ATLANTA – The question began with a reference to Wade Phillips’ previous Super Bowl appearance. It happened after the 2015 season, when he was defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos.
However, when Phillips noticed the media questioner was from Buffalo, he saw an opportunity to do a some venting about a 19-year-old controversy from a wild-card playoff game in Tennessee.
“We didn’t get there in Buffalo, because what happened?” he said. Not waiting for an answer, Phillips added, “The Music City Mistake, where they threw a forward lateral.”
Some things have a way of balancing out. Maybe that was the case with the blatant pass-interference penalty that wasn’t called against Phillips’ Los Angeles Rams defense. The officials’ error did plenty to help the Rams to beat the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game and advance to Super Bowl LIII, the second of Phillips’ coaching career.
Don’t get Phillips wrong. He’s thrilled to be here. However, when you’re 71 years old and have been coaching in the NFL for 42 seasons with 10 different teams, you’re going to have some varied history.
Most of Phillips’ involves making bad defenses better and helping also-rans become playoff teams. It also includes the only Super Bowl ring he owns, from the Broncos’ 24-10 victory against the Carolina Panthers.
But there’s still that lingering bitterness from that last-second loss against the Titans, who returned a kickoff – after what was assumed to be the winning field goal – for a touchdown, thanks to a lateral that Phillips and most Bills supporters will always believe was illegal.
The Bills were the second of three teams for which Phillips was a full-time head coach; Denver and Dallas were the other two. He has been an interim head coach for three other teams. Mainly, though, he’s a master defensive coordinator.
Asked what he learned about himself after guiding the Cowboys from 2007 to 2010, Phillips said, “That I wasn't a very good head coach, and I'm doing good with some really good head coaches. I think I’m a pretty good defensive coordinator, so I’ll try to stay doing that.”
Phillips’ latest project is the Rams, who were 4-12 before Phillips arrived in in 2017 on the staff of dynamic 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay. Last season, they reached the playoffs.
Now, they’re playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time,” Phillips said. “Sean's done a tremendous job with a team that didn't have a winning record for I don't know how many years, and takes them to the playoffs the first year and now the Super Bowl this year. He's a wonderment.
“They play better under pressure than some of the teams I've had. Some games, we gave up too many points, but when it came down to the end of the game, you had to make a play, they made the plays. And that's what we've done throughout the season. You have to learn to win. People go a little bit on stats, but you really have to learn how to win as a team and as a defense, and I think these guys have done that.”
How much longer does Phillips want to continue coaching?
"This game for sure,” he said. “I enjoy it, I love what I'm doing. It's hard to walk away. But it's like players. It's hard to walk away, but at some time, they're going to finish playing, too. I think there'd be a point where you know. Or they know and get rid of me.”
That doesn’t appear to be happening any time in the near future.
McVay loves having Phillips around, first because he knows his star-studded defense is in excellent hands. The Rams have the NFL’s best defender in tackle Aaron Donald and a pair of highly talented cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Phillips has a way of pushing the right buttons to allow them and the rest of the defense to make an impact.
But McVay also likes having Phillips’ experience at his disposal.
“The thing that's so refreshing about Wade is that he's always so willing to share and he's got so many different things that he can draw on from all the success that he's had in this league,” McVay said. “It never feels like it's pushed on me. If you go to him and you seek out that advice, he's been so supportive to me.”
McVay appreciates the fact Phillips’ folksy personality, which comes through in his Texas twang and plainspoken manner, is the opposite of McVay’s high-strung demeanor.
In typical Phillips fashion, he arrived at the Super Bowl wearing a cowboy hat and the fur-trimmed overcoat that once was worn on the sidelines by his legendary football-coaching father, the late “Bum” Phillips. “I’m proud of my dad, and I know he’s proud of where we are because of the football part of it,” Phillips said.
Wade is active on Twitter, using the handle @sonofbum, and never hesitates to take an occasional jab at the opposition when the mood strikes him.
“He's got a great way about himself,” McVay said. “As you guys can see, he's a lot more laid back than I am. I'm a little bit tighter, so it's good to be around somebody like that that gives you a perspective.”
Phillips also has an amazing rapport with players who are much younger. He’s able to relate to them on a personal level that makes the years separating their ages seem inconsequential.
"I think he just wants to be in the know,” defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “When you feel like you're up to date on stuff, you can connect with your players. I think that's the biggest thing for him. It makes us connect with him. When we see him on Twitter and we see him on different stuff like that, trolling people, I think it's cool.”
"It doesn't really matter how old you are,” said Talib, who was part of Phillips’ defense that helped the Broncos win Super Bowl 50. “If you're passing knowledge and guys want to listen, guys are going to be all for it.”
Phillips’ approach is simple. Treat the players like men and they’ll usually act that way. He has never believed in yelling or complaining about mistakes. That, Phillips maintains, isn’t coaching. To him, coaching is about teaching, which means correcting mistakes rather than berating those who make them.
“I try to have fun with the players,” Phillips said. “But we work hard at what we do and they know that.”
Keeping things light is especially important this week, with the enormous pressure created by the NFL’s biggest game. The Rams don’t share the Patriots’ experience when it comes to being in the middle of the worldwide spotlight. And Phillips’ defense is tasked with finding a way to get the better of the greatest quarterback of them all, Tom Brady.
“You have a coach like that, you’re not stressed in moments like these,” Brockers said. “Big moments, he makes a little joke here and there to lighten up the room for us.”
Like this one about Brady’s age compared to his own.
“He and I are similar in that I’ve got a 1 in mine; it’s 71,” Phillips said. “But other than that ...”