Bum Phillips loved to watch his son work. Near the end of a life spanning football's explosive growth, the legendary leader of the "Love ya Blue" Houston Oilers would regularly show up to Texans practice, wife by his side, to see Wade Phillips coordinate Houston's defense.
"Wade was 65 years old at the time," Los Angeles Rams linebacker Connor Barwin said in an interview this summer, recalling the image of his days playing for Phillips in Houston. "It was so cool to watch his parents come watch him coach. You just saw that love between them, that respect, that love for the game all in one."
Now 70 years old and ready to embark on his 40th NFL season after joining the 10th pro organization of his career, the Rams' newest defensive coordinator wears that love of sport as conspicuously as his late father once wore a 10-gallon hat. Phillips emerged as the preeminent quick-fix defensive coach of the last quarter-century by honoring his father's principles even when they cut against the NFL norms of the day. When a team needs a defensive boost, they call Phillips, and he delivers every time.
Phillips and Barwin are more than just coach and player -- the two men regularly grabbed meals together even when Barwin was playing with the Eagles and Phillips was coaching elsewhere. In this era of free agency, cold professionalism and emotion-free press conferences, Phillips believes that coaches and players can be friends. He believes that yelling at players for mistakes amounts to "bitching" and not coaching. He believes that too many staffs overcoach players in an effort to make them all the same. The Son of Bum identifies with players who don't follow all his orders, knowing well that a little independent thinking goes a long way.
"You don't want players that do exactly what you say because they have no initiative themselves," Phillips told me. "You get some guys who are great young men that want to do everything you say, but they get carried away with that. When you need to make a play, you need to have the initiative to say, 'Hey, Coach told me to do this, but the ball's right there. I got to make the play.' "
Like so much of Phillips' football philosophy, this sounds deceptively straightforward. Rams players extol Phillips' ability to simplify concepts and teach with clarity so they can learn fast and play even faster. Introduction to Wade Phillips 101 is a defensive self-help course with proven results that rival those of any defensive coach of his lifetime. In Los Angeles, he takes over a defense that had a better reputation than results over the last four seasons, failing to ever finish in the top 10 in points allowed and bottoming out last season, ranking 23rd in that category. Phillips' track record is one reason why Rams fans should expect this defense -- and the 2017 team as a whole -- to escape the quicksand of the Jeff Fisher era.
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Phillips has been in this position before. He's made a career of taking over underperforming defenses and instantly turning them around. From 1981 to his January hire by Rams coach Sean McVay, Phillips has been named defensive coordinator or head coach 12 different times. Each of the nine most recent postings leading up to the Rams job resulted in a trip to the playoffs during his first season in the new role. Every single defense Phillips inherited from 1989 on improved in points allowed and yards allowed after he took over, usually in dramatic fashion.
Phillips believes his secret weapon is the "teaching progression" he's developed over the years to build a defense. He stresses that players learn common terminology across position groups so they can communicate better. Most coaches meticulously plan out each day installing a defense, adhering to a strict schedule. Phillips teaches his players until they get it right.
"When we teach it, we do the same thing over and over and over and over," Phillips said. "Like the same coverage -- I'll do it three or four or five days in a row. And when they get it, I'll go to the next one. It may take two days or it may take five days, but when I feel like they've got it, then we'll go to the next step."
The Texas native's pet peeve: self-important coaches who stand at the podium after games and blame losses on players' mistakes. Phillips believes that is a way to deflect blame from the coaches who should have taught the players how to avoid those mistakes. His system attempts to eliminate ambiguity.
Simplifying the arcane and often esoteric nature of football coaching is in Phillips' blood. Former Alabama coach Bear Bryant -- who hired Bum at Texas A&M in 1958 and later offered Wade a football scholarship -- credited Bum with creating the universally used numbering system which tells defensive linemen where to line up based on their assigned numbers, like the "1 technique" or "5 technique." Before Bum came along, players were forced to remember code words that varied from team to team.
