Englewood, Co -- After spending a year out of football, Wade Phillips returned this year as the new defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, his second stint in that role. He will work under head coach Gary Kubiak, also for the second time in his career, with the first run coming with the Houston Texans from 2011-2013.
Phillips has been in Kubiak’s shoes. He was the 11th head coach of the Broncos, serving from 1993-1994 and paved the way for the successful Mike Shanahan regime. He also served as the Texans interim head coach when Kubiak was fired in 2013.
“I love coaching,” Philips said today. “That’s what I do. My wife, Laurie, wanted to get me out of the house after a year of being around so I love what I do. I was a lousy head coach, but I’m a pretty good defensive coordinator and that’s what I do well. So I wanted to get back to doing that and I couldn’t be happier.”
There’s nothing like a little self-deprecating humor to lighten the mood in a room. But perhaps the son of Bum is being a little too harsh on himself. However, there’s no question that he brings a long and successful track record to the table as a defensive coordinator.
There’s a big difference between what Kubiak and Phillips experienced working together in Houston and what they’re undertaking in Denver and it can be summed up in one word – expectations. As a 2002 expansion team, the bar wasn’t set too high in Houston, when Kubiak took over as head coach in 2006.
The Texans had never been to the postseason, let alone won a playoff game. To Kubiak and Phillips’ credit, they achieved those feats in 2011 and repeated them in 2012. The Texans have won exactly two playoff games and both came under the direction of Kubiak…and Phillips.
I add Phillips’ name to that equation because Kubiak floundered in Houston for several years, consistently fielding a talented but not-so-good defense. But when Phillips arrived in Houston to coach the defense, the Texans turned the ship around. J.J. Watt had something to do with that as well, but in his rookie year (2011), he didn’t really come into his own until down the stretch.
But with the playoff wins came the expectations. In 2013, the pressure arguably got to Kubiak and especially his quarterback, Matt Schaub, who melted down and almost single-handedly cost the Texans their season.
The hope is that Kubiak learned from that, because with the head coaching job of the Broncos come some Mile High expectations, especially if Peyton Manning is the quarterback. It’s Super Bowl or bust and there is no Plan B.
Phillips doesn’t shy away from the expectations of the fans and the ownership. He has a unique view on how it helps the team.
“It’s great to be back,” Phillips said. “We had a great six years here. I said it when I was here, this is a great town because they expect the team to win. They expect the most from their team and I think that helps them have the great traditions they’ve had here, especially under [Owner] Pat Bowlen in his regime. I think I felt the same thing and I feel it now, this city and the fans here, they demand a lot, they expect a lot, but I think it helps our team. It helps you to get to that level you want to be and now you’ve got a guy that’s a great competitor leading us, [Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager] John Elway. And ‘Kub’ (Head Coach Gary Kubiak) is a great coach. I was with him for three years in Houston and I think he’s going to end up one of the great coaches in the league because of how he handles his players, his team and how they play.”
Most of the pieces are in place from a personnel standpoint. Phillips has coached some great defenses but he’s never had a unit as stacked and talented across the board as the one he’s inheriting in Denver. Not only does he have Von Miller, a game-changing talent, but he also has DeMarcus Ware lining up on the other side of the line.
Phillips also gets to coach three players in the secondary, Chris Harris, Jr, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward, who have been to the Pro Bowl. At linebacker, he has two fast tackling machines in Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan. The cupboard has been fully stocked for the son of Bum.
”This is probably the best situation, defensively, that I’ve come into—or way better than any other situation I’ve come into,” Phillips said. “Normally they’ve had a bad year and they’ve brought me in as defensive coordinator. This team has a lot of talent on defense but we’re going to do better. That’s what I do is improve them.”
It will be interesting to see how Phillips deploys his shiny new toys, especially Miller and Ware. Going into 2014, many believed that this pass rushing duo had the ability to notch 30 combined sacks, a mark they fell short of. How much of that had to do with Jack Del Rio and scheme? I can’t say for sure, but probably a lot. But if anyone can get creative and find ways to utilize Miller and Ware to the best of their abilities, it’s Wade Phillips.
”Anytime you’ve got great players, that’s what you’re looking for: difference makers. That’s what you look for. You’ve got to utilize their talents and that’s what we’ll try to do with those guys. DeMarcus, obviously has been a great talent and tremendous player and I was lucky to have him at the time we had him in Dallas. I’m really privileged to have him again. And then Von Miller, I think his arrow’s going up and he’s really a super player already.”
Miller’s star was burning bright, until a combination of off-the-field issues and a knee injury derailed his third season in the NFL. He bounced back in 2014, leading the team with 14 sacks and earned his third trip to the Pro Bowl. Miller possesses that game-changing ability. Can Phillips tap into that the same way that he did with J.J. Watt?
“There’s no doubt about it,” Phillips resonded. “I think everybody knows we’re going to a 3-4. The outside ‘backers, you want them to be the rush guys. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of really good ones. [DE] Simon Fletcher here had  sacks and I think he set the sack record here for a long time. So we can utilize the guys that have talents to rush. I’ve always said, ‘Hey, if he can rush well, if he’s a really great rusher, let him rush.’ It seems simple but sometimes people want to drop them in the pass and all that stuff. It’s also the cornerbacks, what they can do; It’s what [CB Chris] Harris [Jr.] can do, what [CB Aqib] Talib can do. It’s whatever they can do really well, then we’re going to utilize that.”
This is the most talented defense Phillips has ever inherited. But with that collective ability come the expectations. John Elway is betting that Kubiak and Phillips can handle the pressure. Only time will tell if he’s right.
But I don’t think Elway could have done a better job of putting the right type of coaches around a roster replete with talent. Now, they just have to resolve that pesky quarterback situation. Hopefully, it’ll be filled by a 5-time MVP named Peyton Manning.