SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The Vince Lombardi Trophy did laps around the locker room. It was kissed. It posed for photos. It was hoisted to the soundtrack of players declaring this one of the best defenses ever.
Then, standing in the middle of the euphoria, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips took a moment to reflect.
“When we set our goals at the beginning of the season,” Phillips said, “normally we set goals to be in the top 10 or maybe the top 5. We set our goals to be the best in the league and they accomplished that.”
Not one for hyperbole, Phillips called this a special, all-time defense. This from someone who has coached in the NFL since 1976.
It’s the kind of jump the Buffalo Bills could’ve made from 2014 to 2015.
Phillips inherited a very good defense under Jack Del Rio (third overall, 41 sacks) and made it historic — this year’s group is at least in the conversation with the 1985 Chicago Bears and 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
Rex Ryan inherited a very good defense under Jim Schwartz (fourth overall, 54 sacks) and players were openly questioning the scheme by October. They finished 19th overall and had the fewest sacks over a 16-game season in Bills history.
Nearly every chat with a Denver defensive player in Santa Clara this past week felt like an indictment of Ryan’s scheme. Players gushed over Phillips, repeatedly, because he kept it simple. Straightforward. Let them all attack with a clear mind. Took their advice.
“He lets guys loose to where you don’t have to study as much what you have to do,” DeMarcus Ware said. “You see the tendencies of other teams… you get instinctive-type players and that’s why he’s always been a really good coach.”
"See ball, get ball,” added Derek Wolfe. “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.”
Far too often, fans, media, coaches, everyone makes this an overly complicated game. X’s and O’s get analyzed into oblivion. And there was inside linebacker Preston Brown last summer, staying awake until 2 a.m. many nights studying Ryan's defense. Yet as one accomplished offensive-minded NFL head coach said recently, “Football is checkers, not chess.” Indeed, Super Bowl 50 was a devastating game of checkers.
Phillips forced the league's MVP, Cam Newton, to be a passer and Newton failed miserably.
“They have a really good running game and the quarterback’s involved in that,” Phillips said. “I thought we did a good job against that — make them throw the ball and try to beat us.”
In this 3-4, Von Miller rushed from one side and DeMarcus Ware rushed from the other. Both got into a rhythm over a 12-round street fight, setting up moves and countermoves. Thirteen hits and seven sacks later, Newton wanted nothing to with a fumbled ball on the turf. He tapped out. Seemed to quit.
Phillips had, officially, spooked him.
Meanwhile, in Buffalo, there could be up to eight different checks at the line of scrimmage. New personnel would sprint onto the field three, four seconds before the snap. Defensive calls were relayed to Brown’s headset late. Miscommunication plagued the secondary.
Anger mounted. Compromise was struck too late.
This was not a defense mired in rebuilding — the Bills, like the Broncos, talked about being the No. 1 defense in the NFL and for good reason. Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes formed the best foursome in the NFL. The bruising number Buffalo did on Aaron Rodgers was reminiscent of the three straight beatings Denver gave Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Newton this postseason. In a sport that unfairly favors the offense with every rule change, the Broncos proved at Levi's Stadium defense can still win championships.
Yet Buffalo's aggressive 2014 playbook was replaced with one full of dropping, disguising, confusion. Unpredictability, not upfield abandon, became the Bills' focus.
Maybe Ryan is “one of the best defensive minds in the game today” as one of his former linebackers, Bart Scott, said in an impassioned defense. He'll get a chance to prove it this season, twin brother at his side.
Sunday night should be bittersweet for Western New Yorkers. Phillips fit his 3-4 scheme around the Broncos’ talent — not the other way around — and this "D" carried a broken-down Peyton Manning to a Super Bowl title.
“Coaching is adapting to what your players can do, not what you can think of,” Phillips said earlier in the week. "Are you too rigid that you can only play one scheme one way? I've just never coached that way."
It’s been a long road for Phillips, seven jobs since Buffalo fired him in 2000 to be exact. As a head coach, he was the one throwing his arms up in agony during the Music City Miracle, the one overseeing the Terrell Owens-led circus in Dallas. Fired along with Gary Kubiak’s staff in Houston after the 2013 season, Phillips wanted to continue coaching and nobody would hire him.
Such silence seems insane in retrospect: Phillips’ defenses have finished in the top 10 nine of his last 10 seasons.
“He changed everything up to where we could be more aggressive," Ware said, "and get to the passer but also create a lot of havoc.”
So about an hour after his players did confetti snow angels on the field, Phillips was still on top of the world. He could soak in the moment with a smile. Finally. Something else happened two years ago, too.
His father, former NFL coach Bum Phillips, passed away.
Wade has an idea what he’s thinking right now.
“We finally kicked the door in,” Phillips said. “I wanted my Dad to be proud of me. And he was proud of me. I know he’d be proud of me in this moment.”