Like Bum before him, Wade coaches how he speaks: with a common-sense approach. That approach speaks to Wade's quest for his players to hit the field with an uncluttered mind. Rams inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, who will help make the team's defensive calls this season, stressed how most coaches value their scheme above all. Phillips values understanding.
In the Rams practices I watched during minicamp and training camp, defenders were one step ahead of the offense, taking aggressive paths to the ball. Phillips notes that offenses are so complicated in the modern NFL that no defense is that simple. His goal is to provide a solid base for players to adjust to what they see. Linebacker Mark Barron said the ability to change plays on the fly is one of the biggest differences he's noticed after playing under former Rams coordinator Gregg Williams for three seasons. Multiple players expressed that communication is improved and more integral in Phillips' defense, which counts on them to exercise their freedom. Ogletree noted the defense was creating more turnovers than it had in previous offseasons.
"It's not all about X's and O's," Phillips explained. "It's about the players themselves, what they can do. You can draw up a lot of things, a lot of defenses; I can draw up a lot of coverages, and they might be good, but it depends on the players you have."
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Bum Phillips believed that evaluating players is what set his son apart, according to Wade's colorful autobiography, "Son of Bum." In Wade's words, "If a guy can do something well, you better find a way to let him do it."
Phillips changes the mold, not the player. That's why he doesn't mind when a pass rusher occasionally ignores "containing" a quarterback in the pocket in order to go inside and make a sack. It's why Phillips didn't mind Texans defensive end J.J. Watt running around blocks when Phillips coached him as a rookie, because Watt proved he could make up ground to finish plays. Phillips prizes results over orthodoxy.
"He can look at guys after a couple weeks or months with them and know what their football intellect is and how far he can take people and when he needs to back it down for them," Barwin observed. "That's what I mean when I say he puts guys in situations to be successful. If a guy can't handle different switches and calls, Wade is not going to put them in those positions."
Instead, Phillips specializes at getting his best players into advantageous one-on-ones. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah relayed a story of his scouting days with the Ravens, when he was tasked with putting together a reel of then-Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman's 17-sack 2006 season. After watching the film, Ravens scouts realized that a great number of the sacks should have been credited to Phillips -- the Chargers' defensive coordinator that season -- for finding a way to isolate his best pass rusher on opposing running backs.
With the Rams, Phillips will look for ways to take standout defensive tackleAaron Donald's play to another level, once Donald's contract stalemate is over. Phillips couldn't contain his excitement about veteran defensive end Robert Quinn, whose tremendous quickness off the ball reminded Phillips of a young DeMarcus Ware, coached by Phillips in Dallas and later in Denver.
"He does a great job of putting his players in good matchup situations, almost like you try to from an offensive standpoint. He finds a way to get his elite rushers in some good situations," Rams coach Sean McVay said when asked what it's like to face off against Phillips every day in practice.
McVay's face lights up when he talks about Phillips' ability to teach and how lucky the Rams are to have him. McVay called Phillips back in January to see if he wanted to work for a coach 39 years younger than him should McVay earn the Rams' top job. Phillips was out of a gig following his dominant two-year run as Broncos defense coordinator, despite the Super Bowl ring he earned after the 2015 season. After a strong reference from Phillips' son, Wes, who coached under McVay in Washington, Phillips figured he had nothing to lose. He couldn't help but laugh, snapping his fingers when remarking that he didn't necessarily expect McVay to get a job "just like that" at 30 years old (McVay turned 31 shortly after being hired).
With four decades of NFL coaching under his belt, Phillips says that being around his players keeps him young. Whether it's bopping his head on his VersaClimber to the latest Drake album, clowning around on his epic Twitter account or "always carrying himself with swag," according to Barron, Phillips connects with his guys.
I asked Phillips if he thought his father, were he still coaching, would also listen to Drake.
"Well, he started from the bottom," Phillips deadpanned.
Now Wade's in Los Angeles, with the Rams at the bottom, perhaps the final reclamation project for the best defensive coordinator of his era. History says the team won't stay there for long.