by Tom Gower
Three years ago, we started a series on "coaching all-stars," the best player-seasons in the history of some of the NFL's best or most famous coaches. For this latest installment, we're looking at Wade Phillips.
Phillips has coached in the NFL every season but one since he broke into the league in 1976. His early career growth and advancement looks like a tale of nepotism: played collegiate football as a linebacker at the University of Houston, where his dad Bum was the defensive coordinator; first collegiate coaching job at Oklahoma State, where Bum was a defensive assistant; first NFL job with the Houston Oilers, where Bum was the head coach; first NFL coordinator job in New Orleans, where Bum was the head coach; and, finally, first NFL head coaching job in New Orleans, following Bum's resignation late in the 1985 season.
That 1985 season was the last time he worked under his dad, though. In that time, Wade has been hired as a head coach three times, served another interim stint, and served as the defensive coordinator for seven other teams, meaning he has now held that position for one-quarter of the teams in the NFL. How do you become a defensive coordinator that often? Two ingredients seem to be the key. First, he has a pretty reasonable track record of success, with top five finishes by DVOA in Denver, Buffalo, and Houston -- not to mention big improvements his first seasons in San Diego and Atlanta. Second, he keeps getting defensive coordinator jobs by losing head coaching jobs, mostly because he kept losing early in the postseason as a head coach, including as a division-winner playing at home. Infamously, he kept playing Rob Johnson over Doug Flutie, notwithstanding Johnson's unadjusted sack rate of over 20 percent in 1998. Buffalo paid for it in perhaps the worst-managed NFL playoff game in recent memory, the 1999 Bills-Titans clash that was decided by the Music City Miracle. That game featured six Johnson sacks on 28 dropbacks, including one for a safety.
Phillips' first permanent head coaching job came in Denver in 1993, following four seasons as the Broncos' defensive coordinator. The Broncos won the division, then lost in the playoffs, and he was fired after going 7-9 the next year. He went to Buffalo as the defensive coordinator, posted three top-ten seasons by DVOA to earn the head coaching job, and made it three seasons as head coach before he was fired after an 8-8 season in 2000. After a year away, he spent two seasons in Atlanta as defensive coordinator, ending with his second interim stint after Dan Reeves was fired late in 2003. Three years in San Diego as defensive coordinator were followed by four years as head coach in Dallas, ending with a midseason firing in 2010. He has now been defensive coordinator of the Texans the past two seasons.
All told, it is a very complicated resume, and this introduction should be considered just a brief summary of his very interesting and hard to summarize career. For the purposes of this column, I am looking only at the years he was a permanent head coach. Those teams are: the 1993 and 1994 Denver Broncos, the 1998 through 2000 Buffalo Bills, and the 2007 through 2010 Dallas Cowboys. After he eventually retires, we will put together a Best of Wade Phillips the Coordinator Defense and let opposing teams figure out how to deal with both J.J. Watt's 2012 season and Reggie White's 1987 campaign, when he had 21.0 sacks in just 12 games.
Doug Flutie had a nice year in 1998 with 928 DYAR and the fifth-best DVOA in the league, but the choice at quarterback comes down to Elway and Tony Romo. Elway edges out Romo's 2009 season, 1,438 DYAR to 1,432. Both players finished seventh in the league in DVOA; Romo also finished seventh in DYAR, while Elway finished first. The third-best season is probably Romo in 2007, where he had 1,191 DYAR, fourth-best in the league, and finished sixth in DVOA.
Running back was a surprisingly big challenge. Getting to 1,000 yards is a commonplace achievement in the current NFL, but Antowain Smith in 1998 was the only Wade-coached back to reach the mark and his DVOA was a mere 0.1%. Barber had 100 more DYAR, finished fourth in DVOA, and had a very respectable 984 yards.
Wide receiver was pretty easy. Moulds finished first in both DVOA and DYAR in 1998. Along with Mike Williams in 2010, he is one of only two players in the DVOA Era to average at least 20 yards per catch on 60 or more receptions in a single season. Owens had 1,355 yards and 15 touchdowns and finished second in DVOA and fifth in DYAR. No other season was particularly close.
I was not sure how I should or would handle how Wade's team lined up. I considered playing Sam Gash at fullback, but decided that I could not send either Sharpe or Witten to the bench. Sharpe had 358 DYAR, in case you're wondering whose record Rob Gronkowski broke in 2011 (Antonio Gates also had a 358 DYAR season, in 2010). I could have chosen literally any Witten season from Wade's tenure, since they were all pretty similar. 2007 is narrowly the best by DVOA and DYAR, but 2009 was good enough and gives Wade's second-best Cowboys team a representative.
*-"Skill players" is a convenient, widely-understood way to refer to these positions. Other NFL players are skilled, too.
The modern era of standardized gamebooks is marvelous, and lets us calculate things like directional Adjusted Line Yards. The older you go, the less you see of the seven directions, from left end to right end, and the more you see of things like "wide left," "wide right," and "up the middle" only, or even just "sweeps." Sweeps which direction, you wonder? An excellent question, and one which you would have to track down a copy of the game film to answer. I do not know exactly how good Zimmerman's 1994 season was. Adams, who played left tackle, was a lock, thanks to All-Pro consideration from Dr. Z's and more conventional sources, though we were more sanguine in Pro Football Prospectus 2008 because of 14 penalties. It is possible I am overrating Zimmerman's 1994 season and should have let Adams play the left side and sorted through a hazy muck to find an argument for an actual right tackle.
