A youth movement has swept through the NFL coaching ranks over the past several months. In January, the Bears hired then-39-year-old Matt Nagy as their new head coach, bringing in the former Chiefs offensive coordinator to replace 62-year-old John Fox. This offseason, the Titans (Matt LaFleur, 38) and Colts (Nick Sirianni, 37) both welcomed offensive coordinators under the age of 40. These decisions come on the heels of the success the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan (now 38) and the Rams’ Sean McVay (32) had during their debut head-coaching campaigns in 2017. When the youngest head coach in NFL history is named Coach of the Year, it opens the door for other teams to take similar hiring risks.
This generation of up-and-coming coaches has pushed NFL offenses to take inventive steps forward, challenging the status quo and encouraging a newfound sense of open-mindedness. It’s also called attention to the traits necessary for older coaches to stave off extinction. Look no further than McVay’s staff, which features a septuagenarian defensive coordinator with more than 40 years of NFL experience. Wade Phillips started his professional coaching career in 1976, a decade before McVay was born. His mind-set and malleability have allowed him to keep pace with the game’s newest class of play-calling masters.
Phillips has followed the general principles of his father Bum’s 3–4 defensive scheme for most of his career. Yet whereas many variations of the 3–4 feature a relatively passive two-gap approach, Phillips has consistently adapted his version, to the point where it’s become defined by an attacking mentality that unleashes players along the line. Rather than require his ends and nose tackle to control the blockers in front of them, Phillips asks his front three to penetrate a single gap, similar to the role linemen fill in a typical 4–3. Phillips has said that he prefers this brand of defense because it allows for the aggression of a one-gap scheme while maintaining the 3–4’s trademark deception. “You’re normally bringing four pass rushers,” he told the Orange County Register last year. “In a 4–3, that means all the linemen. In a 3–4, that’s three linemen plus a linebacker, but you don’t know which linebacker is coming. That causes some confusion and gives the defensive backs a better chance. Nowadays it’s all about stopping the passing game.”
The emphasis Phillips puts on slowing opposing aerial attacks is evident in both his defense’s stats and its roster construction. Last season the Rams finished third in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA and 21st in run defense DVOA, a byproduct of Phillips’s willingness to devote resources to the defensive backfield while turning its rushers loose after the quarterback. The talent he covets also reflects his preferred style in the secondary. During Phillips’s tenure in Denver, the Broncos deployed an aggressive style of man and pattern-match zone coverage that played to the strengths of a physical corner like Aqib Talib. Now Talib is reunited with Phillips, since the Rams acquired him in a trade with Denver in March. That deal happened about two weeks after Los Angeles swung a trade for Chiefs star Marcus Peters. Those moves indicate that rather than becoming more conservative in the twilight of his career, Phillips is seeking out cover men who will lead his unit to take even more chances.
In Talib and Peters, L.A. now has a receiver-manhandling cornerback on one side and maybe the league’s most ambitious ball-hawking risk-taker on the other. Like every element of Phillips’s unit, the key to making this work will lie in the defense constantly being the aggressor, dictating how offenses play rather than the inverse typically seen around the league.
Phillips’s preference for man coverage and zone concepts that often look like man coverage means that members of his secondary regularly move stride for stride with opposing receivers. This aggressive approach requires a team to have a reliable safety or two on the back end. In 2017, Phillips found two unlikely standouts whose success further underscores the coordinator’s creativity and flexibility. The first was Lamarcus Joyner, a Florida State product who enjoyed the best season of his career in his first under Phillips. During Joyner’s first three years in Los Angeles, the All-American safety for the 2013 national champion Seminoles — was deployed by Jeff Fisher’s staff primarily as a nickel cornerback. Yet when Phillips arrived, he saw a player who deserved to be on the field a hell of a lot more than two-thirds of the time. Phillips moved Joyner to his natural position as a centerfield safety, and Joyner responded by picking off three passes and helping the Rams finish with the fifth-best deep-passing DVOA in the NFL. Los Angeles used its franchise tag on Joyner earlier this offseason.
Flanking Joyner at safety for most of last season was 2017 third-round pick John Johnson III, a relative unknown Phillips elevated to the starting lineup during the Rams’ Week 5 loss to the Seahawks. Johnson provided L.A. with instant impact as both a roving safety over the top and a run stopper close to the line of scrimmage. At 22, Johnson is now seen as an emerging star, an instinctive player who can fill a handful of different roles depending on the situation. Pairing a stacked group of corners with Joyner and Johnson gives the Rams the league’s most talented secondary going away. That formula exists because Phillips gambled on a rookie and experimented with a player who hadn’t been used a certain way in years.
Phillips’s strategy with defensive end Michael Brockers was similar to his decision with Joyner, only even more spontaneous. Brockers had spent his entire career as a nose tackle prior to Phillips moving the 302-pounder to defensive end before a Week 4 matchup with the Cowboys. Sliding Brockers outside gave the Rams more bulk against the run while not sacrificing much from their pass rush. It also unlocked opportunities for the rest of the unit’s front four, a quintessentially Phillipsian ploy.
It’d be irresponsible to break down what sets Phillips apart without mentioning Aaron Donald. In Donald’s first season with Phillips, he tallied 11 sacks and 91 total pressures en route to being named Defensive Player of Year. Giving Phillips credit for that may seem silly, considering Donald has been elected first-team All-Pro for three straight seasons. But watch how Donald did his damage, and the Phillips touch is clearly there.
As with any transcendent player, Donald’s ability to understand a defensive system — and then purposefully play outside it — leads to some of his most awe-inspiring work. Ducking into the wrong gap, selectively guessing on certain plays, and relying on his recovery skills can produce 5-yard losses that ruin drives. Still, it’s worth admiring how Phillips allows those plays to happen. Doing so may seem simple, but in the rigid world of the NFL, it’s a rarity. Phillips combines a keen eye for repurposing underutilized talent with a humility that frees up his superstars to freelance. Phillips took the same approach when J.J. Watt was collecting DPOY awards in Houston and when Von Miller was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for Denver.
Therein lies the true genius of Wade Phillips. He integrates miscast players into his well-known defensive concepts while looking the other way as great players ignore those same tenants. It’s a balancing act few coaches could hope to pull off, but one that Phillips seems to manage every season. It’s also why his teams have finished among the top seven in pass defense DVOA five times in the last six years.
The league’s recent coaching youth movement is really a move toward evolution. At age 71, Phillips embodies that to the same extent as many fresh-faced 30-somethings do. That’s why he’s stuck around for as long as he has, and it’s why this season’s Rams are primed to have one of the best defenses in football yet again.