This is my first well thought out fanpost and brevity is something I am averse to. Today, I’m going to look at Wade Phillips the head coach; how his defensive philosophy impacts his teams and the tragic yet predictable downfalls that his teams inevitably experience. Please note, I like Wade Phillips I really do; but nice guys finish last, the inmates are running the asylum; and you are what your record says you are. Feel free to add your own cliché ad nauseum, but with this I present to you The Curious Case of Wade Allen Phillips.
In 1993 the Denver Broncos chose Wade Phillips as their head coach, he had a stint as an interim head coach under his belt and his defensive mastery was something that caught the Broncos’ eye. Reeling off a disappointing 1992 season, the Broncos’ defense had allowed 329 points despite generating 32 turnovers, and their offense managed to only score a meager 262 points. The benefit of Phillips and his coaching staff was felt immediately - the defense vastly improved, their points allowed dropped to 284 and the Broncos came up with 43 sacks while generating 24 turnovers. In turn the offense responded with a season in which they scored 373 points and ranked 3rd in the NFL. Unfortunately, they finished the season 9-7 with no play off wins.
Expectations were high entering the 1994 season; John Elway and the improved defense were seemingly poised to make a run at the playoffs. Unfortunately, the defense faltered; generating only 18 turnovers and 21 sacks. The offense in turn scored 347 points which paled in comparison to the 396 points scored against the defense. The Broncos went on to finish 7 and 9, with no playoff victories and a coach that seemed to take command in his first season of head coaching experienced an abrupt collapse. This would be Wade Phillips final year in his brief tenure as head coach of the Broncos. He would bounce around in the league until finding another head coaching job with the Buffalo Bills.
In 1997 a Buffalo Bills team went 6-10 coming up with only 16 turnovers on defense, allowing 367 points scored against; all the while scoring a measly 255 points on offense. They did however amass 45 sacks, and seemed to have the personnel to turn things around if only the right leader of men joined the team. Not being able to find one, they soon settled for Wade (cheap shot, I know).
The ’98 Bills exploded onto the scene, mythically starting 0-3 while playing base defense in order to lull their opponents into letting their guards down. This year the defense came up with 22 turnovers, including 6 interceptions by FS Kurt Schulz, while gladly receding on their sack total by 14 to 29. The offense scored 400 points and the defense helped them hold onto a +11 turnover advantage throughout the year and bent but not broke to the tune of 333 points allowed. These Bills went 10-6 and Wade’s presence immediately transposed the win loss column. While they didn’t win a playoff game they could hold their heads high going into the next season.
1999 was an odd year for the Bills. Their numbers weren’t as glamorous and yet they won even more games. Wade’s players had bought into his system and oddly similar to the Cowboys’ ‘09 stout defensive finish; the Bills generated less turnovers (15), less pass rush (24 sacks) and yet allowed only 229 points defensively that year. In two years, Wade Phillips had made a wooden bend but don’t break defense into one akin to solid steel; bend only slightly for we are unbreakable. Oddly enough, this philosophy while good on paper led to a pared down offense. The offense plummeted and scored 320 points that season with a -6 turnover differential. They were afforded an 11 and 5 record, followed by another acerbic playoff exit. This playoff loss was of special note, after having kicked the game clinching field goal the Titans immediately returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown; winning the playoff game and spawning the Music City Miracle that the franchise has clung onto since. Music City nothing, now knowing Wade Phillips’ neglect of the special teams intimately it’s not surprising that he lost in such a humiliating manner. It’s disappointing that he never seemed to learn from this mistake and has allowed special teams gaffes to directly impact the 2010 Cowboys season record.
Regardless, with the turn of the new millennium it was time to either put up or shut up. The bend but don’t break defense that helped to win so many games the prior year was faltering. In a disturbingly similar tale to the one we now face with our ‘Boys; the defense gave up 350 points and the offense continued to suffer behind the methodology of Wade; scoring only 315 points.The Bills' offense steadily declined under Wade Phillips, and the excellence of execution that was his 3-4 defense was now disparagingly listless and helpless.
This is where our paths cross, and our tales converge. The ’06 Cowboys under Parcells had scored 425 points, allowed 350 points while cashing in on 16 interceptions (5 by SS Roy Williams, oddly enough) generating 24 total turnovers and 20 sacks. This team was already on the rise, it just needed someone to guide them towards their ultimate goal.
The 2007 Cowboys enjoyed five Pro Bowlers on defense; besides T-New and D-Ware our insanely talented players included the elite all around strong safety Roy Williams, ball hawking free safety Ken Hamlin, and a runaway freight train also known as Greg Ellis (who says Cowboys players are overhyped, the general consensus is we have the most talent at the league! Look, look at our Pro Bowlers). The defense generated 18 picks, 25 turnovers, and a monstrous 41 sack season. We finished 13 and 3 allowing 325 points while scoring 455.
2008 was a different story altogether. The defense had a meager 7 interceptions, one of which came from Greg Ellis; another monstrous 42 sack season ensued but the defense allowed 365 points and the offense scored only 362 points – with a caveat, Tony Romo went down that year and flight 909 Brad Johnson crashed and burned Garrett’s offense. We all know we went 9-7 missing the playoffs by a single game.
