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Wade Phillips unleashed Denver Broncos' defensive potential

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange   |   Feb. 8, 2016 at 1:53 AM
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A year ago, Wade Phillips was sitting on his couch watching Super Bowl XLIX, a brilliant coaching career as a defensive strategist apparently over.

However, the coaching gig is a mysterious one, and jobs open and people move, and the next thing you know, you're back at work.

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John Fox, a defensive coach himself, was fired after four generally successful seasons as the head coach of the Broncos. Gary Kubiak was hired as his successor. And Kubiak, who knew Phillips from their days together with the Broncos a quarter-century ago when Kubiak was John Elway's backup, got Phillips off the couch and onto the sideline as Denver's defensive coordinator.

Today, the move looks like sheer brilliance, and as a result, for the first time, Phillips is going to be fitted for a Super Bowl championship ring.

"He came in and figured out how to utilize the guys, utilize the talents," said linebacker DeMarcus Ware, also finally a Super Bowl winner in his 11th NFL season, most of them with the Dallas Cowboys.

"With Von (Miller), you can see how well he played. Malik (Jackson) and (Derek) Wolfe and (Sylvester Williams) and those guys are more than just run-stoppers. He changed everything up to where we could be more aggressive and get to the passer but also create a lot of havoc."

Yes, sometimes, nice guys do win.

Phillips is a folksy sort, kind of like his dad, the late coach Bum Phillips, and honest to a fault, too. Bum never won a championship, his Houston teams in the late 1970s running into the Pittsburgh dynasty in two straight AFC Championship Games. Wade, who has been a head coach with three NFL teams and an interim head coach a couple of times, too, hadn't won one either. Until now.

He knew one reason he hadn't won.

"I was a lousy head coach," Wade said last winter, "but I am a pretty good defensive coordinator."

Better than pretty good, and before this evidence, we also had his selection as the NFL's assistant coach of the year.

The Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton is considered the prototype of future NFL quarterbacks with his size, speed and arm. But leave it to Phillips to devise an array of shifting coverages and pressures that forced four turnovers, enabled the Broncos to tie the Super Bowl record of seven sacks and create the havoc that led to Denver's only two touchdowns.

The players know. Denver had the NFL's top-ranked defense during the regular season, and the Broncos continued that trend in the playoffs, holding the Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina to a total of four touchdowns, including one that came on a 22-yard drive following a fumble recovery.

The Panthers led the NFL in scoring during the regular season but managed only 10 points against the Broncos and penetrated the 20-yard line only once in 16 possessions.

"I'm going to give Wade Phillips the credit," Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "Wade brought a whole different scheme to us. He brought a lot of simplicity to the defense. He let us fly around and run around and play fast."

"Coach Phillips did an amazing job," added Miller, he of the two forced fumbles that handed Denver its two touchdowns. "He always likes to say that mistakes are on him, but the Super Bowl is on him, too. I really appreciate everything he's done for the whole team, not just the defense."

Phillips, of course, was not the only Broncos' story line.

You could have picked out Peyton Manning's probable fairy tale ending, or Miller's sheer defensive brilliance, or John Elway's one-time backup, Kubiak, becoming the first coach to win the Super Bowl with a team for which he used to play, and, of course, the sadness of Pat Bowlen, the team's longtime owner, being unable to attend the game because he is suffering from Alzheimer's.

But since it was the defense that won the game for Denver, the No. 1 feel-good story in the Rocky Mountains today is about Wade Phillips. The nice guy who finally finished first.

Typically, however, when Phillips was asked about the defense, he talked about the team and not himself, saying that he thinks this is a "special, all-time" defense. Hard to argue against a defense that can dominate in today's game, when offense typically rules.

"This means the world to me, to be able to coach this group," Phillips said. "What a performance."

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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