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Media Night Snaps: Wade Phillips’s chance at magical finish he deserves

Peyton Manning is the obvious sentimental favorite, but the Broncos actually have another feel-good story to root for in their defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. 

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Musings, observations and the occasional insight from Super Bowl 50’s media day...which was actually at night for the first time and far tamer than most previous editions of this annual hype-fest that I’ve attended...

• Somewhere it is written that this year’s Super Bowl has just one sentimental favorite, a certain pizza-shilling Denver quarterback whom the football nation (outside of the Carolinas) would love to see ride off into the sunset of retirement with an Elway-esque blaze of glory. But if Peyton Manning wins on Sunday against the favored 17–1 Panthers, then Wade Phillips wins, too. And that should give football fans a heaping double dose of feel-good stories to root for in the golden anniversary Super Bowl in Santa Clara.

Scenes, sights and sounds from Super Bowl 50 Media Night in San Jose

I’m a sucker and always have been for long, interesting careers, and how they rise and fall, ebb and flow. I like figures who have survived and thrived, failed and re-invented themselves, but always keep coming back for more. And when it comes to Phillips, the Broncos’ 68-year-old defensive coordinator and beacon of homespun humor, careers don’t get a lot longer or more interesting.

What a long, strange trip his has been. Phillips first coached in the NFL in 1976, 40 years ago, and he’s held head coaching jobs with six clubs (three full-time gigs and three interim tenures) and been the defensive coordinator with a whopping eight organizations. This is his second go-around as Denver’s DC, and his second shot at a Super Bowl ring, with his first opportunity producing the worst blowout in Super Bowl history: that 55–10 San Francisco drubbing of the Broncos in January 1990. Phillips has waited 26 years to get back to this stage, and it’s why I couldn’t wait to check in on Wade’s World on Monday night at SAP Center, and to take in the wit and wisdom of the one and only Sonofbum, as he goes by on Twitter in an homage to his coaching father, the late, great Bum Phillips.

In 2014, Phillips was out of the NFL for the first time since 1975, and now he’s in the Super Bowl, perhaps in a position to capture a career-capping, legacy-enriching win. He’s one of the game’s greatest defensive coordinators of the last 25 years, and his Broncos are ranked No. 1 in the league in almost every key category.

You know what the Phillips Effect is? He’s helped nine different teams to the playoffs in his first season on the job, as either a head coach or assistant, and everywhere he goes, winning and improvement follows. In his 33 seasons as either a head coach or coordinator in the NFL, his defenses have finished in the top 10 an impressive 18 times.

“Well, I’ve been real lucky,” said Phillips, in that self-effacing, down-home style of his. “Nine different times I’ve gone in and the first year we’ve been in the playoffs, and that just doesn’t happen. I’ve helped every team improve wins wise, and I take pride in that. Six times as a coordinator and three times as a head coach we went to the playoffs in the first year.”

I love that Phillips is back on this stage, because living down a historic 45-point Super Bowl beating can’t be an easy task. I asked him what his memories of that game were, you know, before the train named Joe Montana and the 49ers offense hit him that night in the New Orleans Superdome?

“The last one? Not good,” he said. “We played against one of the greatest teams of all time. So things didn’t start out well, and as the guy said, the harder we tried, the behinder we got. That’s about it.”

If you’re into omens, those 1989 49ers went 17–2 and ran roughshod over the rest of the NFL. Kind of the way the 17–1 Panthers have done so far this season. Which is why Phillips has reminded anyone who will listen this week that Carolina is the clear-cut favorite, which was the message when he tweeted out a picture of that retro cartoon hero, Underdog, over the weekend.

“I don’t know about sentimental,” Phillips said when I asked about his status as a fan favorite. “The odds makers say we’re not the favorite, which we like. I think our team thrives on that and our defense plays well under pressure. They seem to really respond under pressure.”

Like his famous father, Wade Phillips has a way with a story and can deliver a great line. I quizzed him on his favorite Bum-isms, and he quickly made his decision.

“The best one was with (Oilers running back) Earl Campbell, when Earl didn’t make the mile,” Phillips said. “It was a mile test to see what kind of shape they were in, and Earl didn’t make the mile and everybody ran up to Bum and said ‘Bum, Bum what are you going to do? Earl didn’t make the mile?’ Bum said, ‘Hell, if it’s third and a mile, we won’t give it to him.’ And he said, ‘But we’re going to give it to him the rest of the time,’ and we did.”

