Commentary

Wade Phillips learned from his mistakes

Updated: October 2, 2009, 1:21 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

Wade Phillips' tenure as the Denver Broncos' head coach didn't last long, but he learned some valuable lessons during those two seasons.

The educational experience began with a basic business gaffe. After 17 seasons as an NFL assistant, Phillips was so eager to become a head coach that he accepted owner Pat Bowlen's offer without negotiating or even reviewing the deal's details. He realized that wasn't a wise move when he asked a Broncos staffer how much extra income he'd make from his weekly radio and television appearances and was told they were part of his contract.

"They put the contract out there and said 'Sign it,'" Phillips said. "I didn't read it. I just signed it. So that was my first mistake."

Phillips can laugh about the situation now, as he prepares to face the Broncos as a head coach in a non-preseason game for the first time.

There was no bitterness in the voice of the Dallas Cowboys' head coach as he stood in a Valley Ranch hallway and discussed his brief time as the Broncos' boss, during which Denver went 16-16 with one playoff appearance. The only hint of defensiveness came when Phillips kidded about learning the importance of keeping the quarterback healthy, noting that John Elway missed some games during Denver's 7-9 campaign in 1994, after which Phillips was fired.

By no means does Phillips believe he did a poor job in Denver after being promoted from defensive coordinator to replace Dan Reeves. Yet Phillips doesn't hesitate to pinpoint his biggest problem: He did too much delegating. He regrets giving up control of the Denver defense.

He gets no argument from Charlie Waters, the former Cowboys star safety who served as Phillips' defensive coordinator with the Broncos. Waters said once Phillips became the head coach, he never again stepped foot in a defensive meeting room in Denver. The Broncos had the NFL's 19th-ranked defense in 1993, then dropped to 28th overall in 1994.

"I really thought I was going to get more out of Wade helping me, or I wouldn't have taken the job," said Waters, who worked under Phillips the previous four seasons as a secondary coach. "That's the mistake he made. I think I could have done a really good job over time, but I wasn't quite ready for it.

"It's just unfortunate for him that he had to go through my growing pains."

As far as Phillips' job security goes, it really didn't matter how the Denver defense performed or whether the Broncos returned to the playoffs in 1994. Mike Shanahan was the only reason Bowlen needed to fire Phillips.

Phillips said he learned well after the fact that Shanahan, who had two stints as the Broncos' offensive coordinator, turned down the job before it was offered to Phillips.

"Sooner or later, Mike Shanahan was going to come back there and they were going to do it the other way," Reeves said. "That's my opinion. Wade was kind of the interim coach."

Fair or not, it's impossible to argue that Bowlen exhibited poor judgment by choosing Shanahan over Phillips. Shanahan, who is widely considered one of the top available head coaching candidates after being fired last winter, went 138-86 in 14 seasons in Denver. After drafting Terrell Davis, finally providing Elway the support of a great running game, the Broncos won Super Bowls in Shanahan's third and fourth seasons.

"The results were great," Phillips said. "Could I have done it? I don't know, and I don't care really. It's gone … That's the way I live. I don't look in the past except to try to learn from the past."

After leaving Denver, Phillips vowed that he'd be heavily involved in the defense if he got another head coaching opportunity. That happened a few years later in Buffalo, which ranked sixth, first, and third in total defense during his three seasons as head coach. The Bills went 29-19 (0-2 in the playoffs) in three seasons under Phillips and haven't qualified for the postseason since.

"The longer you are a head coach, the more you learn," said Reeves, who remains a close friend of Phillips and agreed to join his Cowboys staff in an advisory role only to have the deal fall apart due to a contractual disagreement with owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "I don't care who you are. Everybody talks about Bill Belichick. He learned a lot from his first job. Wade learned from that first one, then he moved on to Buffalo. Really and truly, it was his loyalty to his [assistant] coaches that got him fired there."

The Cowboys have had top-10 defenses in Phillips' two seasons in charge, although his involvement is a somewhat complicated subject.

While doing his due diligence during the Cowboys' most recent coaching search, Jones talked to several people who had been around Phillips in his previous head coaching stops. One of those was Waters, who advised Jones that he should absolutely hire Phillips with the stipulation that he would run the defense.

"There's no reason why he can't do that and be a head coach," Waters said. "He doesn't need to worry about the offense. Just tell the offense not to turn it over too much."

The Cowboys implemented Phillips' 3-4 scheme and his defensive philosophies when he was hired in 2007. He had major input on game plans and veto power on all play calls. However, Brian Stewart was the defensive coordinator and called the plays -- until Jones demanded Phillips take over those duties after a lopsided loss to the previously winless Rams last October.

Stewart, who considered Phillips a mentor and had followed him from San Diego to Dallas, was fired days after the Cowboys' disappointing 2008 season ended. The Cowboys never hired a replacement, instead making Phillips the NFL's only head coach/defensive coordinator.

There is no doubt that Phillips -- whose .590 winning percentage (72-50) ranks third among active coaches behind New England's Belichick and Philadelphia's Andy Reid -- is in charge of every facet of the defense this season.

Phillips read the contract he signed with the Cowboys. He's well aware that it expires at the end of the season. He'd like to keep this job, so he's given control of his defense to the coach he trusts the most.

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