-teamed.   Or he would set up for a quick out to Julian Edelman, only to hesitate because the receiver couldn’t get free from the press coverage of Aqib Talib.

Phillips took some risk – but shrewdly calculated — that Brady would not have time to throw deep to Edelman before the rush engulfed him.

As former QB Trent Green observed on CBSSports:  “He took the offensive flow out of Brady’s hands.”

Like his father, Bum Phillips, inventor of the 3-4 alignment that the son normally employs, Wade is known for keeping things simple.  That reputation allowed him to catch the Patriots off guard.

As a popular and successful head coach of the Houston Oilers in the 1970s, Bum Phillips did not try to fool anyone, least of all his own players.

One time, assigned to cover the Oilers in the playoffs, I was sitting in the Astrodome with several other reporters, not realizing we were supposed to be gone during the portion of the practice that was “closed.”   One of Bum’s assistants asked him if he should chase the reporters away.  The coach replied:  “Nah, they ain’t seeing nothin’ we ain’t done before.”

A few years later, Oilers quarterback Ken Stabler complained that Phillips was running “a high school offense.”

Like father, like son, Wade stuck to the basics.  At least he used to.

When Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak hired him to run his defense in 2011, Phillips took over a bedraggled and confused outfit and brought instant clarity.   Houston’s defense rose from 29th in the league to 4th.  It was especially impressive because Phillips brought in a complete new defensive system, switching from the traditional 4-3 alignment to his dad’s 3-4.

Phillips showed then, as he has numerous other times, that he can adapt his coaching to whatever personnel is there.  Like Belichick, he gives a player only the assignments he’s capable of executing consistently well.

Unlike Belichick, Phillips keeps the atmosphere light with a wry sense of humor.  When he was defensive coach of the Texans, he was asked what he knew about the Tennessee Titans’ new offensive coordinator, Dowell Loggains.

“I know his mama don’t dance and his daddy don’t rock ’n’ roll.”

The problem with funny coaches is that sometimes players don’t take them seriously. That’s happened to Phillips.  When he was head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, some reporters referred to him as “Yuk Yuk.”

Phillips has said, “I’m not a good head coach.  But I’m a very good defensive coordinator.”

His lighthearted touch works fine as a coordinator, and he’s a sharper strategist than many realize.  He assembles the right combinations to counter whichever pass receivers are on the field.  When Phillips once took a game off from the Texans because of a medical issue, their defense was totally lost without his calls.   They lost massively.

The fault with Phillips is that while he always brings a quick upward curve, it’s never been sustained for many years.  He’s no Dick LeBeau.   Hence, his frequent departures.  He lifts the performance of each player he coaches, but he hasn’t supported them with creative schemes to lift the performances even more.

The Texans’ defense improved when Phillips’ successor, Romeo Crennel, installed a variety of blitzes and let J.J. Watt determine where he’d line up.

Phillips is a very defensive defensive coach, of the give-but-don’t-break school that his dad championed, without ever quite winning a conference championship.

But now we see something different in Denver.  In the divisional playoff victory over Pittsburgh and again on Championship Sunday, the 68-year-old Phillips showed some new wrinkles.  Against Brady’s receivers he drew up a variety of coverages.  He effectively dropped speedy linebackers Miller and Brandon Marshall and even lineman Jackson into coverage when Brady was expecting them to rush.

This was not his father’s defense.  Back again with Kubiak, who trusts him totally, Wade Phillips has reinvented himself as a defensive mastermind.   He may not stop Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, but he’s accomplished something his innovative father never did:  coach in the Super Bowl.

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