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Phillips sees coaching Cowboys as chance to leave mark on NFL

IRVING, Texas -- The locker room has been shuffled so guys who might not otherwise mingle can get to know each other. Signs discouraging complaints are gone, the practice-field dress code relaxed.

And there wasn't so much as an eyebrow raised when the mascot revved up his three-wheeler behind the end zone during training camp.

As Jerry Jones put it the day Wade Phillips replaced Bill Parcells as coach of the Dallas Cowboys, there is "less walking around on eggshells here."

The arrival of Phillips, the anti-Parcells, has certainly cut the tension and lightened the mood. Ask Phillips about it, though, and he laughs it off in his typical aw-shucks way.

See, at age 60 and going into his 31st year in the NFL, Phillips knows how he does things doesn't matter. All that counts is how the Cowboys do in January.

And February.

Do well and he'll land a spot in the lore of "America's Team" alongside the only other native Texans to hold the job, Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson. He'll even get bonus points for ending a franchise-worst 10 years of playoff purgatory (0-5 since a wild-card win in 1996).

Come up short and he'll be lumped with the other coaches who failed to deliver, like Chan Gailey, Dave Campo and, yes, that Parcells fellow. Worse yet, he'd deepen the "great coordinator, poor head coach" brand he already carries because of his own playoff losing streak, 0-3 in his five seasons running Denver and Buffalo.

There is no in-between for Phillips, especially considering he's inherited a club coming off a 9-7 playoff season with a strong offense and promising defense.

"I think I can prove I'm one of the better coaches in the National Football League, and that's as a head coach," Phillips said. "I've had over 200 wins as an assistant, but that doesn't count. It's only the head coach that they put down their record, and some quarterbacks. ... I'm driven by that, too."

Phillips was hired for one reason: defense. That's his specialty, and it's where the Cowboys haven't been getting their money's worth.

Whether it was the fault of coaches, players or both no longer matters. It is simply Phillips' job to turn loose his playmakers, as he's done everywhere he's coached.

Just look at what he did at his last stop, San Diego.

Taking over a unit that was the second most generous in the NFL on a 4-12 club, San Diego gave up the 11th-fewest points while turning its record all the way around to 12-4 in his debut season as coordinator. In his third and final season, the Chargers were among the 10 stingiest in points and yards while going 14-2.

It's been that way pretty much everywhere Phillips has been -- and he's been a lot of places since his dad, beloved Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips, made him linebackers coach in 1976. He later became defensive coordinator of the Eagles under Buddy Ryan, then took the same job in Denver in 1989.

His first Broncos squad went from 20th in both points and yards the year before to first in fewest points and third in fewest yards. They also reached the Super Bowl. Then, in 1993, he became a head coach for the first time.

Denver went 9-7 and made the playoffs, but lost in the first round. After going 7-9 the next year, he was fired. It's worth noting the Broncos went 8-8 the following season, even with Terrell Davis arriving to ease the load on John Elway. It took another year for the Elway-Davis tandem to really click.

By then, Phillips was in Buffalo, first as Marv Levy's defensive coordinator, then his successor. Phillips never had a losing record in three years. But he also never won a playoff game, losing to Tennessee in 1999 on the play known as the "Music City Miracle." Again, it's worth noting that's since he left the Bills have zero playoff trips and only one winning record.

The inference to be drawn from Phillips' postscripts in Denver and Buffalo is that the coach wasn't the problem. Circumstances weren't ripe for success and he did pretty well by going 45-35.

"I always thought I'd get another opportunity because I thought someone would look at my record and say, 'This guy can win. He's a winner in the league,"' Phillips said.

It took seven years. But Jones finally gave him the chance.

"His competitiveness, his will, his wanting to prove that his skills can make a world champion," Jones said. "That's why I hired him."

The flip-flop in coaching personalities had to be a factor, too.

The concern about Phillips being a player's coach is the stigma he's a pushover. Of course, anyone would come across that way compared to Parcells.

Still, Phillips proved he means what he says by cutting a backup tight end who missed curfew days after warning everyone about following the rules.

"Wade is not going to sit there and yell and berate at you and make you feel like a kid," quarterback Tony Romo said. "But what he will do is be a football coach and treat you like a man. And if you don't do the same, then he'll just get rid of you."

What happens when Terrell Owens breaks a rule?

Well, that's already happened and the story came and went without needing hourly updates on "SportsCenter."

"With his experience in this league, I don't think he has to prove anything, especially to us players," Owens said. "We obviously respect him."

Yet for all the reasons Cowboys fans are fired up about having Phillips, there remains lingering doubt about whether his family atmosphere and folksy approach will be enough to keep things steady when adversity hits. How he handles it could go a long way in determining how this story plays out.

Success or failure. Super Bowl or bust.

That's the way it is with most Cowboys coaches -- especially this one.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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