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The Wade Phillips All-Stars

The Wade Phillips All-Stars
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.


QB: John Elway, 1993 Broncos
RB: Marion Barber, 2007 Cowboys
WR: Eric Moulds, 1998 Bills
WR: Terrell Owens, 2007 Cowboys
TE: Shannon Sharpe, 1993 Broncos
TE: Jason Witten, 2009 Cowboys

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.


LT: Gary Zimmerman, 1994 Broncos
LG: Ruben Brown, 1998 Bills
C: Andre Gurode, 2009 Cowboys
RG: Leonard Davis, 2007 Cowboys
RT: Flozell Adams, 2007 Cowboys

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.


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.


CB: Mike Jenkins, 2009 Cowboys
CB: Terence Newman, 2007 Cowboys
FS: Steve Atwater, 1993 Broncos
SS: Henry Jones, 1999 Bills

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.


K: Nick Folk, 2008 Cowboys
P: Tom Rouen, 1994 Broncos
KR: Miles Austin, 2007 Cowboys
PR: Patrick Crayton, 2009 Cowboys

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:


24 comments, Last at 01 Aug 2013, 12:12am

21 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

Base offense: 11 Personnel

Peyton Manning 2012
Demaryius Thomas 2012
Steve Smith 2005
Muhsin Muhammad 2004
Jacob Tamme 2012 or Wesley Walls 2001 are the only options (Fox's history with TEs is shockingly bad)
DeAngelo Williams 2008
Ryan Clady 2012
Mike Wahle 2005
Ryan Kalil 2009
Orlando Franklin 2012
Jordan Gross 2008


Base defense: 4-3

Julius Peppers 2004 or 2006
Kris Jenkins 2002 or 2003
Brodrick Bunkley 2011
Mike Rucker 2003 or Elvis Dumervil 2012
Von Miller 2012
John Beason 2008
Wesley Woodyard 2012
Champ Bailey 2012
Rahim Moore 2012
Chris Harris 2012 / Chris Gamble 2005

Punter: Todd Sauerbrun (2001 or 2002)
Kicker: Probably whatever John Kasay season was best
PR/KR: Steve Smith (2001 or 2002)

I have to say, after last year, I have a hard time seeing any "All Star" team topping the John Fox All Stars. He'd had some pretty glaring holes in his roster, but 2012 filled almost all of them, netting him an MVP-caliber QB season, a third 1400 yard receiver, an All Pro left tackle, and almost an entire secondary. I don't have any great idea who would man the second safety position. I also cheated a little bit on the offensive line, moving Orlando Franklin from RT to RG (which many thought was his more natural position entering the league). Gamble vs. Harris was another good battle at the second CB position, but I ultimately decided to include them both- Harris as the starter who moves inside to the slot in nickel packages while Gamble comes in on the outside (much like Denver will likely use Rodgers-Cromartie this upcoming season).

Otherwise, this roster is STACKED. Like I said, you've got an MVP-caliber QB throwing to a trio of receivers who combined for 290 receptions, 4402 yards, and 38 touchdowns, and handing off to a back that averaged 5.5 yards per carry, led the league with 20 touchdowns, and didn't fumble a single time. You've got a pair of first-team AP All Pros bookending your tackle positions, and a second-team all pro at center. On defense, I cannot even fathom how an offense would cope with having to face Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, and Von Miller all at their respective 1st-team All Pro peaks. Elvis Dumervil might not even find himself blocked half the time. Add in some really phenomenal players with some All Pro awards of their own on the back end, such as John Beason and Champ Bailey, and PFF's favorite slot corner in Chris Harris. If it breaks the rules to include two different Steve Smiths (2001 as a returner, 2005 as a receiver), I'd gladly use the 2005 version of Steve Smith as a returner, perhaps mixed in with 2012 Trindon Holiday.

Like I said, I really have a hard time seeing any other coaching all star squad topping this one on either offense or defense.

4 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

The only interim player who might make this team is Morten Andersen, who capped off a Pro Bowl season by going 11 for 11 on field goals with 6 touchbacks during Wade's four-game stint with the 1985 Saints.

6 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

The 1993 Broncos didn't win the division. KC did. Denver lost to the Raiders in the final week of the season at the Coliseum (sadly I was there), then lost to the Raiders again the next week at the Coliseum in the WC game. The 1994 loss on Monday night to Montana and KC features the ultimate Wade Phillips Face. Well, maybe behind The Music City Miracle.

7 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

You went to the coliseum as a broncos fan? I'm amazed. I know everyone claims to have rabid fans, but the raiders really do take the cake. A friend of mine and his 80 year old father went to a Raiders game last year to cheer for the bucs. My friend got pelted with fries and soda and someone actually poured beer all over his dad. An 80 year old man still gets beer poured all over him. Simply amazing.

9 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

Broncos are a division rival, so it's a little crazier. I caught a seahawks/raiders game in 2010 at the coliseum and I didn't see anything like that; mostly just seahawks fans getting heckled.

(I think that game features DHB's career highlight, a 70 yard TD from jason campbell.)

