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The Rams Have Let Go of Wade Phillips, the Defensive Sage Behind the Offensive Prodigy

Phillips, who has been running NFL defenses since before Sean McVay was born, was a key reason L.A.’s young coach succeeded early

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before Sean McVay interviewed with the Los Angeles Rams, he asked Wade Phillips whether he would be his defensive coordinator. Phillips laughed. This was January 2017, and McVay was 30 years old. But the Rams hired McVay, betting on the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. McVay immediately hired the then-69-year-old Phillips, betting on one of the league’s oldest defensive coordinators. Adding Phillips, who had been managing NFL defenses since before McVay was born, to the staff balanced out McVay’s lack of experience. The partnership immediately blossomed. They took over a team that had gone 4-12 in 2016 and went 11-5 in 2017 and made the playoffs. A year later, they made the Super Bowl. While McVay’s offense scored just three points in that game, Phillips’s defense held the Patriots to 13 points, their lowest point total in nine Super Bowl appearances this century. For all the credit McVay gets as an offensive wizard, he has been equally impressive as a manager. McVay, who will turn 34 later this month, has to handle big personalities who are only a few years younger than him, some quiet personalities who are a few years older than him, plus dozens of other players and coaches. McVay’s tenure has been so smooth in part because he brought on Phillips as a partner.

That partnership is no more. McVay effectively fired Phillips on Monday. Phillips confirmed on Twitter that the Rams told him they would not renew his contract, which is set to expire. He thanked the organization and said he wants to continue coaching.

Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reported that Rams running backs coach Skip Peete will also not return to the team. The Rams tied for no. 27 in yards per rush attempt this season after ranking no. 3 in 2018. This year, coaches reduced Todd Gurley’s workload while he managed a knee injury. Backup running back Malcolm Brown missed time with an ankle injury, and third-round rookie Darrell Henderson barely played.

The end of Phillips’s tenure in L.A. is not a surprise. Multiple reports in December suggested Phillips and the team were going to split this offseason, though Phillips dismissed them as rumors. Robinson speculated that the split may be occurring in part because of differing defensive philosophies. Phillips believes in his one-gap scheme that emphasizes players being good at their fundamental responsibilities. McVay may want flexible defensive approaches tailored to specific opponents. To fill the defensive coordinator job, McVay could promote assistant head coach and linebackers coach Joe Barry, who came with McVay to Los Angeles from Washington in 2017.

Phillips said he wants to continue coaching, and his résumé is impressive enough to make him one of the most attractive free agents on the market. In Phillips’s three years with the Rams, they ranked as the no. 6, no. 18, and no. 9 most efficient defense in football by Football Outsiders (though the unit had been in the top 10 in two of the three years before he took over). Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald won Defensive Player of the Year in each of Phillips’s first two seasons. Before joining the Rams, Phillips spent two seasons in Denver, where he had been hired to fix Denver’s defense after they lost Super Bowl XLVIII 43-8. In his second season, the Broncos defense led the league in efficiency and sacks and won Super Bowl 50 24-10. Outside linebacker Von Miller was named Super Bowl MVP.

Before the Denver job, Phillips spent three years as the defensive coordinator in Houston. His first year coincided with J.J. Watt’s rookie year. Watt’s first season was unremarkable, but after that Phillips told reporters that Watt would be a Hall of Famer. Watt, who read the story in the Houston Chronicle, was shocked. The next season, Phillips decided to let Watt break all the rules of Phillips’s defense, including running around blockers rather than outracing offensive linemen to Watt’s assigned space. Watt wanted to try being in two places at once, and Phillips decided Watt was so special that he could try.

“The first time you see it, you think about the old coaching adage, ‘You never go around the block,’” Phillips told Robert Mays for Grantland. “Well, you do when you can make the play.”

In 2012, Watt led the league with 20.5 sacks and won Defensive Player of the Year.

“[Phillips] gave me a lot of freedom to go out and play the game the way that I knew how to play it,” Watt told Mays for The Ringer in January 2019. “I’m forever thankful for that. That combination of the confidence and the ability to go out and play the game [my way], it helped turn me into what I became.”

Before Houston, Phillips was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys from 2007 until he was fired midway through 2010 and replaced by interim head coach Jason Garrett. Phillips, who also had head coaching stints with the Broncos in the early ’90s and the Bills in the late ’90s, was above .500 with every team he was a full-time head coach for.

Current head coaches looking for a defensive coordinator may see Phillips as an excellent candidate, but young head coaches who have not yet had Sean McVay’s success may see Phillips as an invaluable addition. Phillips got his first job working for his father, Bum Phillips, as a linebackers coach for the Houston Oilers in 1976. That means he has been coaching in the NFL longer than about one-forth of current NFL head coaches have been alive. His experience is a unique asset; a coach keeping up with the modern game at his age is even rarer. He has coached perhaps the three best defenders of this decade in Watt, Miller, and Donald. Under his tutelage, those players have won a combined three Defensive Players of the Year awards and a Super Bowl MVP. He’s also coached his way to two Super Bowl appearances, plus one win, in the last five years. At 72, Phillips is older than most defensive coordinators, but if Joe Biden (77), Bernie Sanders (78), and Elizabeth Warren (70) are all campaigning to replace Donald Trump (73) as president of the United States, Phillips isn’t too old to be an assistant coach for a football team. Phillips wants to keep coaching, and if a young coach calls him up this time, he probably won’t laugh.