Phillips was let go shortly after the Houston Texans fired Gary Kubiak in 2013, a not-unusual occurrence for a coaching lifer, even a very successful one like Phillips. But when the 2014 season started, Phillips was still not on a sideline, a definitely unusual occurrence for a coach who had been in the NFL nearly continuously -- in fact, every season save for the 2001 campaign -- since he joined his dad's staff with the Houston Oilers in 1976.
Son of Bum -- his Twitter handle and his proud life position -- has been an excellent defensive coach since he worked with his father's linebackers. And now that he has coached a top-10 overall defense in nine of the last 10 seasons he's worked, it's fair to ask why Bum Phillips' son was available for the Broncos to scoop up at all.
Phillips did interview with Washington last year but did not get the defensive coordinator job -- Joe Barry did -- a particular disappointment because Phillips had hoped to coach with his son Wes, the tight ends coach there. And during the 2014 head coach hiring cycle, five top-tier candidates -- five -- asked Phillips if he would join their staffs if they got head-coaching jobs, a testament not only to his past successes but to his personal popularity. Phillips said yes. But every one of those candidates was a runner-up for the available jobs, leaving Phillips, then 66 years old, out of football.
Opposing quarterbacks probably wish he had stayed there.
"Being out, you know how much you miss it, the camaraderie, the practices, the relationships, we have all the common goals," Phillips said. "And you love the game and coaching the game. You ask any player who is out four or five games. Coaches are the same way. I was the same way."
Phillips' reunion with Kubiak in Denver for this season improved an already good defense. Under then-coordinator Jack Del Rio in 2014, the Broncoswere third overall and 16th in scoring defense, with 41 sacks. This year, the defense had a league-high 52 sacks and finished fourth in scoring defense, allowing nearly four fewer points per game than last season -- an important distinction, given that Peyton Manning struggled with interceptions and injury, was replaced by Brock Osweiler and then took his starting job back in the final game of the regular season.
The Broncos also led the league in total defense, passing defense and yards allowed per play, and they've allowed just one of their 18 opponents thus far to score more than 30 points. And it was the battering the pass rushers put on Tom Bradyin the AFC title game -- he was hit an astonishing 17 times -- that vaulted the Broncos into the Super Bowl. It also has brought Phillips' peripatetic career full circle. This is the second Super Bowl of his career, and he is hoping for a better result than the first one when, after the 1989 season, his Broncos defense -- yes, this is his second stint as their coordinator -- was hammered by Joe Montana's 49ers, 55-10, in Super Bowl XXIV.
If it seemed like a long shot that Phillips, past retirement age and sporting white hair that gives him the look of a nice grandfather next door, would be in this spot again as he approaches his 38th year in the NFL, you might not know the colorful history of the Phillipses and football. This week, the Broncos' 26-year-old defensive tackle Malik Jackson said he was surprised, when he first met Phillips, that he had so much energy. Now, Jackson said, he surmises that the players keep Phillips young.
A bond with players is something Wade inherited from his late father. Wade does not wear a 10-gallon hat on the sideline as Bum did (except when Bum's team played in domed stadiums -- Bum once explained that his mom taught him to remove his hat indoors). But in practically every other way, Wade is his father's son, talking always about his family, using his dry wit and folksy manner to endear himself to players wherever he has been, a throwback to the way his father coached and a testament to the type of person Phillips himself said he thought he would respond to best. This week alone, Wade has tweeted a picture of Underdog to represent the Broncos, has posed for pictures wearing Aqib Talib's prodigious jewelry and took himself to lunch at In-N-Out Burger. And, of course, he wryly noted on Twitter on Championship Sunday what a very good year it has been for him.
Dan Reeves, the former Broncos, Giants and Falcons coach, got his first interview for a head coaching job because of a recommendation from Bum Phillips, whom he had met at a golf tournament. Reeves had never worked for Phillips, but while at that golf tournament, Reeves and his wife and their daughter befriended Wade's sister and took her with them whenever they went out to eat. When Reeves called to ask Phillips why he had recommended him for the job, considering the two had never worked together, the answer was typical of Bum and Wade.
"He said anybody who was a good family man would be a good football coach, because that's what football is -- it's family," Reeves said.
