Old-school Rams DC Wade Phillips knows how to stop Tom Brady
ATLANTA — As Bum Phillips once said, “There’s two kinds of coaches: them that’s fired and them that’s gonna be fired.”
His son, Wade Phillips, has been fired enough times to know how true that is: He has walked a broken line through the NFL with nine teams in 41 years. He arrived at this Super Bowl wearing a reminder of his father’s hard-bitten wisdom in the form of his cowboy hat and sheepskin coat, a classic manly getup that, like Phillips himself, has been put away as a relic at times but always seems to find fashionable re-employment.
The 71-year-old Phillips now finds himself working for a 33-year-old in Sean McVay who could be “my youngest son.” He is such a senior citizen by comparison that his friends have started calling him “Wade 71,” because every story written about him leads off with his age.
“They always say age is a number, but mine is a big number,” he says.
Yet as Phillips stood offstage under the lights at the Super Bowl’s opening night, the microphones pressed in trying to catch some word or insight from him, because this aging sage of a defensive coordinator just might be the key to the whole deal for the Rams. He’s the one man on this team of ingenues who has the know-how to beat the New England Patriots.
He’s been with the Broncos (twice), Texans, Chargers, Falcons, Bills, Eagles, Saints, Cowboys and now the Rams. Through each change of locale, he has carried in his back pocket the same foundational defensive scheme he learned at his father’s right hand as a young coach with the Houston Oilers in the late 1970s. At almost every one of those stops, his defense has been a league leader: Four times he has helped franchises rank among the top three statistically. His units have been so good in so many places that, to borrow another phrase from Bum Phillips, “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”
Wade Phillips’ outfit carried the Broncos to a victory over the Patriots in the 2015 AFC championship game, when they hit Tom Brady more than 20 times, and went on to a win the Super Bowl. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, “The system has lasted,” and it’s lasted “over every kind of offense you can see.”
But Phillips resists the praise, squirming a little bit at the idea he has become an institution. His mild robin’s egg blue eyes seem to recoil from the commercial bedlam the Super Bowl has become, with the speakers booming and the cameras constantly projecting sponsor logos, and you had to lean in to hear his amiably low voice.
“Once you start thinking you’re great, then you’re wrong,” he said.
It was a typically plainspoken one-liner from Phillips, whose observations drop casually but usually contain their share of pointed truth. His father, who died in 2013 at the age of 90, always delivered homey axioms, and Wade has inherited the habit, along with a determination to remain himself in a profession that can breed chronic job insecurity and self-doubt. Which was why Wade put on his father’s coat and hat to travel to the game: His father always told him to just be himself.
“You were able to wear those things on the sideline in those days,” he said. “You didn’t have to have a swoosh or anything on them.”
His talk is deceptively simple. You’d never know this is perhaps the most well-versed and aggressive-minded coordinator in the league whose Rams have led the league in forced turnovers for two straight seasons. Ask him about the task of trying to out-scheme Belichick and Brady, the five-time Super Bowl winner with more winning drives in postseason than any quarterback in history, and he just said mildly, “You don’t fool the great ones. You just gotta outplay ‘em.”
Inquire about how he coaches Pitt and Penn Hills product Aaron Donald, the best defensive lineman in the game at the moment, who has helped hold playoff opponents to less than 50 yards rushing, and he just shrugs. “Pretty easy,” he says. “You say ‘Go get ‘em.’ ”
Ask him how much longer he’ll coach in the NFL, and he replies, “I’ll come to a point where I know — or they’ll know and get rid of me.”
That won’t be happening any time soon. The Rams, for all of their youth, have figured out what so many other teams couldn’t: that Phillips is a defensive mind for the ages and a man worth hanging onto for a long time. He’s also a coach with a timeless connection to great players. When the Broncos let Phillips go after the 2016 season, choosing to promote a younger coach, and the Rams hired Phillips, he was followed shortly to Los Angeles by cornerback Aqib Talib. The 32-year-old All-Pro decided he wanted to play out the last phase of his career with Phillips, who he said has given him more “comfort” and success than anyone he’s ever played for. The two men have become such good friends that Talib said, “When I retire, I just want to chill with him.”
Players such as Talib keep Phillips young and keep him current. Nothing delights the Rams unit more than when Phillips drops some lyrics, as he did this week when he quoted from a new Future song, “Rocket Ship,” saying blithely, “‘I’ve been poppin’ since my demos.’ ” He learns the lyrics by listening to them in the locker room.
“I just pick up stuff every once in a while,” he said. “And I ask them what they’re talking about.” His favorite rapper, he says, is Drake.
“Because ‘I started from the bottom,’ ” he says, quoting, “‘and now we’re here.’”