Wade Phillips Reflects on His Rams Tenure... and Still Wants to Coach

Wade Phillips just finished up the most successful five-year run of his long career, but he once again finds himself without a job. He's enjoying time with his family but would love to get back to an NFL sideline.
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Wade Phillips sounds down, and I understand why.

The 2020 coaching cycle is, for the most part, complete. And he’s been left standing as the music stops for the second time in five years. The now-ex-Rams defensive coordinator has the credentials, of course. At 72, he still has the energy to coach. And there’s no question he has the passion—you only have to listen to him talk to hear it.

But for now, and probably for 2020, he doesn’t have a job.

On Sunday, he was watching the Super Bowl from his son Wes’s place north of Los Angeles. Phillips enjoyed the game, because he loves football. And yet, it was hard for his mind not to wander to what happened a year earlier—when his Rams held the vaunted Patriots to just 13 points in Super Bowl LIII—and wonder how this happened. That night, it took New England 53 minutes to get into the end zone.

“Yeah, I remember that,” he joked on Monday.

And then, instead of lamenting the situation further, he launched into analysis of Super Bowl LIV, saying that he’d hoped it would be a good one, and it delivered for him in that respect.

“The Chiefs did what they’ve been doing, coming from behind, which shows a lot of character,” Phillips said. “Talent, but also character. It showed Andy Reid’s character, really. He’s that kind of guy, a never-give-up kind of guy and that carried over to the team. The quarterback’s obviously an outstanding player. But their defense played good. With nine minutes left in the game, they showed their mettle.”

Phillips was trying to be graceful, and not make Sunday about him. But it wasn’t hard to tell how badly he wants back in, and to have another shot at being where Steve Spagnuolo and Robert Saleh were at Hard Rock Stadium—calling a defense with a shot at a title.

Whether or not he gets that chance remains up in the air.

He may have another half-decade of NFL coaching in front of him. He may have coached his last game. He seems at peace with the fact that whatever comes next isn’t entirely up to him.

But that doesn’t mean this all doesn’t sting a little.

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The season’s over, and so we’re into the offseason with this week’s GamePlan! And I’ll be honest, we’re still working through how the column will be formatted without there being football to preview.

But for now, we’re going to give you our final power ranking and our thing no one is talking about for this week, and throw in a The Big Question section as a placeholder. We’re also more than happy to take any feedback you’ve got for us on what you’d like to see in the column through the 2020 offseason.

This week, we’re kicking things off with our visit with Phillips.

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Phillips last took an involuntary break in 2014. He was fired along with his boss, then-Texans coach Gary Kubiak, at the end of the 2013 season, and had coordinator jobs lined up with three head-coaching candidates in the weeks to follow. None of the three got jobs, so he spent the following fall going to a few of Wes’s games—his son was the Redskins tight ends coach then—and spending time around the team at his alma mater, the University of Houston.

In between that, he did, as he jokes now, “too much honey-do stuff.” Which is a funny way to say he really felt like he still wanted, maybe even needed, football in his life.

The hard part this time around is he feels like he’s been better since then. Good as he was as a defensive coach in his first 38 NFL seasons, he’d only made one trip to the Super Bowl in that time. In the five years he just finished, he went twice (Super Bowl 50 with the Broncos and Super Bowl LIII with the Rams), and helmed defenses that allowed a total of 23 points in those two games. He won his first title, and Von Miller won Super Bowl MVP and Aaron Donald won Defensive Player of the Year twice on his watch.

That’s why, even at 72, retirement wasn’t even a thought as 2019 wound down.

“They always say if you’re thinking about retiring, you probably should retire,” Phillips said. “But I wasn’t thinking about retiring. I still think I can contribute, that’s the big part of it. If I didn’t think I could help, then I’d say, ‘Well, gee, I need to retire.’ But my last five years have probably been my strongest five years—59 wins in five years, you get used to winning, it makes it enjoyable.”

So Phillips can admit that, even as rumors swirled at the end of the year, he was caught a little off-guard when Sean McVay told him in early January that the Rams would be going in a different direction. Mostly because he felt like he was still at the top of his game.

He said he wasn’t given reasoning for the move in part because, “I didn’t really want to know.” And also because he’s been around the block before, more than a few times, he gets the realities of the business his dad, long-time NFL coach Bum Phillips, helped lead him into. In fact, this wasn’t even the first time things went down in this particular way.

His dismissal in L.A. mirrored what happened in Denver: in the Super Bowl after one season, gone after the next.

“I’ve learned it over the years,” he said. “My first three years were in Houston, we lost the AFC Championship twice to Pittsburgh, and they won the Super Bowl. The next year we lost to Oakland in the playoffs, and they won the Super Bowl, and we got fired. That’s when I realized there’s two kinds of coaches, like my dad said—ones that have been fired, and ones that are gonna be fired. I mean, you can’t take it as a reflection on you.

“If they only fired bad coaches, then I would feel bad. But they’ve fired a lot of good coaches. It happens. It’s part of the business. That’s the bad part of the business—somebody in my position at this time. Still, it’s part of it, that’s what happens. They wanna make changes and they have the ability to do it.”