In a related note, it's a travesty that Raiders don't get a home game every halloween.

12 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

Were the Raiders fans in LA anything remotely like they are in Oakland?

I'm picturing a train car filled with Raiders crazies, going south from Oakland, with the car sealed like Lenin's sealed train car that took him and his buddies from Zurich to Moscow.

13 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

I can't speak for Oakland but I distinctly remember being at a game in L.A. with my dad once up in the end zone and seeing 3 different fights going on at once in 3 separate areas. I also remember the time a Steelers fan was nearly beaten to death. That got some news.

14 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

Having been to two raider games - both times as a neutral fan - its pretty awful. Now obviously, its hard to make qualified indictments off of just two experiences, but still, it wasn't great. For one, the stadium is lousy. For another, the surrounding area of oakland is terrible imo(sorry if I'm offending any east bayers). I saw three fights break out, one just walking on our way to the seats, another between two people which ended up in a fist fight and them being kicked out. Why? because they wouldn't shut up about a holding penalty that called back a 20 yard run by McFadden. I can't even imagine showing up to those games as a broncos fan.

15 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

Whereas I went the to Raiders-Bears game early in the 1990 season, sat up in the endzone of the LA Coliseum and saw no trouble at all. However looking at the results from that year it was the week after the Steelers fan got beaten to death so probably everybody was on better behaviour (bigger police presence).

8 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

Simon Fletcher always seemed to me to be a pretty good player. I don't know that he was as good as his sack totals look, but he was a good pass rusher who wasn't terrible in other phases. He retired when I was ten, though. My father, who is not a Broncos fan, has always claimed that Fletcher was a great player who didn't get any credit because he played in Denver.

I didn't think Dennis Smith was any good by 1993, so I doubt that Pro Bowl honor was deserved.

I would have been tempted to go with 1993 Steve Atwater at FS and 1994 Steve Atwater at SS just for fun.

17 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

I believe it is still the case, though DeMarcus Ware did tie the record across the 2007-08 seasons. I tried looking it up and could find numerous articles from when Ware made his run that said that he tied the record and that his streak ended the next week, but I wouldn't guarantee that those are correct or that no one has passed it since. Ware also had a sack in a playoff game in the middle of his streak, so one could argue that his streak was in fact longer.

18 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

Both Fletcher and Ware still hold the sack record at 10 games.

Most consecutive games with at least 1 sack, 1982-2012:
10: Simon Fletcher, 1992 Week 11-1993 Week 3
10: DeMarcus Ware, 2007 Week 15-2008 Week 7
9: Bruce Smith, 1986 Week 11-1987 Week 6 (did not play replacement games)
9: Kevin Greene, 1997 Week 15-1998 Week 7
9: Dwight Freeney, 2008 Week 16-2009 Week 9
8: Andre Tippett, 1984 Week 10-1985 Week 1
8: Reggie White, 1986 Week 13-1987 Week 7 (did not play replacement games)
8: Reggie White, 1987 Week 9-1988 Week 1 (immediately after previous streak)
8: Simon Fletcher, 1991 Week 10-Week 17
8: Leslie O'Neal, 1992 Week 14-1993 Week 5
8: Lance Johnstone, 1998 Week 5-Week 13
8: Jevon Kearse, 1999 Week 10-Week 17
8: Tony Brackens, 2001 Week 9-Week 17
8: Rosevelt Colvin, 2001 Week 15-2002 Week 5
8: Jason Taylor, 2002 Week 9-Week 16
8: Shaun Ellis, 2002 Week 17-2003 Week 8
8: Robert Mathis, 2005 Week 1-Week 9
8: Jared Allen, 2011 Week 2-Week 10
8: Robert Mathis, 2011 Week 15-2012 Week 9 (DNP 3 games in 2012)

Though if you include half-sacks, Jevon Kearse holds the record at 12 games. Note that Fletcher tied his own then-record:

Most consecutive games with at least 1/2 sack, 1982-2012:
12: Jevon Kearse, 1999 Week 8-2000 Week 2
11: Shaun Ellis, 2002 Week 15-2003 Week 9
11: Jared Allen, 2010 Week 16-2011 Week 10
10: Simon Fletcher, 1991 Week 8-Week 17
10: Simon Fletcher, 1992 Week 11-1993 Week 3
10: Michael Strahan, 2002 Week 3-Week 13
10: DeMarcus Ware, 2007 Week 15-2008 Week 7
10: Lamarr Woodley, 2009 Week 10-2010 Week 2

20 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

What's wrong with "Backs and Receivers" instead of "Skill Players?" Both are just as well understood and one is much more accurate.

23 lilliput

Thank you for this article. That's all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something special. You clearly know what you are doing, you've covered so many bases.Thanks!

24 Re: The Wade Phillips All-Stars

Good article. One summation of Wade: He's an exceptionally good 3-4 defensive co-ordinator but is less than a mediocre head coach. His skill set does not translate. Not sure why, but it is a clear trend. Some coaches are just better co-ordinators than head coaches. (See: Norv Turner).