How did Phillips spend his year away from the game? “I got to be part of the media a little bit, and second guess, and I thought it was great,” he quipped. Easy, isn’t it, I replied. “Yeah, it was,” he said.

Manning might get most of the emotional energy aimed his way this week in the build-up to what is expected to be his final game. But don’t forget about Phillips. We saw what his defense did to Tom Brady and the Patriots a little more than a week ago. The Cam Newton challenge is huge, and his season has set the standard in the NFL. But Phillips has a little mojo going for himself these days, and his ride to the Super Bowl has had more than its share of magic.

• Everyone is fixated about what Peyton Manning might do after this game, but Panthers defensive end Jared Allen is a 12-year vet making his first Super Bowl appearance, and who know if he’ll return to the game or retire if Carolina wins it all?

“I don’t know, I don’t know the answer of that myself,” Allen said, when I asked if a win on Sunday might influence his decision to walk away on top? “I try to be present in the moment and right now I’m preparing to win Super Bowl 50. That’s my only focus. After that I’ll do what I’ll always do, sit down and talk to my family and see how my body feels.”

Allen, receiver Jerricho Cotchery and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards all entered the NFL in 2004, and all three Panthers are playing in their first Super Bowl after that 12-season wait.

“Yep, ’04 baby,” Allen said of their draft class. “It took a lot of patience. And all three of us lost in either the AFC or NFC title games at some point. So to get here, it’s a special moment to share with those guys and just talk about the memories of how long it took for us to get here. It’s something special.”

Just like the 2004 class, Allen said, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

“Oh, ’04, I personally feel it’s the best class ever,” he said. “I might be biased, I’m not sure.”

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• You can do a lot worse on Super Bowl media night than to spend time listening to the entertaining riffs coming from Broncos reserve defensive end Antonio Smith. He was on the 2008 Arizona team that narrowly lost Super Bowl XLIII to Pittsburgh, and seven years later he got going on how he wants no part of repeating the walk of shame that is the losing squad’s departure from the field.

“You’ve got to walk through confetti, through hats getting passed out, kissing and hugging and congratulations,” Smith said. “You’ve got to go in the locker room as a loser and I’ll never forget that, never.”

When that confetti shower starts, and it’s falling, but not for you, it stings. And sticks.

“It definitely sticks,” he said. “I never want to ever feel it again. It’s more you feel like burning the confetti up. A couple of us guys punched the confetti machine. If we wouldn’t have got fined, we probably would have knocked it over.”

Is it like a party you’re at, and they ask you to leave, I asked him?

“Worse,” he said. “It’s like being in your own house and you ain’t got control. Somebody came to your house, took your dinner, took your woman, took your kids and everything. All of it’s mine. And says, ‘Yeah, it’s time for you to go.’”

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• No one wants to think that Denver is capable of laying another egg in the Super Bowl, like the Broncos did two years ago in New Jersey against Seattle. That 43–8 shellacking was such a letdown, and it kind of fit right into the Denver’s history of anemic Super Bowl losses. The Broncos have been beaten five times by at least 17 points in a Super Bowl.

 Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders wasn’t yet a Bronco two years ago, and he spoke for the rest of America on Monday night when he recalled that horrid game:

 “It was definitely hard to watch, because I’m a Peyton fan,” Sanders said. “The one thing is, you want to play in the Super Bowl, and if you do lose, you don’t want to get blown out in front of the whole world. But here we are again, and this time hopefully we go out and win.”

Yep, here they are again. Prepare your Super Bowl parties accordingly.

• Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl is the only coach or player on Carolina who was also a part of the franchise’s other Super Bowl team, the 2003 squad that lost a 32–29 heartbreaker to New England in Houston 12 years ago. He was a receiver on that team, and he’d have an unique appreciation for seeing that score settled with a win over Denver.

“That’d be special,” he said. “I would love for that to happen. Talk about vivid memories. The memories of that game are so strong. The disappointment of being so close. To be right there, and we felt like we had them on the ropes. It was one of the greatest games I’ve ever played in. It was unbelievable, what transpired in the second half.”

Proehl’s 2003 Panthers were underdogs, but this year’s team is a favorite, with a caveat.

“We’re the hunted, but it still feel like it’s been a ‘yeah, but’ year,’’ he said. “We’re good, our record’s good, but we haven’t played anybody, our schedule’s weak, we’ve been lucky.’ That’s what we’ve heard all year.”

