SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As the ultimate study in American excess, Super Bowl week should not be your first or second stop on a search for humility. It is no time or place for a man to start opening up about his own human failings.
But this is what Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said Wednesday about his experience as an NFL head coach: "I probably should've stayed a defensive coordinator the whole time."
When have you ever heard one of the very best assistant coaches of his NFL generation concede he wasn't really cut out to compete with the big boys? Once upon a time, Phillips was a head coach for Denver (of all teams), Buffalo and Dallas, and an interim guy in New Orleans, Atlanta and Houston, and he finished with an 82-64 record. Here's something you should know about his career .562 regular-season winning percentage:
It's better than Jimmy Johnson's (.556), Tom Coughlin's (.531), Mike Ditka's (.560) and Weeb Ewbank's (.502), and nearly as good as Chuck Noll's (.566). It's also better than the winning percentages of former/current bosses Marv Levy (.561), Dan Reeves (.535), Buddy Ryan (.500), Gary Kubiak (.518), and of his dearly departed father/boss, Bum (.516).
Of course, the postseason is where Wade Phillips didn't measure up. He was a head coach for six playoff games, five of them losses. He was on the devastating end of Tennessee's Music City Miracle 16 years ago ("If they had HD in those days we wouldn't be sitting here; I'd be a head coach somewhere," Phillips said of the questionable lateral-ness of the famous Frank Wycheck-Kevin Dyson lateral), and he presided over the top-seeded Cowboys' loss to the Giants eight years ago, right after Tony Romo spent his bye week in Cabo with Jessica Simpson.
Any chance Romo takes that trip with Bill Belichick as his head coach?
Nice guys finish you-know-where, and even though his teams advanced to the Super Bowl tournament five times in nine seasons, Phillips was missing that certain something -- an edge? -- separating the Johnny Carsons from the Ed McMahons, the Michael Jordans from the Scottie Pippens, the Batmans from the Robins.
On the subject of valuable sidekicks, it seems Denver's best chance to upset the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 rests between the ears of Phillips, a wise, 68-year-old head who has come to terms with the fact that he was destined to shine in supporting roles. In fact, if the top-ranked Broncos defense is to contain the certain league MVP, Cam Newton, and the only team in the league to score 500 points, Phillips has to pitch the kind of perfect game Belichick threw at the Buffalo Bills 25 years ago, back when a lot of football people thought the Bill Parcells aide was born to be a career coordinator, too.
You know the story by now. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and friends were the no-huddling, high-flying Bills who dropped 51 points on Oakland in the AFC title game and were favored to shred the Giants in the Super Bowl. Belichick decided to physically punish Buffalo's wide receivers, drop everyone and his brother into coverage, and force Kelly to turn to the ground game. Belichick guaranteed his defense that if it allowed Thomas to run for at least 100 yards, slowing the Buffalo fast break to a half-court, clock-draining crawl, the Giants would win.
Thomas ran for 135 yards, Scott Norwood went wide right and Belichick's game plan ended up in the Hall of Fame, where its architect will someday land on the first ballot.
Phillips? He won't be making the trip to Canton, but that doesn't mean he can't send out a defense Sunday that will be remembered forever. The Broncos know Peyton Manning, or this soon-to-be-40-year-old version of him, can only be counted on for so many points. They know they have to rattle Newton like they rattled Tom Brady in an AFC Championship Game that reintroduced Phillips to the world as one of the sport's bright lights.
"Good year for me from unemployed to the Super Bowl!" he tweeted from his tribute handle, @sonofbum, after Broncos 20, Patriots 18.
"I like to have fun," Phillips said.
His players have noticed. He talks about his favorite Drake songs, jokes about being fired by all three teams from his home state of Texas (Oilers, Cowboys, Texans), and goes on about the need to stay flexible with his schemes to best fit the players' skills and personalities. Phillips doesn't berate his players; he strongly encourages them to max out their potential.
"You don't want to mess up yourself because you feel like you owe him," said Danny Trevathan. "The way he came in [to Denver] was so humble, it was new to me. I'm not used to having a coach sit back and just watch and observe and then talk to you."
Phillips learned from the many accomplished men he worked under, but at day's end, he said, "I'm my father's son, that's for sure. I was around football and around him my whole life. He was a football coach in high school, and I played for him. He pretty much shaped everything. ... My dad is my hero."
Like his son, Bum Phillips was the very definition of homespun under that cowboy hat of his. He led the Houston Oilers to two consecutive AFC title games with Wade on staff but never made it out alive. "When you win as many games as we did in Houston," Wade said, "then lose playoff games to the team that won the Super Bowl three years in a row, and then get fired on New Year's Eve, you say, 'Hey, what's the deal here?'"
Truth was, Wade Phillips knew the deal as far back as his Texas schoolboy days, when his old man was chasing high school and college jobs all over the state. Bum's children were afraid to pile into the family car for a ride to the country store out of fear their father might drive them straight off to the next job.
"I was in Amarillo in ninth grade," Wade recalled, "and we lived across the street from the school, and I knew we were going to El Paso because my dad got the head job at UTEP. But I didn't know we were going that day, and I got a note that said, 'Come to the principal's office.' I looked outside the window and they had a moving van outside, which was sad for me because I had a girlfriend and a lot of friends. We left that day and that was it."
Wade was always going to follow his father into the family business. "My dad was in the league for 16 years," he said, "and this is my 38th year." Bum's thing wasn't necessarily X's and O's, Wade said. Bum's thing was common sense.
Wade said he learned to keep it simple while working 11 seasons for his old man. His linebackers coach with the Broncos, Reggie Herring, said that simplicity is what makes the coordinator great.
"Wade has us coach fundamentals harder and with more emphasis over X's and O's than anybody else in the country," Herring said. "Now that bores you, but that's our foundation. And Wade lets his coaches coach. A lot of guys in this league, ego-wise, they've got to be the guy in front of the camera, and Wade doesn't believe in that.
"We don't reinvent football every week. We have a tool box and we pull out of it what we already know, and it breeds confidence and execution from the players. We don't put five new blitzes in every week. Some guys tell the media they're designing 20 new looks while they're trying to get a new job. Wade's not concerned about that."
He's concerned this week with winning his first Super Bowl ring on his first trip to the big game since January 1990, when he was the defensive coordinator for the Dan Reeves Denver team destroyed by the dynastic 49ers. Wade tweeted out a cartoon shot of Underdog over the weekend. Sunday, the Broncos are expected to be the second-best team on the field.
What an opportunity for Phillips, who has been spending part of the lead-up praising Kubiak for handling the delicate Manning-Brock Osweiler situation a lot better than Bum's boy handled the delicate Doug Flutie-Rob Johnson situation in Buffalo. In full self-deprecating mode, Phillips has also let every inquiring mind know that he's retired from the head-coaching business for keeps.
"It's passed me by," he said. "This is my niche. This is what I think I do best."
He has held the Patriots and Steelers to a combined 34 points in two playoff games, and DeMarcus Ware promised that his defensive coordinator "has a lot of tricks up his sleeve" for Newton. He'll need them as much as Belichick needed his 25 years ago.
Will the Broncos temper the pass rush that battered Brady, stay home on the Newton-Jonathan Stewart run game, and dare Newton to do what he's perfectly capable of doing: beat them from the pocket?
Only this much is certain: Wade Phillips, born coordinator, is highly qualified to make that call.