IRVING, Texas -- Quick, name the key coaching ingredient Wade Phillips shares with Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson, Super Bowl-winning masterminds who used to have his job running the Dallas Cowboys.
The obvious link is a background in defense, but the answer isn't that easy. Dave Campo was a defensive guy, too, yet his tenure was a disaster.
Hmm. What else?
There sure doesn't seem like much. It's easier to come up with opposites, like Parcells and Johnson having jumbo egos and Phillips being humble.
They have contrasting coaching styles, too. Parcells and Johnson got the most out of players by threatening their jobs and challenging their manhood; Phillips puts guys at ease, often with humor.
Dig deeper into their methods and the secret comes out: They all use mind games to win football games.
With almost the same lineup that Parcells turned into a 9-7, wild-card team last season -- but without the tension team owner Jerry Jones referred to as "walking on eggshells" -- Phillips has guided Dallas to the top seed in the NFC and a 13-3 record, tying the franchise-best mark set by Johnson's first Super Bowl team.
Thanks to a bye this weekend, the Cowboys are into the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1996. They're two home wins from reaching the Super Bowl.
"We wouldn't be accomplishing this if he wasn't here," Romo said.
Parcells was the right guy at the right time when he took over, his disciplinarian style needed to clean up the mess of the Campo Error, uh, Era.
Coming off three straight five-win seasons, the Cowboys won 10 games in Parcells' debut season and made the playoffs. Over the next three years, he straightened out an organization that had gone astray, yet he never won as many games as his first season. Never won a playoff game either.
When Jones went looking for a replacement, he wanted someone who could improve in two areas where Parcells came up short: unleashing the expensive playmakers on defense, and making Terrell Owens happy to be here, even happier to be a big part of the offense.
Head coaching experience was important. Creating a new atmosphere was, too.
Phillips hit every area so well it's hard to imagine he was available. Of course, there was a reason.
The son of former Oilers and Saints coach Bum Phillips, Wade had been in the league 30 years and earned the reputation as a great coordinator whose aw-shucks style didn't work in the top job. He'd never had a losing record in five seasons as a head coach in Denver and Buffalo, but he'd also never won a playoff game, going 0-3.
Parcells quit so late into the coach-hiring season that Jones had to take the best of what was left and hope for the best. Maybe that's why he cried at Phillips' introductory news conference.
Jones used the line about the eggshells that same day. Soon, players were the ones cracking up.
At his first team meeting, Phillips announced, "Anybody who is not here, raise your hand."
The corny line was a perfect tension breaker. Phillips let everyone know the bully was gone, replaced by someone more likely to be called the class clown.
It was his first mind game, too.
"It let you know what you're in store for, what kind of season you're getting ready to have," linebacker Kevin Burnett said.
Phillips' attitude was refreshing but not a surprise because he already was known as a "player's coach." The surprises were how effectively he got his point across and how good those points were.
There wasn't a single moment when he won over the locker room. It was more a collection of moments.
While Burnett picked that first meeting, linebacker Greg Ellis pointed to the way Phillips ran training camp. Media dubbed it "Camp Cupcake" because it seemed so much less demanding than Parcells' camps. Then again, Parcells' teams wore out at the end of every season.
The Cowboys certainly were fresh when the season began, winning their first two games. Then they went to Chicago for a nationally televised Sunday night game, their first big test, and passed with ease.
The accolades began flowing, setting up Phillips' next challenge: managing expectations. It wasn't easy considering winless St. Louis was coming to town.
Dallas won that game, then headed to Buffalo, site of Phillips' last head coaching job.
Romo was awful that Monday night, throwing five interceptions. When the Cowboys got the ball back in the final four minutes, down by nine points, Phillips found Romo on the sideline. The quarterback braced himself for a stern talking-to. Instead, Phillips smiled and said, "Wouldn't it be incredible if we win this game? Let's go win it."
Still, players showed up for work the next day wondering what to expect.
"A bunch of guys were like, 'OK, this is some adversity. Are we going to change? Are we going to get the whip now?"' Ellis said. "But Wade stayed the course. A lot of guys respected that."
That was the clincher. If players weren't believers yet, they were now.
Dallas won its next seven games.
Phillips' first inkling about this season came in mid-August, when the Cowboys went from several days of joint practices with the Denver Broncos to playing them in a preseason game.
"We didn't," Phillips said recently, smirking. "That's when I knew we had something."
Led by Romo and Owens, the Cowboys wound up with one of the most potent offenses in club history. As for the defense, "Mr. Fix It" -- as Phillips dubbed himself before the opener -- got that going. Ellis racked up a career-best 12 1/2 sacks and DeMarcus Ware topped him with 14 while becoming one of the league's most feared players.
The local magazine that chastised Phillips' hiring as "Worst. Choice. Ever." pointed out its gaffe in a year-end issue. Phillips even received a couple votes for coach of the year.
"Right guy at the right time, maybe," Phillips said, smirking again. "I don't have an answer for it except things worked out well. Somebody did something good."
His work isn't done, though.
There's a franchise-worst skid of 10 years without a playoff win to be broken and his own playoff 0-fer to snap. Failing to do so might undermine all that's gone right so far.
Can Phillips handle it?
First off, he's not going to change.
"Wade will tell you, 'I'm not going to beat you up, cuss you out, just because I want to prove to you I can do it.' He's more like, 'Get in there and get your corrections done,"' Ellis said. "I think we will."
Another thing is he's never had a team this good. His other playoff teams were underdogs playing on the road. Everyone who remembers that he coached Buffalo when the Bills were on the wrong end of the "Music City Miracle" forgets that Tennessee was 13-3 that season and lost the Super Bowl by a yard.
"This is a little different," Phillips said. "We've got a stronger team than I've been around and we're playing at home. ... You just have to keep getting in there and keep trying."
Starting next Sunday, the Cowboys will find out for sure whether Wade's way really is the right way.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press