SAN JOSE, Calif. — The disconnect between coach and players lingered on most of the 2015 season for the Buffalo Bills. It took until late December for a true, effective compromise to be made.
The players up front craved the green light to rush. Coach Rex Ryan often preferred to disguise, to drop players into coverage different ways with countless checks. And the lowest of lows was a crushing loss at Kansas City.
Meanwhile, the last coach to lead Buffalo to the playoffs has been letting player input drive his No. 1-ranked defense. All week at the Super Bowl, Bronco players have been praising defensive coordinator Wade Phillips for listening to them, for letting them do what they do best whether it's a specific rush technique or a cornerback's preference in coverage. They allowed a NFL-low 4.4 yards per play, had a NFL-high 52 sacks and opposing quarterbacks have posted a miserable 78.8 passer rating.
Phillips may be 68 years old, but says he's approaching the job the same way he did when he was first a coordinator at 32. One quote from basketball legend John Wooden rings true in his teaching.
"I just think you work with people," Phillips said on Thursday. "That's a big part of it. John Wooden always said that 'They're not working for you; you're working with them.' Although they need to learn from you, you need to teach them, I think you work with people."
That often means embracing the specific talents of individuals instead forcing them to fit a cookie-cutter model.
In Buffalo, end Mario Williams was vocal about exactly this. He felt it hurt the defense for himself to be dropping into coverage, rather than rushing upfield with abandon. And while Williams drew harsh criticism, and often struggled when he did get one-on-one opportunities, he might've had a point, too. Simply watch 331-pound wrecking ball Marcell Dareus drop into coverage on two touchdowns at Kansas City with nobody in his zip code.
To Phillips, the definition of coaching is fitting your X's and O's around the personnel.
"Coaching is adapting to what your players can do, not what you can think of," Phillips said. "Are you too rigid that you can only play one scheme one way? I've just never coached that way."
The example he uses is cornerback Quentin Jammer. When Phillips was the San Diego Chargers' defensive coordinator 2004- '06, Phillips knew Jammer preferred to press — exclusively — one on one with wide receivers. Sure, the Chargers used various coverages, but this was Jammer's strength. Those three seasons, he had six picks and 46 total pass break-ups.
"Pressing all the time," Phillips said. "So we pressed him all the time whether it was run, it was pass, whether it was zone, whether it was man. He pressed all the time because that's what he did well. So we wanted to utilize his talents and that's what we did with individual players. Now, the guy who played behind him, we didn't do that with him because he didn't do those things. So when he played zone, he played off. When he played man, he played off. That's what he did well."
Adds veteran DeMarcus Ware: “He lets guys loose to where you don’t have to study as much what you have to do. You see the tendencies of other teams… you get instinctive-type players and that’s why he’s always been a really good coach.”
And Derek Wolfe: "See ball, get ball. That is what defense is all about you know. Obviously there are other moving parts, but for the most part see ball, get ball. He keeps it simple for us.”
Yes, of course it's a good thing if a coach is principled and believes in his philosophy. Ryan did have success before with this playbook in Baltimore, in leading the New York Jets to two AFC title games. Just this week, one Ryan's former linebackers, Bart Scott, called the coach "one of the best defensive minds in the game today," and reiterated how important it is for players to buy in.
The answer probably lies somewhere in-between Ryan's scheme and letting players loose. Since the season ended, the Bills coach has been very confident about the defense's direction.
Phillips? His next challenge may be the greatest of his career: defending quarterback Cam Newton.
He's had success cutting players loose all season. While he didn't blitz extra players much in the AFC Championship, his defense is still based on aggression.
"Defensive players are aggressive in nature," Phillips said. "That's what they want to do, they want to be aggressive. I think you're just tapping into what they like to do and what they want to do. I've always tried to be aggressive with them because of that. They're not passive guys. Most guys playing defense are aggressive. So you want to bring out that aggression."