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Defensive plan in ’91 AFC title game did plenty to convince Bills to hire Wade Phillips

By Wade Phillips with Vic Carucci

This is the first of three excerpts from the book, Son of Bum: Lessons My Dad Taught Me About Football and Life, by Wade Phillips with Vic Carucci.

After the 1994 season, the Bills let go of their defensive coordinator, Walt Corey, and wanted me to take his place on the staff of their Hall of Fame head coach, Marv Levy.

The main reason for their interest was how well our defense had played against them in that 1991 AFC Championship Game in Buffalo when I was the Broncos’ defensive coordinator. That was one of the first things John Butler, the general manager, told me when he offered me the job.

The Bills won, 10-7, but their offense, which was one of the most explosive in the league, scored only three points. They had Jim Kelly at quarterback, running that no-huddle attack with fellow future Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas at running back and Andre Reed and James Lofton at wide receiver. Yet, their only touchdown came on Carlton Bailey’s 11-yard return of an interception of an Elway pass. They finished with only 213 total yards (including a mere 109 through the air) to our 304, and had only 12 first downs to our 20.

We had a pretty good game plan to take away some of the things the Bills’ offense did. For instance, every time they split Thurman out from the backfield, we blitzed one of our safeties, usually Dennis Smith, and that gave them real problems because there was no one in the backfield to block him. What the Bills did was pick you apart by calling plays at the line of scrimmage, based on what Jim and his receivers and linemen saw from your alignment.

With great quarterbacks and great offenses, you’ve got to come up with some things they haven’t seen, so we changed up our coverages a little bit and did some disguising – we showed a coverage before the snap that we wanted them to think we were playing and then changed to the actual coverage we were going to play right after the snap. We just mixed them up a little bit.

By us bringing an extra pass rusher a lot of the time, they didn’t have as much protection as they normally would and we were able to pressure Jim to throw the ball faster than he wanted to. We had a really talented defense, too, so that was a big part of it.

The Bills went 10-6 and made the playoffs in each of my first two years in Buffalo. They were starting to decline a bit from the team that made four Super Bowls in a row, but the defense had some good players, such as Bruce Smith, one of the best players I ever coached besides Reggie White.

They had two very different playing styles. Reggie was all about power, while Bruce was a great athlete. He could have played tight end or whatever. In fact, he played tight end in practice sometimes. He was the kind of guy that made you say, “Wow!”

Bruce was so quick and so athletic. What he did really well was just bend, getting low enough that even as tall as he was at six foot four, he could beat a guy around the corner before the guy could get his feet in front of him. He could just go under their hands. They’d try punching at him and he’d duck and go around them.

It was like watching an Olympic runner going around the curve perfectly and then running down the straightaway right to the quarterback.

He also had a great feel for what offensive tackles tried to do to block him. If they overset, lining up with an eye toward getting in front of him outside, then he could beat them inside. But he was the best ever at just rushing around the outside corner.

He was the most consistent, too. He was in tremendous shape all the time. A lot of that was because the Bills had one of the all-time greatest strength and conditioning coaches in Rusty Jones, who had all of the players following diets and training that emphasized lowering body fat. The players would actually compete with each other to come to training camp with the lowest body fat.

The amazing thing with Bruce, though, was that he almost never practiced in camp. It seemed like he was recovering from an operation every year, so he was always kept out of practice. One year he didn’t practice the whole camp, except for some individual drills, and didn’t take one snap in the preseason. We played the Giants in the first game of the 1996 regular season, and Bruce wound up being on the field for 85 plays.

The 85th came in overtime, when he sacked the quarterback and forced a fumble that we recovered to set up the winning field goal.

This excerpt is printed with the permission of Diversion Books. For more information, please visit

Next: Negotiating with Ralph Wilson went beyond contracts.

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