Playing to the strength of his players

Wade Phillips was officially introduced on Monday as the San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator. The introduction was delayed due to Senior Bowl implications, with the staff leaving just days after Phillips signed. Phillips' defenses have been known for their aggressive style of play and fans are salivating at actually having a defense that can force the play and dictate a game. Marty Schottenheimer was thrilled he would not have to face him down the road.

"After having battled wits with him when he was in Denver and I was in Kansas City, if memory serves me correctly, I probably came out on the short end of it more frequently than not," Marty Schottenheimer said. "I am just delighted, and I know the rest of our staff is with the addition of Wade Phillips as our defensive coordinator."

The addition of Phillips comes after a two year regression in the defensive scheme in San Diego. The history of the team has been filled with defenses that have excelled, and the recent play leaves fans nauseated. The once electric Bolt defense was silenced, the same time Dale Lindsey took the reigns.

Luckily, a new era has begun.

"It's a special opportunity to work with a guy who knows how to win," Phillips said of Schottenheimer. "I can tell you from playing against him, he does. His teams know how to win. I'm glad I'm on that side of it."

Phillips may be glad now, but he hasn't spent considerable time evaluating the talent on the team. He would not list any defender in the "great" category. The closest he came was when he responded to a question regarding Marcellus Wiley:

"As far as Marcellus, he's a great guy and a great worker and I think he'll respond to our coaching. He'll have a good year this year. He's a good player. People say he didn't have a great year last year, but he's a good player and a good person. He works hard and tries to be a good player. I don't know many of the players overall. I know who they are, but I haven't studied them enough to say who's a great player on defense."

Phillips should be applauded for his candor. No one, save Donnie Edwards, on defense is worth of recognition at this time. Enter Phillips who has gotten more out of so little than perhaps any defensive coordinator in history.

His defenses are notorious for their aggressive style of play, turnover ability and overall determined play. Armored with an Atlanta defense that boasted Keith Brooking and Ashley Ambrose in 2002, coupled with many lesser known players, Phillips pioneered the Falcons to two shutouts, 47 sacks and 39 takeaways.

San Diego had just 20 takeaways and 30 sacks in 2003. Atlanta may have been worse yards-wise, but they still had 31 takeaways and 36 sacks and allowed less points overall. There was no consensus whether Phillips would deploy a 3-4 or 4-3 defense in San Diego, deferring to the personnel debate.

"I like them both as long as you have good players," said Phillips. "We've had success in both of them. At Philadelphia, certainly, we had a dominant defense there with Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Jerome Brown and those guys and had a 4-3 front. In fact, Marty was playing a 3-4 with Derrick Thomas (in Kansas City). They did a great job with that. We had some great success in Denver in a 3-4. I've been in both. Personnel dictates what you do. There isn't a big difference. Everybody wants to say there's a big difference. Actually, the end man on the line of scrimmage, if he puts his hand down, it's a 4-3 and if he doesn't, it's a 3-4. It's really how you utilize your personnel, whatever front you're playing."

The debate will continue for some time. It likely will not be decided until after free agency. Phillips has ties throughout the league and players have said they loved playing for him, a good tool for recruitment.

Phillips remained adamant about refining the aggression and stressing takeaways. Always a staple of a Marty Schottenheimer coached team, that strategy was lost with Dale Lindsey.

Expectations will be much higher this coming season. Turnovers or bust is the motto with a new sheriff in town.

"That's our job, not only to stop the other team." Phillips began. "Defensively, when you get into the philosophy of how you play a defense, it's not to just stop them and make them punt, it's to take the ball away from them and give your offense and opportunity. We work together; offense, defense and special teams. To be a part of that, you have to take the ball away. You have to change field position. When we address defense, it's not just stopping them, those stats of how many first downs and how many times you stopped them, but it's how many times you take the ball away, so that has to be an emphasis also."

Another thing that seems to be a change in philosophy is the utilization of talent. Dale Lindsey and company believed in running their scheme and not changing to allow other's to succeed. A classic example of that is Super Bowl bound Rodney Harrison. He has excelled since his departure from a defense that didn't use him to his fullest potential a year ago.

"We try to utilize our personnel and get the best players one-on-one," Phillips said. "It sounds simple but it's not easy to do, to get your best players one-on-one, or come up with a scheme where you don't necessarily get somebody free, but you get a good match-up. Your system has to be flexible. It's not what I know, it's what the players can do. I think that's the key to it. You have to be versatile enough in whatever you're in to get your best players doing what they do well. That's why I've never been set on only playing this defense this way."

Refreshing is the best word to hear such talk. But talk is cheap and the real skinny will play itself out over the course of 2004.

It is a tough road ahead for Phillips. He must transform a defense that became down on themselves early in games and gave up a lot of touchdowns. They did, however, display heart and never gave up. That is the starting point in what fans hope is a bright future.

"It's a big job, but that's the nature of this game," Phillips added. "All of them are big jobs. You just find out the strengths and weaknesses of the players and you play to their strengths. They're young players, but they certainly have talent."

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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