The last six times Wade Phillips has taken over as a defensive coordinator or head coach for a team that had a losing record the year before, it has made the playoffs.
Although Phillips isn't allowed to talk to the media, there are plenty of players who were willing to talk about the renaissance in San Diego.
Phillips told his troops that every time he has come to a new team they have gone to the playoffs that first year.
Crazy? Perhaps. Prophetic? Definitely.
"I remember he said that," linebacker Donnie Edwards recalled. "He said, ‘OK, no pressure, but I expect to make the playoffs.'
"He's right. Something on his resume speaks for itself, and we've been able to do that again his first year in San Diego. It's been an honor. It's a great testament to him. He did a great job coaching. Not only him, but also Greg Manusky, Brian Stewart and John Pagano. Those guys have done such a great job with our defense and installing it with a young team and a new scheme. We've been able to go out and execute on Sunday."
"When he first got here, he said something about every team that he joins, the first year they go to the playoffs," linebacker Ben Leber added. "And just thought of that, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy really knows what he's doing.' Sure enough, here we are. His demeanor, the way he teaches, the way he coaches, everybody can really just grasp it and really understand it. You guys have all had a chance to meet him—he's a great guy, laid-back. When you're teaching it's easy just to learn from a guy that's not on you and yelling down your throat. The way he teaches and the way he cares about each player is really important."
Along with Phillips came the 3-4 defense, something many on the team had never played before. The Chargers worked hard this offseason to acquire players they believed would help them make the transition from the more traditional 4-3.
No one expected the unit to make the tremendous leaps and bounds they did in its first year of implementation.
Head coach Marty Schottenheimer pointed to the ease of bringing in more athletic linebackers that could fit the scheme as a reason it was introduced. He believed it was easier to find another linebacker who could play the defense than a defensive tackle to plug the middle.
The key to it all has been the play of nose tackle Jamal Williams. Without a stout man in the middle, the linebackers would have to work harder to shed blocks and make tackles. Williams has been able to take on double teams – which has afforded the linebackers some space to make plays.
"He has had a terrific, terrific year," said Schottenheimer.
With Williams an immovable object in the center of the defense, the Chargers ended the year ranked third in the league against the run, allowing an average of 81.7 yards per game (the league leader, Pittsburgh, allowed 81.2 yards per game).
How quickly it has come together has surprised linebacker Steve Foley, one of the few players on the squad who had prior experience with the 3-4 defense.
"The 3-4 defense is something that is going to take you two years to really get down," Foley admitted again this week. "Luckily, we are really getting a grasp and concept of how it should be played. We have a lot of young guys and their attention to detail and them focusing and working hard throughout the week has meant a lot.
"We still have mental lapses from time to time. This defense is going to take awhile before you know it like the back of your hand. We are at a point right now where we can't allow to sit back and look forward to next year thinking we have it down pat. Now is a win or go home situation."
Foley was critical of the defense two weeks ago in the loss to Indianapolis. He challenged the team to play to their assignments and go full throttle for sixty minutes.
But the loss had its benefits according to the team's leading sack artist.
"Guys attention to detail," Foley pointed to as the difference maker this week. "You hate to say it but maybe the loss was what we needed for guys to really get refocused and concentrate back on the situation at hand and what really matters which is getting the job done and knowing the plays."
Turning around their season has been due in part to the play of the defense. Phillips has made it his focus to stop the run all year and that has made teams one-dimensional. Rushing linebackers from various sides of the field has given the Bolts greater pressure up front on the quarterback, a tool that works hand-in-hand with their ability to stop the passing game.
All these reasons were the driving force of going to the 3-4 defense. It is hard to believe that this is his sixth team.
"Wade is a great coach," said Edwards. "This is my ninth year in the league and I've had so many coaches. I've seen a lot of coaches come and go. Wade is such a breath of fresh air not only as a coach, but he's also a good man. He brings a happy environment. We're happy to go to work. He jokes around and he has fun. He understands we're going to make mistakes, but he wants you to learn and he's going to encourage you and push you along."
Chargers thank Wade and his defense
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