He was a chubby, white-haired man of 68. He’d been out of the NFL for a year and could barely get a call-back in search of a suitable job.
The game must have passed him by, right? Probably stubborn and closed-minded, a dictatorial curmudgeon. Who was going to hire Wade Phillips?
Ten months later he’s coordinator of the Denver Broncos, the top defense in the NFL. There are many reasons the Broncos enter Super Bowl 50 so good defensively. There is the obvious talent, with linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib. There was the shift to the 3-4 front, which better exploited their gifts.
And there is the silly, fun-loving Phillips. When banned music could be heard in the locker room, Phillips would storm toward the offending player, give him a look of fury and … break into dance. He’s also the guy who adopted Twitter (with the handle @sonofbum – a nod to his famous coaching dad) to occasionally needle opponents after victories.
The players adore him. He knows when to be goofy and when to be intense. He has earned their affection and commanded their respect.
He’s the most with-it grandfather in the NFL and one of the great stories of this Super Bowl. Yet he’s totally comfortable sliding the credit toward everyone but himself.
“I’m riding the train, clanging the bell,” Phillips said Friday. “That’s all I do.”
And of course, that is so much poppycock.
Phillips is a good talker but an even better listener. He has a preposterous amount of institutional knowledge, having coached in the NFL since 1976. He has been a head coach – interim or otherwise – for six NFL teams. He’s been a defensive coordinator for eight franchises.
But he hasn’t stopped learning. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak was asked what makes Phillips so good at his job. Kubiak knows Phillips awfully well, going back to when Phillips invited Kubiak, then a high school quarterback in Texas, to be the Houston Oilers ball boy.
“Wade listens,” Kubiak replied. “He’s got really good coaches. … He lets them do their job.”
There are two ways you can go so deep into an accomplished career. You can decide you know it all and impose yourself on minutia. Or you can sway a little, rounding up input and accepting there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
“He knows how to run his defense in multiple ways. I’ve seen him change it to each team he was on,” said defensive end Antonio Smith, who also played for Phillips with the Houston Texans.
“It’s not one set way. It can change also week-by-week the way he blitzes. It’s adjusting all the time. If he has a specific player, he can adjust his defense to exploit either the strength of that player or the weakness of the other team.”
Three other Broncos defensive players expressed similar impressions: That his strength as a coach is his flexibility to the roster he inherits.
Rather than treating this as some epiphany, Phillips sounds exasperated that other coaches so fight their teams’ talent.
“I don’t understand the people that say, ‘Hey, this is our scheme and that guy can’t play in it. The guy can play. He’s a good player, but he can’t play in our scheme,’” Phillips said. “Well, to me, there’s something wrong with your scheme. You adapt the scheme to what the players can do, not what you can think of.”
Phillips gets this from Bum, his funny, charismatic and independent dad who passed away in 2013. Who coaches in the NFL in a cowboy hat? But that was Bum, who built fun, entertaining teams in Houston and New Orleans and also a sense of community around them.
Wade Phillips’ life was a little crazy growing up. From kindergarten through 12th grade, his parents moved eight times from coaching job to coaching job. One day in high school he was called to the principal’s office, thinking he was in trouble. He looked out a window and saw the moving vans at his home. It registered that he was off somewhere new.
Yet he loved the incubator that became his coaching encyclopedia. Bum gave him an order; when around coaches he was never to speak but encouraged to listen. There was much to absorb and such opportunity.
Fifty-some years later Wade Phillips could be the guy doing all the talking. He’s good at talking. He’d rather listen.