SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The good old boys in the Phillips family have had a knack for coaching, keeping things simple and connecting with all walks of players.
In the late '70s, when Wade Phillips was a young man working for his old man, Bum, the head coach of the Houston Oilers, there was a running back who simply wasn't built to pass the 1-mile conditioning test the team held at the start of training camp.
"Earl didn't make the mile one year," said Wade, referring to Earl Campbell, Hall of Famer and perhaps the best power runner in NFL history. "Everybody ran up to Bum and said, 'Bum, Bum, what are you going to do? Earl didn't make the mile.' He said, 'Hell, if it's third-and-a-mile, we won't give it to him.'"
All these years later, Wade continues the Phillips family tradition as a beloved and successful players' coach, sans the cowboy boots, jeans and 10-gallon hat. At 68 years old, he's been around the NFL block so many times that he's back in the Super Bowl with the same team that fired him as its head coach more than 20 years ago.
In his first year back in Denver as defensive coordinator, Phillips probably holds the key to whether Peyton Manning is remembered for upsetting the 17-1 Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 for his second championship or going 1-3 on the game's biggest stage.
The game plan Phillips used to batter Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game helped Manning get to this position. With six defensive backs flooding the passing lanes, Phillips' defense hit Brady a season-high 17 times while blitzing only 17.2 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus.
"Wade has a knack for turning a group around real quick," said Broncos first-year head coach Gary Kubiak, who experienced the same thing when he hired Phillips in Houston in 2011. "That shows he's a great teacher. And Wade's pretty simple. We don't do a lot of things, but he's very aggressive. He does a great job of putting players in position to be successful. It gets them excited to play."
In 38 NFL seasons, Phillips has been part of 20 top-10 defenses. Since 1989, when the Broncos hired him as defensive coordinator and went to Super Bowl XXIV, all seven teams that Phillips has gone to have made the playoffs in his first season.
All told, Phillips has had 10 stints with nine NFL teams and has lasted 22 seasons longer than Bum did. Bum never made a Super Bowl, while Wade's one experience was a 55-10 loss to the 49ers during the 1989 season.
Wade won 83 games as a head coach or interim head coach with Denver, Buffalo, Atlanta and the Houston Texans. Bum won 82 games with the Oilers and Saints. But Bum went 4-3 in the postseason with two AFC Championship Games, while Wade went 1-5.
Asked for his key to success with so many teams, Phillips smiled while he channeled his late father.
"Well," he said, "I got fired from most of those teams, so I don't really know. I think we play well. Guys have recognized that to give me another job, I guess."
A year ago, however, Phillips was out of football. Seven coaching staffs had been dismissed and yet no one hired the guy who's now running the hottest defense in the league.
"I thought I was going to get a job, but guys who thought they were going to get a job didn't get the job," Phillips said. "This year, pretty much the same thing was happening. I did get the interview at Washington, but didn't get that job. And I was second place at Denver [to Kubiak], but it worked out great for me. Sometimes you're at the right place at the right time."
Two years ago, Manning set records for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477) but was pounded 43-8 by Seattle in the Super Bowl. At that point, John Elway, the team's living legend/general manager, went to work on transforming this into an entirely different team. A tougher team that's more balanced offensively and now led by a defense with key new faces in edge-rushing linebacker DeMarcus Ware, shutdown corner Aqib Talib, hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward and the 68-year-old with the Twitter handle @sonofbum.
"We've been drafting defensively the last five years and then we had the opportunity in free agency to pick up some guys to add in special places," Elway said. "And then Wade and his staff have done a tremendous job of coaching these guys. It turned out to be a great, great defense."
The Broncos ranked No. 1 in total defense (283.1 yards allowed per game), pass defense (199.6), sacks (52) and yards allowed per rush (3.28). The latter will be the key stat to watch Sunday. The Panthers ranked No. 2 in rushing (142.6) and have used that balance while allowing only three hits on quarterback Cam Newton in two playoff games.
Under Phillips, the Broncos play mostly man-to-man coverages with Talib and Chris Harris Jr. The four linebackers are fast, led by Ware and left outside linebacker Von Miller, who's coming off one of the best conference title game performances ever. And the front three are stout run defenders, led by end Derek Wolfe.
"We never had an identity the past couple of years," Harris said. "We played a lot of different coverages, a lot of schemes. But Coach Wade keeps it simple and aggressive."
And players love it, just like they always do when they're playing for one of the Phillips family's good, old boys.
"My dad had great common sense," Wade said. "Some guys are great Xs and Os guys, and he knew that, too. But he had great common sense of when to do things and what things to do. … He influenced me in almost everything. He's my hero."
Mark Craig firstname.lastname@example.org