SANTA CLARA — While the nation has been focusing on Peyton Manning and his attempt to squeeze a second NFL championship out of his diminished arm, the real engine of the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl chances sat at a table and softly replied to someone who asked whether his players keep him young.
“I don’t really think about age that much,” Wade Phillips answered. “I think I’m doing the same things I did when was first a coordinator at 32.”
Phillips is 68 now. He has silver hair, a quiet voice and a roly-poly build, though to be honest he has always had silver hair and a quiet voice and a roly-poly build. It’s what makes him so easy to underestimate. Except for his luminescent blue eyes, there is almost nothing to make Phillips stand out in a crowded room.
But NFL insiders, and especially those who have played for him or coached with him, consider Wade Phillips one of the most enduringly successful defensive minds in the game. He had the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL this season, and it seems to be mounting a crescendo.
The Broncos were fearsome to watch in the AFC championship game two weeks ago. Tom Brady has one of the quickest releases in the league, but the Broncos sacked him four times and hit him 20 times — or 23, depending on who was doing the counting. Either way, it was more than any quarterback was hit in a game this year.
Now the Broncos must prepare for a completely different challenge. Cam Newton doesn’t have Brady’s release. Then again, he is harder to catch, and harder to tackle, than any quarterback in the NFL. Once again, Phillips’ defense will be the key.
Not bad for someone who didn’t even coach in 2014, and looked ready to ride into the sunset.
“Only in America, right?” Phillips said. “It’s pretty amazing that this happened for me. I hoped to get a job, but I didn’t know I was gonna get a job with so many good players.”
As Phillips suggests, the Broncos defense wasn’t exactly in tatters before he arrived. The team went 12-4 and the defense ranked No. 3 in 2014. That wasn’t good enough to save the job of John Fox, though. He “mutually parted ways” — 49ers fans know all about that, right? — with the Broncos, paving the way for the arrival of head coach Gary Kubiak.
As for Kubiak, “The best thing he did, No. 1, was hire Wade Phillips,” former NFL coach and current CBS analyst Bill Cowher said.
If Phillips has an everyman persona, his approach to the game is unconventional. Most defensive coaches, including successful ones like Bill Belichick and Dick LeBeau, draw up intricate schemes and order everyone on the unit “do your job.” Phillips grants his players freedom – freedom to be themselves, and freedom to make plays.
“He’s truly a players’ coach,” defensive end Malik Jackson said. “He really respects us and allows us to be ourself when we’re around him. With plays, if we don’t like it or if a guy’s a little iffy, he takes it out.”
Not that Phillips’ defense is without structure or accountability. Far from it. He just doesn’t obsess on Xs and Os.