’09 was another statistically odd year for the Cowboys – and yet one that falls in direct correspondence with Wade’s second year with the Bills. He finally had all the pieces to his glorious puzzle, his bend but don’t break defense that would force turnovers by making the other team punt the ball. And it did, there were only 10 interceptions last year, 9 from the secondary discounting Anthony Spencer’s pick. There were only 17 turnovers total on the year, and "only" 32 times a quarterback was dropped by the defense. However, the offense scored 361 points while the defense allowed only 261 points. We all remember the beautiful playoff win against the Eagles, and yet are forever forced to bear the shame upon the Cowboys’ household after that absolutely embarrassing loss to the Vikings.
The 2010 projections fall in line with Wade Phillips’ final seasons with the other teams, although the projections will almost assuredly be worse than they project. With Tony Romo we were on track to score over 366 points this year. I say over 366 points because we tend to have high scoring games against our division rivals not named Redskins, and the Colts/Packers defense have more holes than Swiss cheese which oddly enough is also an apt description of their lineups due to injury. While our upcoming schedule was unfavorable to our team as a whole with not a lot of sure wins, we could still generally rely on our Offense even bearing in mind our worthless offensive line. What's even more troubling is that so far our defense is on pace to allow a mind blowing 405 points – and remember that we haven’t even finished playing the Manning brothers’ aerial attacks, Michael Vick’s high flying Eagles, or even the injured yet still dangerous Packers’ offense. It wouldn't surprise me if that number approached 450.
A stark common thread runs through all of these stints as a head coach; for all of the initial success it’s ultimately the defense that will fail Wade Phillips’ teams. It’s flabbergasting, and yet it makes cold, calculating sense. The subject has been touched on multiple times. The way the defense is designed makes it especially hard on the offense; giving them long fields to work with and making for drives in which one false step results in a meager 3 points or a punt and another long field to work against. What’s so ironic is that Wade’s defenses have surrendered the fewest points when they generate the least amount of turnovers and pass rush. Is this by design? Or is it just a by product of the timid philosophy Wade brings to the field.
Look closely at the numbers, barring the first year; each time Wade Phillips’ defenses have gone from surrendering over 300 points to surrendering less than 300 points for the year the offense takes a similar hit in production. The Bills scored 80 less points the year Wade’s defense made a similar shift in points allowed. The Cowboys made a similar shift in ’09*. On the other hand, whenever Wade’s defenses increase in the number of yards allowed from the previous year they can do so at an amazing rate, surrendering over 100 more points in his last season as head coach than in the season previous to that. This year in Dallas, our offense was on pace to score even more points than we had last year and yet here we sit at 1 and 5, Wade's defense making a sky rocket eerily similar to his last season in Denver when they went 7 and 9 and in Buffalo where they went from 11-5 to 8-8.
I'm going to go ahead and say it, Wade's defenses are selfish. He eschews the special teams and places excessive emphasis on one side of the ball. In fact, it seems to me that every single defense that Wade Phillips has run has an almost exceedingly more talented Offense on the other side to make it sparkle. Why does a defense work best when it doesn't optimize it's pressure and force turnovers? Because it's the offense making the defense look good; giving them tons of room to maneuver with long fields after sustaining equally long drives against the opposing offense. Unfortunately, they can only carry the burden for so long before they struggle under the might. How many defenses in this league do you know that equally drag down the offense the more successful they are? How many defenses do you know that can literally blow up an entire season just by playing slightly worse than the previous year? How many defenses do you know that can become a boundless black hole, giving up more than 100 points compared to the previous year with similar personnel?
However, that's what makes Jason Garrett's offense that much more remarkable.
It hasn't buckled under the might has it? In fact it's flourished under the pressure. Say what you will, but in 2007 Jason's offense scored the most points second only to the record setting Patriots. That's the last time the O-line played even semi-decently. This year we were 6th in the league in red zone scoring, Garrett made the adjustments that were necessary making last year an anamoly. Every other team that was dragged down by the the eventual self immolation of Wade's defenses had absolutely grinded to a halt, being a mere shadow of its former self. Not Jason Garrett's. You want to point at all of the yards the Cowboys have gained without scoring points? You need to point directly at the defensive coordinator. In fact, it's Jason Garrett's game plan that has enabled Wade's defense to look good. They surrendered approximately 250 points last year because of the long drives, because of the exceptional special teams work, because of Jason Garrett and Joe DeCamillis. Think about it, as a Dallas fan it pains me to say that the writing has been on the wall for a very long time - a quick look at Wade's history may have prepared us for what was surely to come. That time is now, and that my friends is the very Curious Case of Wade Allen Phillips, next time we'll look at the Stifled Genius of Jason Calvin Garrett.
*(please note the statistical anomaly inherent in the year ’08 when Tony Romo went down, we can easily expect the numbers to have been well above 400 points, making the drop off a bit more similar to the stark Bills’ drop).