"I told him I wanted a defense that didn't just bend and not break but also be a little aggressive where we could get some three-and-outs," Reeves said. "The past defensive coordinator I had, people would possess the ball a long time. I wanted somebody to be a little more aggressive. He said OK. We coached the Senior Bowl that year. The other team took the opening kickoff and they make a first down. Then they make another first down. They make another. Wade comes over and says, 'How am I doing so far?'
"If you don't like Wade Phillips, you can't get along with anybody."
Bum was a football legend, and -- along with Ryan, architect of another famously aggressive defense -- was Wade's biggest influence.
"He was my high school coach, my college coach, he was [my] coach growing up, I coached for him for 10 years, all those things, and he was my dad, too," Wade said of Bum. "After he got out, I talked to him after every game and still [discussed] football. It was a real football life, when your dad is a coach and you're a coach, and now my son is a coach, too. I told my son, 'Hey, if there is something else you'd like to do, to that. If there is nothing else you want to be but a coach, be a coach.' You have to be dedicated. It has to be important to you. You have to love it. That's what my dad told me."
He also told Wade something else.
"There are two kinds of coaches," Wade said, repeating his father's famed breakdown of the profession. "Ones that have been fired and ones that are going to be fired."
Phillips has been fired, most notably from the three full-time head-coaching jobs he has had: with the Broncos (he replaced Reeves in 1993), the Bills and the Cowboys. The Bills' firing -- which came after he refused to fire one of his assistant coaches -- might have hung on him an unshakeable rep, a backhanded compliment that is a slur in the NFL.
He's too nice to be a good head coach.
That his defense was in the top 10 in five of the six years he was in Buffalo as coordinator and head coach could not save him. Phillips was the last coach to get the Bills into the postseason -- in 1998 and '99. His career record as a head coach (including interim stints with the Saints in 1985, Falcons in 2003 and Texans in 2013) is 82-64.
"Except for [Bill] Belichick, and a few guys in the league, you're not going to be in one place forever," Phillips said. "Once you're gone at head coach, they won't think you're the greatest ever unless you win the Super Bowl. I had a winning record as a head coach, which not many guys do. We won at Buffalo and Dallas, but we didn't win playoff games. I'm probably a lousy head coach, but I'm a pretty good coordinator."
The latter half of that sentence is inarguable. This week, nearly every Broncos defensive starter asked has credited Phillips with a simplified defense that is adaptable to the talents of his players, rather than forcing them to play a scheme they might not be suited for.
Marlon Kerner, a defensive back for Phillips in Buffalo, said he thinks of Phillips as a players' coach, always willing to take suggestions and talk to players.
"He was so calm, so easy to talk to," Kerner said. "I remember a player had gotten injured in the game. I'm a rookie and I'm thinking I'm going to get this big speech. He just said, 'OK, rook, you're in.' That was it."
In Houston, Phillips mentored another rookie: J.J. Watt, who made the transition to Phillips' 3-4 defense after playing in a 4-3 in college. After Watt's first year, in 2011, Phillips declared that Watt would be a bust -- not a draft bust, but the kind that resides in the Hall of Fame. The adjustment did not always go smoothly for Watt, but Phillips eased the way.
"He allowed me to have some freedom, and that has really turned me into the player I am today," Watt said. "He wanted production. He talked to me about how I can affect the game with things like batted balls and tackles for loss even if I wasn't getting sacks. I wasn't good, by any means. But him continuing to have faith in me helped. He has a subtle way of pulling you off to the side, just a few little words of encouragement. He has the ability to light a fire under you, but he's more of an encouraging-style coach."
Perhaps that is why, almost 40 years and 10 coaching stops in, Phillips is so popular with players that this week, he had to tell people to "quit twittering" him, asking for a job, as one of his former Texans' players successfully did in December. And why he's so good at running a defense that he keeps getting jobs.
"Once you are successful doing it, when I go into another place, they think I'm good," Phillips said. "They believe in what you're saying. That's half the battle. And I've been lucky to be with teams that had talent. They didn't seem like they did going in, but they did. I'd rather be lucky than good."
Or maybe Phillips' story is more like what his father was once quoted as saying:
"I always thought I could coach. I just thought people were poor judges of good coaches."