Four decades after entering the NFL as a defensive line coach for the Houston Oilers, Wade Phillips is still near the top of his game as a defensive coordinator. A football institution, Phillips has seen just about everything, and he shares those tales in his book, Son of Bum: Lessons My Dad Taught Me about Football and Life. The MMQB caught up with Phillips this summer to talk about the book, his life since its release this spring, and how he’s preparing for his coordinator gig with the Los Angeles Rams.
JONES: Your book is out and there are pieces of it across the internet. You chronicle Jerry Jones firing you and Jay Gruden’s weird interview with you and Bob McNair asking you not to interview with the Bucs in what you considered your last chance at a head-coaching job. Have you gotten any action or blowback from folks on sharing these stories?
PHILLIPS: No, I don’t think so. I don’t know if it was tell-all. It’s just kind of what goes on in football. And certainly I’m going to try to get to Jerry Jones’ Hall of Fame induction. We’ll be in training camp, but I’m going to try to get there. Of course, Morten Anderson we drafted [Phillips was the defensive coordinator for the Saints in 1982 when they took Anderson] and LT [LaDainian Tomlinson] is also going in. But you know it always seems like folks make things bigger than they are. All those situations are kind of what goes on in football. I just told it the way I saw it, and it may be different the way somebody else saw it. I thought it’d be interesting. Obviously there are no hard feelings in football because you’re going to get fired or you’re not going to get a job. All those things happen. I just wanted to tell the stories about coaches a little bit.
The only reason the interview thing was different is because I don’t get interviewed that much. When I come in they know what I’ve done and they’ll say, Will you take the job if I offer it to you? Even though Marty Schottenheimer had two long interviews with me. Buddy Ryan called me up on the phone and asked, Will you be my coordinator?
JONES: What’s received the most reaction since the book came out?
PHILLIPS: I’ve had so many people say they’ve enjoyed the book. The average fan, whether they’re a fan of the Broncos or whoever, got something out of it instead of this or that happening. You can pick out different things. I thought the story about [my dad] betting all his money on a racehorse to have enough money for me to get paid for when I was born was a good one. It’s mostly about coaching but it’s how to coach and what I learned from my dad and the father-son thing.
JONES: You wrote this with Vic Carucci. Was it as difficult as you thought it’d be or was it easier?
PHILLIPS: I think Vic made it easy. We just talked about stuff. He put it all together. It’s mostly stories about stuff and we just went through my career of this story and that story. Then I went back in the end—I really did—and I didn’t want to make anyone look bad because I didn’t feel that way about anybody in the book. Maybe I didn’t clean it up enough, I don’t know.
JONES: Oh, it’s plenty clean but those stories are good. Anyway, the book is out and you’re with the Rams now and you’ve made the defense switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4. You’ve done that several times in your career, including with the Broncos. Why do you seem to enjoy taking a 4-3 and turning it into a 3-4 so much?
PHILLIPS: I do think you’re more mobile with four linebackers and three linemen than you are with three linebackers and four linemen. I think every team I’ve been with has been in the top five in sacks, and I don’t think that’s by coincidence; I think it’s because of the schemes you can do with a 3-4. [Indeed, a Phillips-led defense has been in the top five in sacks every year he’s been a defensive coordinator since 2011.] Most of your pass coverage is a four-man rush, so they know where the rush is coming from in a 4-3 most all the time. . . . You know four guys are coming in a 3-4 but you have to account for where the fourth guy is coming from, and I think that’s where it gives you an advantage. The zone blitzes that [Dick LeBeau] came up with and started, those things are a lot easier to run from a 3-4 because any time you drop an outside guy, he’s a linebacker, whereas in the 4-3 you drop him and he’s a defensive end and not used to dropping. . . . In a four-man front, the center either blocks one way or the other to help. And in a three-man front, the center has to block the guy in front of him, so now you get more one-on-ones. Basically they have to block five-on-five because they don’t know where the other guy is coming from.
JONES: You’ve been coaching for a while and you’ve coached some of the greats. More recently, I think everyone would agree you’ve had the two best, J.J. Watt and Von Miller, in terms of pass-rushing ability . . .
PHILLIPS: Yeah, Reggie White and Bruce Smith weren’t bad either.
JONES: Yes, yes, of course. Those guys weren’t scrubs. So who tops Wade Phillips’s list of all-time great pass rushers?
PHILLIPS: Oh, I don’t know. Certainly different eras are different, because I’ve been through different eras. Reggie White and Bruce Smith both were so dominant when they played. Reggie was the most powerful guy I’ve ever been around. He had 21 sacks in 12 games in that strike year, and that was the most dominant performance of anyone I’ve been around. Bruce was just consistent. He was going to do it every year, and he did it for a long time. J.J. Watt and Von Miller are up there, and DeMarcus [Ware] is still climbing. But you know I coached Curley Culp and Elvin Bethea, who are in the Hall of Fame, in my first year coaching. So I’ve been lucky to coach some great defensive players.
JONES: Your Twitter feed has plenty of viral tweets. Do you know before you tweet something that it has viral potential? Or do you just tweet whatever the hell you’re feeling?
PHILLIPS: I just do whatever I think. You try to be careful on there. You offend fans of another team when you boast about you winning and that kind of stuff. But really I’m talking to my fans, or fans of the team I’m coaching. But no I’m not real careful on there. I probably should be.
JONES: You’ve dealt with generational gaps before—for decades with players—but now you’re facing the biggest gap with a head coach. You’re 40 years Sean McVay’s elder. Have you had any moments where you’ve said, Wow, you’re four decades younger than I am?
PHILLIPS: He’s like the other coaches, basically. I’ve been everywhere, even where I was the youngest, at 27, and I was coaching with my dad. He obviously was a lot older than me. I’ve worked with older coaches, and the older I get I work with younger coaches. It’s all about football and what they know and how well they relate with each other and the players. That part doesn’t change, age-wise or not.
JONES: Well speaking of, and my last question for you, I know you just turned 70 a couple weeks ago. How’d you celebrate?
PHILLIPS: I did, thanks. Yeah, I’m in Cancun right now and enjoying it.
JONES: Oh. Well, I’m really sorry to bother you.
PHILLIPS: That’s all right.
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