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Phillips faces big challenge in Big D

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (July 26, 2007) -- Wade Phillips hadn't even coached his first practice of his first training camp with the Dallas Cowboys when his boss, Jerry Jones, cranked up the heat.

Jones didn't go anywhere near the thermostat controls of the Alamodome, the Cowboys' summer address. He didn't have to. All the Cowboys' owner had to do was say the following to a room packed with media: "I think we have every right to think we will be better than we were last year."

Oh, and he also pointed out that the Cowboys play in a conference that "gives us an opportunity," which was a diplomatic way of saying there are no dominant teams in the NFC.

Add it up and you have a pretty substantial challenge for Phillips. Jones expects his team, which has gone a franchise-record 10 years without a playoff victory, to improve over last year's 9-7 record and quick elimination from the postseason. He believes that the upgrades made to the offensive line and secondary, along with solid players in most other areas, give the Cowboys the most talented club they have had in a while. Although Jones didn't say it, he certainly did nothing to pour water on a widely held notion that the Cowboys will be a serious Super Bowl contender.

Now all Phillips and his assistant coaches have to do is make sure they don't screw things up.

As one of the easier-going men to ever guide a team in the ultra-high-strung world of the NFL, Phillips predictably is unruffled by the enormity of the chore. In fact, he calls it "a positive." He finds it more attractive than the previous two situations he entered as a head coach, in Denver and Buffalo, where expectations were much lower.

"I'd rather go to a team that thinks they can win than one (that says), 'Boy, we want to rebuild and then we're going to have a winner,'" Phillips said. "Most of the time, that's what I've gone into -- rebuilding. So I think this is a good situation."

He is filling a sizeable void. His predecessor, Bill Parcells, cast an enormous shadow as one of the top coaches in league history. Parcells' two Super Bowl victories with the New York Giants and rebuilding success with multiple teams had created lofty expectations, along with considerable disappointment, in Dallas. His retirement left unfinished business for someone else to complete.

Jones thought the 60-year-old Phillips, with 31 years of NFL coaching experience, was the right man for the job. Phillips' 48-42 record as a head coach (including three playoff losses and season-ending interim appointments with the Saints and Falcons) didn't necessarily make him an obvious choice.

But Jones, recognizing the Cowboys' need to get much more from its defense, focused on Phillips' reputation for being one of the all-time great defensive coordinators in the NFL. Specifically, he zeroed in on Phillips' attack-oriented, 3-4 scheme, which has an impressive track record (most recently with the Chargers) of smothering offenses and creating big plays with defenders rushing often and from all angles. The Cowboys' owner wanted that to replace the "fundamental, straight-line" version of the 3-4 that Parcells employed. Parcells' plan sacrificed the ability to generate consistent heat on the quarterback for the sake of preventing big plays. The only problem, which was particularly evident late in the 2006 season, was that the Cowboys not only didn't produce a strong enough pass rush, but also didn't stop enough game-breaking plays.

Cowboy defensive players agreed with the change as well. Several became frustrated with Parcells' philosophy of remaining mostly in a base defense and then adapting to each opponent's offense.

"Last year, when (the media) were worried, saying we were a team that lost our swagger, we were playing a lot of basic defense and teams really took us apart," linebacker Akin Ayodele said. "But this year it seems that we're going to be who we are. We won't change ourselves for anybody under Wade Phillips. We're going to be more proactive in the sense of just guys in different places and not being so predictable."

Through the first two days of training camp, Phillips' defensive roots have been unmistakable. He has spent far more time talking with and encouraging defensive players than those on the offensive side.

Phillips' arrival has brought considerable change to the atmosphere around the team. Gone is Parcells' gruff, often surly nature, which caused everyone connected with the team to feel a constant sense of tension and insecurity. In its place is Phillips' folksy, plainspoken, and far more relaxed style.

One clear difference in the approaches was obvious on the Cowboys' first practice of camp. Phillips had his players out of pads and put them through a series of non-contact drills. Parcells' teams always had pads on from the very first day of camp practice.

No walk on eggshells around Phillips.

"When Coach Parcells was here, it seemed a lot of guys couldn't breathe around the locker room and held their breath," Ayodele said. "But with Wade here now, you can see a sense of guys more relaxed, guys really understanding that they're going to have fun and actually taking the time to enjoy being around each other and playing this game."

The biggest difference Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo sees between the two coaches is "language." Profanities frequently flew from Parcells. Phillips rarely uses them. However, Romo believes the men are more similar than a lot of us might assume.

"I think that they both actually demand a lot," Romo said. "Bill may put a little more fear into cutting you and stuff, where with Wade, either you can do it or you can't. It's simple. There's no, 'I'm going to scare you. If you can't (do the job), you're not going to play.' It's not rocket science."

Phillips' body of work, including three years as head coach of the Bills that showed the promise of blossoming with a bit more patience from owner Ralph Wilson, was good enough to merit another -- and likely last -- chance to run the whole show.

It won't be easy, but Phillips has a golden opportunity to demonstrate that hiring him was a risk worth taking.

"I told Jerry during my interview, I'll go down as a really great defensive coordinator," Phillips said. "I don't think anybody would say any different had my career ended last year. But I would like to go down as a great head coach. (Jones) gave me that opportunity, and I'm going to do it for him."

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