It used to be hard to know exactly what to make of Wade Phillips. His head coaching career is checkered. He’s been all over the league, with an 82-64 record in his time with the Saints, Broncos, Bills, Falcons, and Cowboys, but in his time with all of those teams, he only won a playoff game once. His tenure in Dallas during the late aughts was the Cowboys’ most successful run since the glory days of the early nineties—until he lost seven games in a row. He inexplicably benched Doug Flutie for the playoffs when he was in Buffalo. It used to be tough to figure out if he was a good coach or not.
Now, though, we know exactly what Wade Phillips is: One of the best defensive coordinators to ever coach in the NFL.
That started to come into sharp focus during his time with the Texans. After the Cowboys let him go mid-season in 2010, Phillips resurfaced in Houston the following year. Immediately, the 2011 Texans went from being the 31st-ranked defense in the NFL to the sixth. That continued in the 2012 season, where the team placed fourth overall on FootballOutsiders.com’s rankings. (In 2013, when the defense spent most of the season on the field after Matt Schaub interceptions, they slipped to eighteenth.) When head coach Gary Kubiak was fired near the end of the Texans’ 2-14 season, Phillips stepped in as interim coach, and then was replaced by Romeo Crennel.
Crennel’s defenses in Houston have been uneven, but they’ve shown flashes of greatness. But when Phillips resurfaced this year in Denver, he didn’t miss a beat. Denver’s defense was stacked when Phillips arrived, but what he’s done with the unit this season has been downright dominant. The Broncos defense is the best in the NFL, and under Phillips’s tutelage they led the team directly to the Super Bowl.
That’s impressive under any circumstance, but it’s especially notable given what’s been happening on the other side of the ball for the Broncos. A decade ago, having Peyton Manning as your quarterback covered for a lot of mistakes on either side of the ball. But in 2016, when Manning’s posted a downright Schaubby 9/17 touchdown/interception ratio, and a sub-60 percent completion rate, Phillips’s defense has been responsible for a lot more time on the field.
Through two playoff victories, the Broncos defense has effectively shut down the prolific offenses of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots. Phillips, reunited with former Cowboys star Demarcus Ware and exploiting the presence of dominant former A&M linebacker Von Miller, has helped mold the team into the scariest pass-rushing unit in the NFL.
That may be enough to get the Broncos the Lombardi Trophy, or it may not. (Vegas, which currently has the Broncos as a 4.5 underdog to the Carolina Panthers, doesn’t seem to think they’re up to the task.) But as Cowboys and Texans fans watch the playoffs from home, they have to wonder what could have been if Phillips had stayed in Texas.
Phillips may have never been a great head coach on a longterm basis. (He told the Denver Post when he took the job with the Broncos that he was “a lousy head coach, but a pretty good defensive coordinator.”) ESPN explored that disconnect by comparing his time in Dallas with his tenure in Houston and Denver after the Broncos earned the Super Bowl berth:
Phillips isn’t ruthless enough to be a head coach. Most coaches love their players, but Phillips’ bond is tighter than most.
Phillips was never a fan of churning the bottom of the roster the way Bill Parcells and Jason Garrett have done in Dallas because he felt like the family atmosphere created by players who shared the sweat and pain of training camp helped team chemistry. […]
As a coordinator, though, Phillips’ personality is perfect for fostering the relationship between players and coaches that makes them want to play as hard as they can for him.
The family atmosphere and us-against-the-world mentality works perfectly because the head coach can be the bad cop instead of Phillips.
Phillips has coached NFL defenses to top-ten rankings eleven times over his career. But the Texans and the Cowboys aren’t alone in rejecting the coordinator. In 2014, no team even so much as called him for an interview, and for the 2015 season, Washington passed on him before he took the job in Denver, where he wasn’t even the Broncos’ first choice for the job. But it has to sting to see a guy your team passed over as an afterthought achieve so much success in another city. And when it’s someone whose ties to the state go as deep as Wade Phillips’s do—the son of Bum, native of Orange, former Houston Cougars linebacker, and coach for both Texas NFL teams—the fact that he’s getting it done in Denver and not Dallas or Houston feels a little off. But while the Texans and the Cowboys are busy waiting ’til next year, Wade Phillips is one more masterful game plan away from hoisting a trophy—with all that might have been in Houston and Dallas the furthest thing from his mind.