Phil Hansen watched the game on television and was nodding his head like anyone else who recalled Wade Phillips. The former Bills defensive end had been in the NFL for four seasons but played mostly a base defense before Phillips arrived with exotic blitz packages as defensive coordinator in 1995.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these are crazy, out-of-this-world blitzes. You’re going to bring a safety and corner?’ ” Hansen said Monday by telephone. “It was crazy stuff from different places. It was really easy and fun to learn because it worked. It took off from there. My eyes were opened.”
Phillips has opened a few eyes over his 38 years coaching in the NFL. Tom Brady’s eyes practically popped out of his head during the AFC Championship game. The Broncos’ defense attacked him from various angles, shutting down the Pats and carrying Denver into Super Bowl 50 with a 20-18 victory.
Over the next two weeks, you’ll be bombarded with different storylines between the Broncos and Panthers leading into the golden anniversary of the title game.
At the top of the list is Peyton Manning, who at age 39 will move past his boss, John Elway, and be the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl. Manning was all but washed up a month ago. Now he’s in the Super Bowl for the fourth time after beating Brady in the playoffs for the third time in five meetings.
The most compelling story to me, however, doesn’t involve Manning trying to earn his second Super Bowl ring. It’s about two other old sages, Phillips and Panthers special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, trying to win their first championships while standing on opposite sidelines.
Bills fans can always count on something reminding them about a time in which the standards were considerably higher than what’s accepted today. Phillips and DeHaven worked together when the Bills won their last playoff game, in 1999, and their dismissals signaled the start of a 16-year playoff drought.
Phillips, 68, is being hailed as a genius in Denver after the defense finished the season ranked No. 1 for the first time in franchise history. They were first against the pass, third against the run, first in sacks and fourth in points allowed. They had five defensive touchdowns this season.
People can talk about Manning and his experience all they want, but the Broncos wouldn’t have been near the Super Bowl without their success on defense. And to think Phillips was out of work last season before returning to Denver, which fired him as a head coach in 1994, to work under Gary Kubiak.
“He gave me my coaching acumen,” said former Bills linebacker John Holecek, who lives in Chicago and is one of the top high school coaches in the country. “There is no possibility I would be successful in coaching if I didn’t play for Wade. He was so good with the X’s and O’s and the flexibility of his 3-4.”
DeHaven, 66, is a different story. He has been revered for his work on special teams throughout his career. He took a leave of absence from the Panthers this season and returned to Buffalo to battle prostate cancer. You don’t last three decades in the NFL without being near the top of your profession.
Combined, that’s 68 years of coaching experience without either winning a championship. The Panthers are considered the favorite in Super Bowl 50, but anyone who has coached in Buffalo knows games don’t always go as planned. And that brings me back to their demise with the Bills – and the Bills’ demise that followed.
Phillips earned a reputation for being a better coordinator than a head coach, but he was a good head coach in Buffalo. He had a 29-19 record over three years after replacing Marv Levy and was the last head coach to leave the Bills with a winning record. He was gone after finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs in 2000.
See, once upon a time, going .500 was viewed as failure in Buffalo. After so many losing seasons since Phillips’ departure, it has been held up as an achievement.
The Bills’ defense was ranked in the Top 10 five times during Phillips’ six-year tenure as coordinator and head coach. His record wasn’t the issue. The end for him came when he refused to fire close friend Ronnie Jones, the man hired after DeHaven took the fall following Buffalo’s last postseason game.
Kids, ask your parents about Home Run Throwback.
Jones’ special teams made fans want to throw up. They became a local punchline after Phillips admitted he didn’t have a capable punt returner, leading to this classic line about Chris Watson: “We don’t have a punt returner. We have a punt catcher.” Phillips refused to fire Jones, so Ralph Wilson kicked both to the curb.
Phillips was too nice to be a head coach, but he knew defense and adapted to his personnel. He had five Top 5 defenses in 11 years as a coordinator before he became head coach in Denver. His defenses were in the Top 10 seven times in his last eight seasons as coordinator in Dallas, Houston and his second stint in Denver.
And he was masterful Sunday against Brady and the Pats. Denver shut down the best quarterback in NFL history the way the Bills did in their second meeting this year. They took Brady out of his rhythm with an aggressive approach that resulted in 23 hits on the quarterback. It worked.
A week from Sunday, Phillips or DeHaven will leave Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara with a Super Bowl. Twenty years have passed since they were on the same Bills’ staff that won a playoff game. Sixteen seasons have passed since they parted ways after the Bills’ last playoff game. Something tells me that storyline will be overlooked.
“I loved both coaches,” Holecek said. “It’s a shame that one play defines that era. Even the next year, we weren’t that bad. I thought Bruce was an excellent coach who was very professional and is doing the same things. And, obviously, I loved playing for Wade. His system is successful on any level.”