Phillips' track record revamping defenses gives Texans hope

Wade Phillips has moved around enough to feel like his work with the Houston Texans has been business as usual through three months.

And he's also got the experience to be ready for the fact that the longer the lockout drags on, the more he'll have to adjust and adapt with a boatload of players who haven't played a down in his defense.

But that, Phillips says, is kind of the idea anyway.

On Tuesday morning, he was breaking down film in his office, as he normally would on a late March morning, and the idea remained the same as it always has been for the veteran of 35 NFL seasons. Phillips was trying to find ways for his system to work for his new players, rather than trying to make personnel work for the system.

"Whenever (the lockout ends), and I hope it's soon, we've got a real player-friendly system," Phillips said during the lunch hour in Houston. "That's what we pride ourselves on, and we can teach it quickly. It'll be about not making mental mistakes and teaching them techniques on how to do things, not so much what to do. We haven't always had an offseason, we've had to put it in during training camp before, so I think it's something they can learn fast. It's all technique after you learn what to do.

"It's a different language, a different way of doing things, but some have done it before, and it's all football. But if we are doing a good job with the teaching process, they'll learn it quick."

There is a nice story to Phillips returning to Houston. The 63-year-old grew up less than 100 miles from the Texans' team facility, went to college at the University of Houston, got his first coaching job there, and entered the NFL under his father, Bum, with the old Houston Oilers in 1976.

But this reunion between the defensive coordinator and the city is one built on necessity, not sentiment.

The Texans were working at a historically inept clip in some categories at points of last year, and finished 30th in total defense, with the league's worst pass defense, allowing opposing quarterbacks an aggregate passer rating of 100.5. Phillips becomes coach Gary Kubiak's third defensive coordinator in his sixth year at the helm, with the hope he can help the forever middling Texans dig out from last year's 6-10 debacle that was marked by eight losses in nine games after a 4-2 start.

Bottom line: There's plenty of work to do. For now, that work is in assessing what's left in the rubble.

"I don't tear down what they've done before. That already happened, whether it's good, bad or indifferent," Phillips said. "I evaluate players and tweak the system to the players, not vice versa. I've had a lot of different kinds of guys playing the same position. I had (303-pound) Jay Ratliff in Dallas, and he was a Pro Bowl nose tackle for me. Well, so was (375-pound) Ted Washington. Same assignment, different technique.

"That's what coaching is. It's not what you play, it's how you play it. ... And they have talent here. They made mistakes, and we have to cut down on those. But they played hard overall, and that's the first thing you want: Effort. We have talent. We just (have to) get people in the right place, doing the right things."

The core group of players is the first reason to believe Phillips could engineer a defensive turnaround in Houston. End Mario Williams is a rare talent. Linebacker Brian Cushing is due to rebound after spending part of last season suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and later playing out of position. Corner Kareem Jackson, last year's first-round pick who had a horrific rookie year, has ability to be harvested.

The second reason is Phillips' history.

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While his three shots at being a head coach haven't been perfect, his ability to quickly improve a defense is hard to question. In each of his last five stops, the team has moved up at least four places in the total defense rankings, improved by at least three games in the loss column, and made the playoffs in Phillips' first year. In the last decade, Phillips took defenses ranked in the bottom 20 percent of the league in Atlanta and San Diego and immediately made them respectable parts of playoff teams.

And in both those spots, he was taking personnel from a 4-3 front and melding it to his 3-4 system.

"I've come against these problems before," Phillips said. "I've come in where we had 3-4 personnel too, but there are a lot of different 3-4 styles. There's the (Bill) Parcells old-time 3-4 they had in Dallas, and there were a lot of differences. It's new each time. It's different each time. I don't know that this is much different than Dallas or San Diego was. It's different players, and part of that is me learning what they can and can't do.

"But when we were in Buffalo, we were playing 3-4 and all our linebackers got hurt. And so we played a 4-3 against Miami, and beat them, and then we went back to the 3-4 when we got healthy. It's the players you have and how you play. It's not 3-4 or 4-3."

The chess game -- the moving of pieces and finding the best way to employ them -- of being a defensive coordinator is what Phillips made his name on, and for 22 of his 35 NFL seasons, it has been his job description.

After three-plus years in Dallas, Phillips says his take-away is, "The same I took away from every one of them. I learn a lot as I go, and I enjoy it. I always enjoy what I'm doing. It's football. It's what I love doing. And besides, there are two kinds of coaches: ones that have been fired and ones that will be."

But now that it's behind him, this new challenge, again, has him energized. And where there's always been skepticism about his ability as a head coach, there's plenty of reason to believe he's back in his comfort zone, and the Texans will be better for it.

"It's what I do, and I think I do it well and the stats prove that," Phillips said. "I enjoy coaching. I enjoy being around the players, and as defensive coordinator, you're kind of the head coach of the defense, and that's always been enjoyable for me. You know, I don't hunt or fish or golf. Football is what I do, and for enjoyment too. I don't have too many interests, to be honest."

Phillips laughed when he said that, very at ease with his surroundings.

This position -- in Houston, revamping a wayward defense -- is an easy one for the coach to embrace. Even the omnipresent shadow of a work stoppage, something he dealt with in 1982 in New Orleans and 1987 in Philadelphia, isn't new to him.

And so chances are he'll be as ready as anyone whenever the starter's gun fires on the 2011 league year.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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