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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.

“A lot of coordinators, basically we call ’em gurus — they think they are,” said Broncos linebackers coach Reggie Herring, who is in his third stint with Phillips. “They like to have meetings and hold all the meetings themselves. And how can you fundamentally coach correctly, in detail, every player on that film? It’d take you 30 minutes to get through two plays.”

There are scheme people and fundamentals people, Herring says, and Phillips is a football fundamentalist. All NFL teams spend hours on fundamentals. Herring insists the Broncos go further, and that you’ll see the difference if you compare Denver’s film to another team’s.

Some people call Phillips’ defense simple, and it’s true that it doesn’t have as many variations as some. But the system is adaptable. CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Green noted that when the Broncos faced Pittsburgh in a divisional playoff, Phillips designed a game plan to contain the Steelers’ vertically oriented receivers. Against the Patriots in the AFC championship game, the emphasis switched to pressuring Brady.

“They were able to get pressure, sometimes with only three rushers,” Green said. “So causing confusion with the offensive line, causing confusion with your pass rush, give him a lot of credit because he makes those adjustments from week to week.”

And because Phillips has so much confidence in his players’ fundamentals, he has no qualms about turning them loose and letting them rely on their instincts.

“Everybody has an assignment, but your responsibility is get to the football,” Phillips said. “It’s the old, ‘I had my gap but they made 50 yards.’ Well, that’s not good. … That’s why I think we have great pursuit.”

The players love that buy-in. In fact, they generally love playing for Phillips, who emphasizes teaching over yelling and solutions over blame.

“I think you can have fun and still play great football,” Phillips said. “Some people believe coaches have to be mean to people all the time and cuss ’em out all the time to make ’em better. Somebody cussing me out, I didn’t really want to be better. You get defensive when somebody’s on you all the time.”

The most surprising thing about Wade Phillips is how well he relates to the young guys on his defense after 45 years coaching football, and 38 in the NFL.

“Maybe because he’s been around so much football, he been in so many locker rooms for a long period of time. So he just knows how to vibe with us,” cornerback Aqib Talib said.

Jackson noted that Phillips is familiar with the rappers Drake and 2 Chainz. In the locker room recently, the coach announced that he liked Drake. Why, everyone wondered? “Because I started from the bottom, like he did,” Phillips replied, quoting a song lyric.

“For him to say that and know a Drake song, know what’s going on, it’s pretty funny,” Jackson said.

At the Super Bowl Opening Night event on Monday, Talib “interviewed” Phillips for the Broncos web site, setting the tone by draping a massive gold chain around the coach’s neck. It wasn’t Phillips’ good-natured response to the jewelry that was so charming; it was his slangy comment when he reposted a photo on Twitter later: “Drippin.”

Phillips seems to have inherited a sense of humor from his father, late NFL coach O.A. “Bum” Phillips, whose Texas-sized cowboy hat and deadpan one-liners made him a legend. Wade Phillips has a more understated personality, but he has the old man’s comic timing.

Phillips was seated with several reporters at a media session at the Santa Clara Marriott on Thursday when a Denver writer told him he doesn’t ever remember the coach raising his voice. Without missing a beat, Phillips sprang from his seat and shouted, “Well sometimes I do, damn it!”

Despite his many supporters, Phillips has always been easy to overlook. In 33 years as an NFL head coach or defensive coordinator, his defenses have ranked in the top 10 just about half the time (16 years). He has only gotten better in his winter years. In his past eight seasons with the Cowboys, Texans and now Broncos, his defense has finished ninth or better seven times.

Perhaps Phillips’ tepid performance as a head coach is what keeps his reputation from soaring. But even that may be deceiving.

“People try to paint him as being a great coordinator and not a good head coach,” Herring said. “Look up his record to compare the head coaches in the league, and overall. You would be amazed.”

And maybe you would. Including his three stints as interim coach, Phillips is the only person in NFL history to serve as head coach for six different teams. His regular-season winning percentage of .562 (82-64) is better than that of Marv Levy, Sid Gillman, Dan Reeves, Mike Shanahan, Tom Coughlin or Jon Gruden.

Phillips’ downfall was the postseason. He was 1-5 in the playoffs, the only victory coming as head coach of the Cowboys in 2009. That doesn’t keep you employed in the NFL.

Over his long career, Phillips has been to the Super Bowl just once before. That was after the 1989 season, when he was the Denver defensive coordinator charged with trying to solve a 49ers offense that was clicking on all cylinders behind red-hot Joe Montana. It didn’t go well. The Broncos lost 55-10.

Twenty-six years later, Phillips is getting another shot at a Super Bowl ring. A few days ago, someone asked him whether this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Well, my lifetime’s getting shorter, that’s for sure,” Phillips said with a laugh. “You don’t have that many chances.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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