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• John Elway won the Super Bowl with Denver at the end of the 1998 season, then retired, with back-to-back championships in his pocket. He pretty much knew he was done after that game, win or lose against Atlanta in the Super Bowl, but he’s determined not to draw any parallels with the Manning situation this year, or rush No. 18’s timetable for making a decision.

 “I was 95 percent sure I was going to retire, just because my body was breaking down,” Elway said. “I missed four games that year, so I was 95 percent there. But still it took me a long time to get that last five percent.”

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Manning missed seven games this season after his foot issues surfaced at age 39, so it would seem the similarities are certainly there. But not for Elway.

“My stuff was different, and I think my style is different, so, no I don’t think there’s any parallels. The bottom line is Peyton Manning is going to make the best decision for him.”

• It didn’t really seem right that Denver quarterback Brock Osweiler didn’t get a podium Monday night. He started seven games for the Broncos and pretty much saved the season, going 5–2 when Manning was struggling mightily. And yet guys like Brandon Marshall, Owen Daniels and T.J. Ward had podiums.

There must be a secret Super Bowl rule that only one quarterback can be issued a Super Bowl media night podium, and that’s why Osweiler was down there on the floor with the rest of the reserves, looking like he was just happy to be there. It was the Broncos who should be just happy he happened to be there this year.

• Denver quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Greg Knapp spent nine years coaching for the 49ers, three more with the Raiders, and went to college at Sacramento State. So it’s homecoming week for Knapp, and the idea of celebrating a Super Bowl win at Levi’s Stadium has to be pretty delicious.

“This is where it started for me, so this is very exciting for me to get this opportunity and hopefully finish this season with a win,” Knapp said. “I’ve got a lot of ties to the bay area.”

Knapp said the Broncos quarterback room this season was as unlike any other he’s ever been in, given the Manning-Osweiler split season dynamic.

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“It was the most unique quarterback room I’ve ever experienced, because of who the two individuals were and where they are in their careers,” Knapp said. “What was really nice to see was the other guy was always helping out. It’s not always smooth that way.”

And what if, heaven forbid, Manning can’t finish the game on Sunday and Osweiler has to ride to the rescue again?

“If for some reason Brock has to play, yeah I feel extremely confident because he proved to his teammates and to us in those seven games he started, that he was ready for this challenge,” Knapp said. “He went 5–2 in those and won some high-profile games. So we’re good with him.”

Wouldn’t that be a plot twist? If Manning’s injury-interrupted season featured an injury-interrupted Super Bowl?

• The team-first quote of the night came from Panthers strong safety Roman Harper, the former 2009 Saint who was explaining what those first few crazy minutes after a team wins the Super Bowl is like: 

“It’s crazy,” Harper said. “You’ll be hugging guys you’re not even that cool with.”

Not even that cool with. There are no I’s in that sentence. At least not any verbal ones.

• I dropped by a small scrum around Broncos tight end Vernon Davis briefly, just in time to hear him explain his near-invisible status since being acquired by Denver via a trade with San Francisco: 

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 “You can’t quit, you can’t give up,” Davis said. “For me, I can’t do it. I’m going to keep on going. I don’t care how bad people talk about me, what they’ve got to say. I don’t care. I don’t really care.”

 Maybe he should start caring. Not caring certainly isn’t helping him produce.

• So, if the Panthers get a comfortable lead in the third quarter and half the lights go out at Levi’s Stadium, Carolina tight end Ed Dickson is going to smell a rat.

“At that point, it might not be a conspiracy theory,” said Dickson, the former 2012 Baltimore Raven, who lived through the Super Bowl blackout in the Superdome that season. “I’ll know it’s an inside job then. It was really dark in there. It was like a second halftime. It was terrible.”

But on the bright side, pun intended, Dickson would be the one Panther who could lead his team through their darkest hour.

“I might be the first one to say, ‘I’ve been there before, I’ve been there before. So halfway through this, we’re going to start stretching.’”

• Panthers center Ryan Kalil is an offensive lineman, and offensive linemen are usually known as the fat boys of an NFL team. But apparently not in Carolina. Because that’s what they call running back Jonathan Stewart, who goes 5’10”, 235 pounds.

Stewart apparently is known for starting to fantasize about food from time to time in games.

“He gets hungry and that’s what fat boys do,” Kalil said. “He starts smelling things that aren’t there, and we keep snacks for him on the sidelines and keep him fed throughout the game, otherwise he gets really hungry.”