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Wade Phillips bucking perception

It's interesting to watch and read the various reactions around the sports world to the Cowboys hiring of Wade Phillips. What became evident to me during this whole process is that somehow Wade Phillips developed a reputation as a retread coach who couldn't win. When I first heard his name in connection with the Cowboys I thought that was the case, too. Even though his record as a head coach is 45-35 (regular season, non-interim), the numbers that stuck in most people's minds were 2 and 3. As in fired from two head coaching positions and three losses without a win in the playoffs.

He was sandwiched between Dan Reeves and Mike Shanahan in Denver, and was only given two years to do something. He produced a .500 record with one trip to the playoffs. That was after Reeves handed him an 8-8 team, and Shanahan followed up with an 8-8 year after Phillips. That's a run of mediocrity that Phillips sat right in the middle of, and then Shanahan quickly took the team to Super Bowl victories and made Phillips look like a lesser coach in the process. But Phillips big problem was he had no running backs, which the Broncos fixed by drafting Terrell Davis under Shanahan.

He eventually got his second shot in Buffalo and transformed a 6-10 team into a 10-6 team and then went 11-5 the next year, both times making the playoffs. But he made a mistake by benching Doug Flutie for the playoffs in the second year and starting Rob Johnson. Probably not the smartest move by Phillips. At least in Dallas, he won't have to make a decision like that, because Tony Romo is the starter, no question. But the single defining moment for Wade Phillips was a miracle play that went against him. The play was so unusual, so huge, and so incredible, that it has its own name - The Music City Miracle. The Bills were sitting seconds from advancing in the playoffs by winning on the road, but were undone by a once-in-a-generation play. After that, he turned in an 8-8 season and was fired.

Now everybody has the perception that Wade Phillips is a 1st class coordinator but a 2nd rate head coach. But the record doesn't really show that. Here's a guy with five seasons as a head coach, who never went worse than 7-9 and made the playoffs three out of five years. But again, perception is reality, and it was pretty damning that he benched his starting QB the week before the playoffs, even though the team was 10-5 that year under Flutie. But even that may have turned out different if he didn't lose that playoff game in Tennessee.

You can spit out a slew of statistics about Wade Phillips to support his credibility as a coach. Everywhere that he has gone, the team he's coaching for has won. Whether as head coach or defensive coordinator, they won. But in sports, there's winning, and then there's winning. In the NFL, to be a winning coach, you have to succeed in the playoffs. Wade Phillips hasn't done that, partly because of his own decisions, partly by the intervention of the Football Gods.

But one way to measure a coach is to hear how his players react when he's gone. The San Diego players are very unhappy they're losing him. But at the same time they are happy he's getting an opportunity, because as much as they like him as a coach, they like him more as a person.

"A huge loss," defensive tackle Jamal Williams said. "I don't want to be selfish. He deserves to be a head coach. They have a great coach down there now. It's going to be hard to replace a guy like that - what he's built on defense and the camaraderie between the players."

"It was just his relationship with the players," safety Clinton Hart said. "He didn't just give us speeches about the defense. He talked to us. He was team-oriented all the time. He spoke about offense and special teams and how we can help as a defense in all those areas."

Former Chargers quarterback Drew Brees agreed yesterday that Phillips was among the biggest factors in changing the Chargers' fortunes.

"He was always so positive," Brees said. "We loved being on the field with him. He joked around with us."

From the "what happened to the other guys" file.

But when [Ron] Rivera interviewed with the Cowboys on Tuesday, he said he would stick to the 4-3 defense he knows and believes in.

"I don't think it was a question of the 4-3," Rivera said Thursday afternoon. "I think it was more a question of, 'What did Wade tell Jerry to convince him what he was going to do to get the most out of DeMarcus Ware and [safety] Roy Williams?'"

He probably just brought game film of the San Diego defense. Or maybe he said something like this:
"The 'Phillips 3-4' is a little bit different than some of the other ones," Phillips said. "Our defensive linemen have the chance to rush the passer. [It's] a lot of zone blitzing. What I try to do is put my best players in position to make plays. Then they make plays for you."

Expect to see Williams playing closer to the line of scrimmage more. Expect to see less of Ware in pass coverage and more of Ware rushing the passer. Under Phillips, Merriman led the NFL in sacks in 2006. The Cowboys want to see the same type of production from Ware. Or close.

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