It’s been a month since then. He’s spent a lot of that time on the phone. He talked a little with the Browns about joining Kevin Stefanski’s staff, but they went with an old lieutenant of Phillips’s, Niners defensive backs coach Joe Woods, to be their coordinator. “He’s a good coach, and a really good guy,” Phillips said.

That’s left Phillips in California. But the plan, if he doesn’t land a job, is for he and his wife to move back to their permanent home in Houston, where they spent their last year off, too. So while he can, he’s spending as much time with his kids—Wes joined the Rams’ staff as tight ends coach last year, and daughter Tracy is an actress living closer to Los Angeles—and grandkids as he can, which is why he was at Wes’s house on Sunday.

“Wesley’s here, the grandkids are here and my daughter’s here. We finally got together this one year,” Phillips said. “It’s been really good that way. It’s the only time our family’s been together since Wes and Tracy were in high school. That’s been the good part of it.”

Phillips also says he holds no ill will towards the Rams and harbors no regrets. “I enjoyed coaching here. I mean, I really enjoyed coaching here. We won a lot of games. It wasn’t miserable where you go through some tough seasons and get let go. It was pretty fantastic.” As such, he assures that it won’t be strange seeing his kid go forward as a coach with the team that let him go. Wes and Wade actually went through that once before, in Dallas, when the Cowboys fired dad, and Jason Garrett decided to keep son on staff.

But to be sure, none of that means the last six weeks haven’t hurt, mostly because he still feels like he’s got a lot to give. And while he’d like to run a defense again, he says he’d listen to the idea of another role within a staff, so long as it’s with people he likes and trusts.

“Really,” he says, “I just want to be able to help somebody win.”

Whether or not he’s capable of that isn’t the question. Whether he’ll get the chance to is.

***

POWER RANKINGS BALLOT

1) Kansas City Chiefs (15-4): Easiest choice for No. 1 I’ve had all year.

2) Baltimore Ravens (14-3): Yeah, the Ravens should get dinged for losing on the biggest stage. But they beat one Super Bowl team at home, lost a close one to the champions on the road and had the most impressive regular season of anyone. So let’s slot them at No. 2.

3) San Francisco 49ers (15-4): For everything that’s been said over the last week, if I could have one coach for the next 10-15 years, with everything else being equal, I think I’d take Kyle Shanahan. (Sean McVay would be right there too, so the NFC West should be fun.) And that roster isn’t bad either. What’ll be interesting is seeing how Jimmy Garoppolo handles the pressure that’ll be on him in 2020.

4) Tennessee Titans (11-8): The situation the Titans are in at quarterback isn’t unlike where the Vikings were two years ago—coming off a conference title game loss to the eventual champion, with no one at the position under contract. The Vikings emerged with Kirk Cousins. We’ll see what happens with Mike Vrabel’s crew.

5) Green Bay Packers (14-4): Big offseason ahead for Aaron Rodgers.

***

THE BIG QUESTION

When will the Chiefs pay Patrick Mahomes?

And this is one of those situations where the team says to a player: Just don’t make this one hurt too much. Because it’ll be hard for Mahomes, based on his age and what he’s accomplished thus far in his young career, to come to a figure that’s unjustifiable to ask for. But the thing is, the Chiefs should be eager to find the right sort of long-term deal for him. For a number of different reasons. Among them…

1) The market at quarterback is only going to continue to escalate, particularly with a bunch of turnover possible at the position this offseason, and fellow 2017 draftee Deshaun Watson also now eligible for a deal.

2) Thanks to the prospect of a 17-game schedule, the players could get significant financial concessions under the new CBA, which would mean a higher cap. That would change the dynamics for pay at every position.

3) If the CBA gets done, the owners can get working on new broadcast deals and, then, a comprehensive plan to expand the monetization of legalized gambling. These things, too, will drive the cap north.

4) Folding the two years left on his rookie deal into a long-term contract extension would make managing the cap numbers more palatable. The two years left on his deal come to about $27 million. Say he signs a five-year, $200 million extension. In that case, they’d have seven years to account for $227 million, which works out to $32.4 million per year.

And again, the point here is that no realistic price is too high to lock Mahomes up at. But doing it early will make swallowing whatever that price is much easier.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

How more and more coordinator jobs are being split up.

The co-coordinator thing has been common in college for quite some time, and it’s long been a way for head coaches to try and lure the best coaches they can to work together on one staff. Likewise, in the pros, it’s become a way to keep good coaches happy where they are.

Kyle Shanahan’s right-hand man in San Francisco, Mike McDaniel, has been the run-game coordinator since the staff got there, but only got the title in 2018. Mike LaFleur, meanwhile, became pass-game coordinator after he was blocked from joining his brother in Green Bay last January. Likewise, in Philly, with the Eagles missing on a couple of their top OC targets, they chose to give well-regarded QB coach Press Taylor (Bengals coach Zac Taylor’s little brother) the pass-game coordinator title.

It’s also not a coincidence that in both places, the head coach calls the plays, making having an OC-by-title less necessary.

Anyway, it’s something I noticed that smart teams are doing, and it makes all the sense in the world. Keep guys content and feeling like they’re on the rise, and give them more responsibility so they’ll be more deeply invested in the program. That’s smart people management by Shanahan and Doug Pederson.

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THE LAST WORD

Two-hundred-and-seventeen days until Opening Night 2020. Which will be here before any of us know it.