ATLANTA — The wit and wisdom of Wade Phillips has known no bounds for years now, but the Rams veteran defensive coordinator just might have cemented his status as a national treasure when he rocked his dad’s trademark sheepskin coat and cowboy hat as he arrived here Sunday for his latest star turn on the Super Bowl stage.
The distinctive homage to his coaching-mentor father, the late Bum Phillips, was straight out of the ‘70s, and reminded us again how long Wade Phillips has been in and around the NFL. That wonderfully memorable two-tone coat, like Wade himself, has survived for decades and is making the most of its late-career renaissance.
For the 71-year-old Phillips, who finally won his family’s first Super Bowl ring three years ago as Denver’s defensive coordinator in the Broncos’ win over Carolina in Super Bowl 50, Bum’s coat and hat look served as a nod to where he has been, and all the ground that has been covered during his tenures with nine different NFL teams.
“My (step-mother), Debbie, sent it to us,’’ Phillips said. “She just wanted me to have it. I wanted to have it. They had been egging me on, and then I thought, ‘Well, you know I really should do something. If somebody’s going to recognize my dad, I’d love to do that. That’s why I did that.
“He wore it on the field,’’ said Wade of his father, who served as head coach of the Houston Oilers (1975-80) and New Orleans Saints (1981-85). “You can’t do those things any more without a (Nike) swoosh on it. He’s the last guy to be on the sideline with a cowboy hat.’’
Phillips said he didn’t know exactly how old the coat was, but the question of age has already surrounded him on several fronts this Super Bowl week. Partly due to his recent quip about 41-year-old Patriots quarterback Tom Brady — “Unfortunately, I get older but Tom Brady doesn’t,” and partly in reaction to New England coach Bill Belichick last week saying Phillips’ trusty 3-4 defensive formation hasn’t changed substantially in 30 years.
“Well, it’s been 40 years,’’ Phillips said at Monday night’s Super Bowl opening night media session. “I’ve been doing it 40 years. (The Patriots) can run a lot of different (offensive) schemes from game to game, and Bill Belichick is the same way on defense. They’re a lot smarter than I am. I have to run the same thing I’ve run for a long time.’’
Stuck in the past or don’t fix what ain’t broken? Whatever the breakdown between those two fault lines, Phillips’ Rams defense has gotten results for a long time in the NFL, and his latest showdown against Brady reminds us that both sides have had their successes head-to-head. Brady has faced a Phillips-coached defense nine times in his career, winning six of those matchups, with 21 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and just shy of 300 yards passing per game.
But as recently as the 2015 AFC Championship game in Denver, Brady and the Patriots were stymied, with No. 12 compiling a 48.2 completion percentage and a 56.4 passer rating that day (both for his second-worst ever showing in the playoffs). The key was the Broncos finding a way to hit him 16 times in that game.
“We had 24 hits on the quarterback in that game,’’ Phillips said, perhaps citing a different statistical standard for quarterback hits. “Those guys were a phenomenal defense, one of the greatest defensive teams of all times, I think. Especially in the playoffs when you beat Ben Roethlisberger, Brady and Cam (Newton in a row). All of them are top quarterbacks and even Carolina was averaging 40 points per game in the playoffs. But Tom Brady is Tom Brady. He’s big in the big moments.’’
Phillips loves to use his gift for self-deprecation, but he’s long been known as a crafty coach who can come up with inventive ways to best attack his latest opponent. His latest brainstorm?
“You know what I’m thinking about doing?’’ he said Monday night. “I’m thinking about getting an ear piece and listening to (CBS analyst Tony) Romo and then he’ll tell me what the play call is.. That way I’ll be ahead of the game, but that’s the only way you get ahead of Tom Brady.’’
While Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman made some waves last week when he said “age has definitely taken a toll’’ on Brady’s game, claiming “he’s definitely not the same quarterback he was,’’ Phillips for a change played a little defense in reaction to those bulletin board comments.
“I’m the one who got old. Tom Brady doesn’t seem to get any older,’’ Phillips said. “He doesn’t seem to age. I know I am. I look at the pictures. And the mirror.
“I have great respect for (Brady). He’s a tremendous player and a tremendous guy. (The Patriots) have run the ball more than they have previously, and they’ve run the ball effectively. But they’ve always had a quarterback, and he’s still playing the same way. He can beat you if it’s the last drive of the game or in overtime. He’s going to take it for a touchdown, that hasn’t changed at all.’’
Phillips clearly loves and trusts his star-studded Rams defense, which added the likes of cornerbacks Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Sam Shields, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. at various points in 2018. He said he knew Los Angeles had to get stronger in the secondary if it wanted to fight its way to Super Bowl LIII, but his defense has persevered through some struggles earlier this season and is playing its best ball of the season in the playoffs, as impressive performances against red-hot Dallas and New Orleans have proven.
“They play really well in the big moments, in tough situations,’’ Phillips said. “We’ve had four or five games this season where teams were scoring more than you wanted, but they stopped them in the last drive of the game or took the ball away. Under pressure they’ve really played well.’’
Blessed with something of a big personality himself, one that surprisingly produced near-cult-figure status at this late date in his career, Phillips said he was never wary of adding so much star power to his defensive roster.
“I’ll tell you what, you don’t remember the old days, but I was with the Oilers and almost everybody we had was a personality,’’ Phillips quipped. “Curly Culp, and all those guys. We’ve dealt with that throughout a long career.’’
In the game of football, Phillips has pretty much seen it all and done it all, and throw whatever you will at him, the man is comfortable in his own skin. Especially when he’s wearing some vintage sheepskin, in a blast from his coaching family’s storied past.