For the interior of the line I used a mix of leaguewide acclaim and directional Adjusted Line Yards. Davis had a great season in 2007 and made the $49 million contract the Cowboys gave him seem totally justified; that would eventually change. Brown was a nice player and made eight consecutive Pro Bowls from 1996 through 2003. Gurode's postseason honors may have come a bit on the coattails of his teammates, but the Cowboys were reasonably effective and I do not recall enough of Jerry Ostroski from Buffalo to make a case in his favor.
DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN
DE: Marcellus Wiley, 2000 Bills
NT: Jay Ratliff, 2009 Cowboys
DE: Bruce Smith, 1998 Bills
OLB: Anthony Spencer, 2009 Cowboys
ILB: Sam Cowart, 2000 Bills
ILB: Karl Mecklenburg, 1993 Broncos
OLB: DeMarcus Ware, 2008 Cowboys
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Phillips is a pretty dedicated 3-4 coach known for lining up his outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage for a 5-2 look, so we will line up our defense that way. Smith was a lock at one defensive end spot, and 1998 was the better of his two seasons under Wade. The Bills' Adjusted Sack Rate actually improved after he left, though, thanks in part to Wiley's 10.5 sacks. Honorable mention at defensive end goes to Shane Dronett in 1993, personal favorite Phil Hansen in Buffalo, and Chris Canty in 2007. Wade has had two different types of nose tackles; the traditional 3-4 Very Large Man, personified by Ted Washington in both Denver and Buffalo, and the smaller penetrator, personified by Ratliff. Given modest Mid/Guard Line Yards by both franchises for which ALY is available, Ratliff's pass-rushing ability earns him the nod.
The first outside linebacker was straightforward: pick Ware's best season. I chose his 20 sack season when the Cowboys led the league in Adjusted Sack Rate. For the second one, I chose between Spencer and Greg Ellis in 2007. Ellis had 12.5 sacks compared to Spencer's 6.0, but Spencer had 29 hurries and 19 quarterback hits as opposed to eight and one, respectively. Without the ability to add context, I was not sure how much to credit Simon Fletcher's 13.5 sacks in 1993. Mecklenburg, however, gives me a representative from that much-improved Broncos defense, with his 9.5 sacks, while Cowart made the Pro Bowl and was an honorable mention for Dr. Z as a tackling machine.
Conventional measures had Newman as a lock, as he made the Pro Bowl and Dr. Z's All-Pro team. Our charting numbers were more equivocal, putting him 52nd in Success Rate and 29th in Average Yards per Pass. Subjectively, we rated him in PFP 2008 as very good, which is good enough for me. Jenkins' charting numbers in 2009 were better. 1993 was Tyrone Braxton's last year as a starting corner (he would eventually move to strong safety), Denver's pass defense in 1994 was not good enough for me to name Ray Crockett, and Antoine Winfield only started 11 games in 2000, his second year and Wade's last in Buffalo.
Free safety came down to Atwater and Ken Hamlin in 2007 and could have come out either way. At strong safety, Roy Williams is the poster child for why I am loath to rely solely on Pro Bowl appearances for seasons I do not remember well. Was Dennis Smith's 1993 trip to Hawaii really deserved? Jones was a solid player for a number of years and gives us a representative from 1999's 11-win Buffalo team.
Ah, Wade Phillips' bete noire. His teams finished in the bottom ten of special teams DVOA five teams, bottoming out with the 2000 Bills at -15.4%, the worst special teams performance in the DVOA era by over 4.0%. The difference between the 2000 Bills and the second-worst team in DVOA history, the 1997 Seahawks, is the same as the difference between the Seahawks and the 27th-worst team.
In Wade's nine seasons as head coach, he had a below-average kicker by our number six times. Folk's 2008 season, when he had 7.9 points of FG/XP value, is clearly the best, enough so that I will overlook that he did not have a single touchback. David Buehler, who had an excellent year in 2009, can be the kickoff specialist. The 2000 Bills really could have used him (-31.0 points of kickoff value).
At punter, we have precisely two seasons of positive value to choose from. That Wade made it through the end of the season in 1994 serves as the tiebreaker for Rouen over Mat McBriar in 2010.
In the past we have only chosen a single return man, but Miles Austin finishing with positive value on kick returns in 2007 is about as impressive an accomplishment on a Wade Phillips team as Moulds leading the league in DYAR and DVOA. Cumulatively, no single Wade team finished with positive value on kick returns and only three finished with positive value on punt returns. Crayton, who had a very good year (10.7 points of punt return value), is about the only choice unless you like Dez Bryant's modest 2010 sample size.
For only nine seasons as a head coach, this is a pretty good team. You have a very good quarterback, two wide receiver seasons that are about as good as it gets, two outstanding tight ends that actually complement each other, a solid offensive line, and a plethora of pass rushers. Running back needs to be run by a committee approach, but the passing game is more than covered and should open up room on the ground. I do not love the secondary, but this is my fifth coaching all-stars piece and I have not loved a single secondary yet. If you could just get rid of special teams, you could have something special.
Previous coaching all-star teams: