A Long Conversation With Wade Phillips

Ryan Glasspiegel
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RG: Prior to this season you’d been working in football pretty much non-stop since 1969, and in the NFL since 1976. There was just one year off in-between. How much football are you watching this season?

WP: Pretty much every chance I get. Of course I’m probably watching more college football, too. I watch all the games. My wife goes crazy when I watch all eight of them at once. She has to go in the other room.

RG: So you’re watching the DirecTV Game Mix channel? Or, do you watch Red Zone? 

WP: I’ll do both. I also go on the other channels and watch the games themselves. And I record some of the games, and go back in case I want to see the Texans, Cowboys, or Redskins — teams I’m interested in — I’ll record their games and look at them again.

JL: We have the $70 NFL.com package where you can see the coach’s tape. Do you do that or just watch what’s available on TV?

WP: I just watch the TV version, which is hard to watch. You just can’t tell what’s going on all the time. I have a pretty good feel for it, though. I can tell pretty much what they’re doing even though they just follow the football on television. They don’t show the defense that much. If I get back into coaching next year, I’ll go back and watch the coach’s tape, just like I did at every place I’ve been. I’ll go back and look at every film they have — all their players and all the team’s.

RG: How often do you see announcers say something that you think is incorrect?

WP: Most of the time. Quite a bit, really. They don’t know a whole lot about it. They really don’t know zones from man-to-man. I’m talking about defenses. Some of the offensive stuff is pretty clear, but even then I’ll see a lot of mistakes as far as what they’re seeing, what’s happening, who’s fault it is — all those things.

RG: Switching gears a bit, the NFL was always super difficult to pick on a week-to-week basis, but it seems like that’s been even more the case this season. One thing announcers have been bringing up the last few Septembers is that the collectively bargained lightened offseasons have resulted in sloppy early play. Do you think that’s been the case, and has that served to sort of equalize good and bad teams a bit more?

WP: I’m not sure. You still have a pretty strong offseason program. You still have a good while. With the Texans, we didn’t even have an offseason because of the work stoppage possibility, and we had a pretty good year. We didn’t get that many people injured, so I’m not sure that’s the case. Everyone wants to look for reasons for different things, but I don’t think anything’s been proven one way or the other.  

JL: Looking back, you’ve been a part of so many franchises and coached so many great players. At least five Hall of Famers on defense, and I may have been missing some, and then at least 5-10 more that are going to be under consideration as we go forward. Four defensive players of the year: JJ Watt, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Bryce Paup. What are the keys to identifying people like, say Paup, and putting them in a position to succeed?

WP: To me, that’s what coaching is. It’s not scheme, it’s what the players can do. If your scheme or whatever it is you have doesn’t allow the players — especially the great ones — to do what they do best, then you need to change. The better the player is, the more freedom we give him to do more things, because he’ll tend to make better decisions than other players. It’s not just about being more talented. We’ve always tried to do that.

JL: What are some players that stand out that maybe the fan today doesn’t know? I’m looking at Robert Brazile, for example, who isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

WP: My first couple years with the Oilers, I coached Elvin Bethea and Curley Culp, who are both Hall of Fame defensive linemen. Their success at the time made me think I was a pretty good coach. Whatever I called, they could do. Maybe I wasn’t such a great coach, now looking back, but they were some great, great players. Robert Brazile was just a dominant player at that time. And don’t forget Rickey Jackson, who I had in New Orleans. We drafted him. He’s in the Hall of Fame and was a great, great player. Also, Karl Meckenburg in Denver. He was a linebacker that could play defensive line, and you just don’t find many guys that can do that. I’ve been lucky to coach a lot of good players.

JL: You mentioned you’ve been watching a lot of college football this year. You and your father were part of picking Rickey Jackson in the second round of the 1981 Draft. You were part of the group that identified Steve Atwater as a first round pick in Denver, and obviously JJ Watt a few years ago in Houston. What was your role in evaluating those players in the Draft process?

WP: With players, you give your opinion and then whoever’s in charge of the Draft decides how good your opinion is. With Rickey, my Dad sent me up to watch him and Hugh Green at Pittsburgh, and we obviously ended up picking him. With JJ, half the group didn’t want him and half the group did. Our side won, and it turned out great.

RG: What did you see on Watt’s film from Wisconsin that made you want him on your team?

WP: A few of us stood up strongly for him at 11th overall — there was some dissent — but I don’t think any of us thought at the time that he’d be the dominant player that he’s been. We thought he was gonna be good. What we saw is that he had a great feel for where the football was. He had more pass breakups than any of the defensive backs. He knocked down so many passes. He’s a great athlete, and I think people kind of miss that. They worked him out at the combine as a linebacker, and he moved pretty well there, and he has tremendous acceleration. We liked him a lot, obviously, and after his first year I told everybody he was gonna be in the Hall of Fame.

RG: You’ve seen and coached some of the best football players of all-time in your life. We don’t know what’s going to happen going forward with health and whatnot, but where does the level Watt’s been playing at for the past few years stack up against the peaks of other greats?

WP: Well, I said two years ago that he had the best season any defensive lineman’s ever had. He had over 20 sacks. He had I-don’t-know-how-many hits on the quarterback, tackles for a loss, batted passes, tackles, assists. He had all of those things in one year that nobody’s ever done. I still believe it was the best year anybody’s ever had, because he had the combination of six or seven things and excelled in all of them. He makes some of the greatest plays that I’ve ever seen, and of course I saw Bruce Smith and Reggie White, who were fantastic too. He’s got a real knack for the football, and he’s consistent at doing it. He’s a tremendous guy and a hard worker and he’s going to keep it up because of his work ethic.

JL: You ran some variation of the 3-4 for most of the past 30+ years. Very few 3-4 defensive ends get 20 sacks like Watt did. Was that a case of you adjusting your scheme a little bit for him?

WP: I had Bruce Smith in the 3-4, too. When you get guys like that you let them do more things. JJ’s really smart, so certain formations he could start one way and other formations we let him line up differently. We let him go. We let him take off. We didn’t want him just standing on the line playing the old two-gap defense. That’s what you do with the great ones. You let them instinctually go where they think the play’s going to be. Rush the passer when they think it’s a passing down, and vice versa when they suspect a run. You give them a lot more leeway. It doesn’t matter what defense you run. It’s the players involved in it, and what you let them do.

RG: So you think that Watt has a better instinctual idea of what the offense is going to do than most other players you’ve seen?

WP: Yeah, he’s got great instincts. He’s got great feel for where the ball is. When he rushes the passer, he sees the quarterback. That’s what the real great ones do. When the quarterback steps up in the pocket, he’ll cut up underneath it. He sees where they’re going. Some other guys are rushing the guy they’re against, you know, just trying to beat the tackle or the guard, and they don’t ever see the quarterback. Watt sees him. The other thing he does is — and some coaches would just cringe — is he runs around the block. An old axiom of coaches is to never do that. But when Watt does it, he makes the play, and so you let him do that. Most players can’t, and so a lot of old coaches would just go crazy at Watt for it. The ones that can’t do it? You tell them they’re never allowed to.

RG: You probably don’t want to comment about him specifically — if you, go right ahead! — but Jadeveon Clowney came out of college with a bit of a reputation as not being the most passionate player, and some of that has continued this season as he’s struggled with injuries and illness. In a general sense, what types of things would you do to motivate a player who has all the natural talent in the world, but may not LOVE playing the game of football as much as, say, JJ Watt?

WP: I don’t know very much about Clowney. I wasn’t there and haven’t been around him. I wasn’t involved in that. I don’t really know the kid, but I know he’s probably a good person because the Texans put an emphasis on making sure their players — especially their first round pick — have good character. I would expect, being around JJ, we trained them to play fast to the ball all the time and everybody on the defense played hard. We were in the top of the league every year on defense. Usually they follow what the other guys do, so I would be surprised if he doesn’t do that. JJ will get ON you if you don’t. He’s a leader. If he didn’t feel like a guy was giving everything he had, I think he’d tell him. Obviously the guy’s been hurt the whole time, so it’s hard to say what’s going on.

RG: So, speaking generally, if you had a player that you didn’t think was passionate, you would rely more on a player who’s a defensive team leader to light a fire under him?

WP: No, you talk to him. I think you be honest with the guy and show them on film. Show them going to the ball, and if they speed up? They weren’t going hard enough in the first place. You can show a guy on film exactly what went wrong. Some of them don’t know they’re not playing hard enough. It’s part of a teaching process, really, to get a guy to play with great effort.

We’ve used examples of, say, Robert Brazile. When I first started coaching, that was the great thing about him. He was 100 miles per hour to the ball every time. We showed everybody else that on film and said that this was how they all needed to play. And we did that with Brian Cushing when I came to the Texans. He played that way, and we showed everybody else. JJ saw that when he came in. I told them, “Hey, if everybody plays like this guy, we’re gonna do well.” And we did.

Some of it is just being honest with a guy and bringing him in. Some of it is making them run five yards every time as hard as they can in practice. You can teach players to practice playing harder, and I think that’s kind of been the secret to my team’s defenses for a long time. Everybody says their guys play hard, but I think there’s another level you can get to with players.

RG: Earlier this season, Mike Tomlin got a little bit offended about his reputation as a players’ coach. Is that a tag that you took similar issue with throughout your career?

WP: I don’t mind being a players’ coach as long as they do what you ask them to. That’s the big thing. I think it’s a compliment to be a players’ coach. You’re one because you’re helping them do well, not because you let them do whatever they want all the time. I’d rather play for someone I liked than someone I didn’t like.

JL: As you’ve no doubt seen, they’ve been calling a lot of illegal contact this year. Most of the rule changes in the past decade or so have negatively impacted defense. We’re seeing quarterbacks put up insane numbers. How did this affect your coaching?

WP: Well, we got the force-out rule turned in our favor. But, you’re right about all the other ones. It’s been that way for awhile. They’re calling it more and more, but it’s been going that way. Five-yard contact. You just figure out how they’re going to call it and you teach your players. Those are tremendously tough penalties when you give them a first down every time. It’s just something you work on, but it certainly makes it tough on the defense.

RG: Are there any other rule changes that you could envision that wouldn’t adversely impact player safety, but would help steer the game away from the path towards being Arena Football that it seems to be on?

WP: The thing that scares me is they’re really letting offensive guys block you while the ball’s in the air. I see Denver and New England players almost doing that by design. Last year, they let them do that on the goal-line. I just hate to see them working toward the college game. If you blitz in college, and then the offense blocks your other defenders downfield, they’ll kill you on those screens. I’m worried that the NFL is letting that get away from them a little bit, but they want scoring. It really is unfair to let these teams use a player to block a guy while another of their receivers is going to catch the ball.

JL: We’ve seen those offensive pass interference plays. It’s not just behind the line. They’re intentionally setting up routes where a guy runs into another defender. What rule change would you propose?

WP: It’s always been the case. Every year, they’ll call some of those. The receiver screen is the one they’re blocking on. If you’re covering a guy and then you get blocked, you’re in trouble. I’d say you shouldn’t be able to block a guy while the ball’s in the air. It doesn’t matter if he’s behind the line of scrimmage or not, but they’re letting them block people now like they do in college. I think they’re letting them get away with it too much now. It used to be that you couldn’t do it at all in the pros.

RG: Why do you think the league wants more scoring?

WP: People like offense. They recognize it. They like 30-20 more than 10-7. That’s just the nature of it. It’s television. That’s why football outsmarted soccer. Give seven points for a touchdown. In soccer you only get one. A 21-7 game is a 3-1 soccer game, but 21 sounds like a lot more points than three.

RG: One of the frustrating things about watching the game as a fan is when a penalty — for example, a 50-yard pass interference call — is dubious and has extraordinary impact on the game. Plays of much lesser magnitude are reviewable, but those aren’t, and that seems silly. Bill Belichick has come out and asked for every play to be reviewable, but for coaches to have the same amount of challenges per game. Are you on a similar wavelength there?

WP: Challenging everything might be a slippery slope. You could think about coaches challenging penalties that weren’t called, like holding or hands to the face, and there are borderline instances of that on almost every play. Should various penalties be offsetting? I think you could get carried too far with the challenges, and I think they’ve done a good job with what they have there. I don’t see too many bad, bad calls. While a 50-yard play can hurt you, you still have a chance to stop them.

RG: But you’d run out of challenges pretty quickly if you asked for a holding call on every play. You only get 2-3 per game.

WP: I’m not into too many challenges. Overall they do a pretty good job. I don’t know if pass interference is one that I’d be in favor of adding. They’d still have to interpret it. Whether you’re looking at the ball. And, speaking of that, when you’re running down with your back towards the ball, you still should have the right to your own space. When someone jumps into you, they call it on the defender, and I think that’s wrong. There’s a lot of different interpretations.

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