- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- Keith Brooking playfully ripped the imaginary monkey off his head coach's back while the final seconds ticked off the clock at the end of Wade Phillips' first playoff win.
Nice gesture, but nine months later, Phillips can still feel hot primate breath on the back of his neck.
"It's a gorilla on your back if you're a head coach in the NFL," Phillips said. "That's the way it is."
Phillips wasn't whining, just stating a fact. That sort of pressure is permanent in his business, especially when you work for an owner like Jerry Jones, who has made it clear that he expects his Dallas Cowboys to contend for a Super Bowl title.
During the news conference to announce Phillips' new two-year contract, which was earned in part by ending a franchise playoff win drought that spanned five head coaches, Jones also made it clear that the deal didn't necessarily assure job security. The contract is a financial commitment, not a guarantee that Phillips will remain at Valley Ranch through the 2011 season.
For that to happen, the Cowboys have to win. They have to win a lot and win late in the season.
That's fine with Phillips, who learned the harsh reality of NFL coaching life when he lost his first job in the league, fired along with his father/boss, Bum, after three consecutive seasons of 10-plus wins with the Houston Oilers.
Not that Jones is looking for reasons to get rid of a coach who has a 33-15 record in his three seasons with the Cowboys. Far from it. This might be the most comfortable Jones has been with a head coach since he grabbed the Lombardi Trophy from his old drinking buddy, Barry Switzer.
"What I do sense is our football team's confidence in Wade," Jones said. "I just think that they believe not only in what he's doing technically, which would be his involvement with the defense, but what he's doing through and with that with leadership.
"The biggest thing that happened here is how these players believe in him and look up to him as their head coach. That is something that is earned over a period of time, but he's earned it. This team has his stamp all over it."
Phillips proved last season that he can produce under extreme pressure. His team won its second division title in three seasons, rallying around him in December, when the discussion about whether Phillips would be fired reached a deafening roar, with the owner's weekly comments fanning the flames. His defense allowed the fewest points in the NFC, peaking at the end of the season.
It was Phillips' defensive mind that convinced Jones to hire him in the first place. In Jones' opinion, Phillips' defensive expertise has been the biggest factor in creating credibility for the coach, at least within the franchise.
Phillips might never shed his image of being a puppet for Jones, not as long as he's so willing to cede the spotlight to the NFL's most hands-on owner. But Jones is adamant that such a description doesn't fit Phillips.
Forget public perception for a moment. Phillips clearly cares little about that anyway, as evidenced by the way he kids about kissing up to Jones.
Jones wants you to know that Phillips is firm, passionate and persuasive behind closed doors about all matters related to football. It isn't hard to find proof.
Players such as Brooking and Igor Olshansky are Wade guys added in free agency. Phillips lobbied hard to hire special-teams coach Joe DeCamillis. His fingerprints are all over first-round picks Mike Jenkins and Anthony Spencer, whose development played huge roles in the Dallas defense causing Doomsday flashbacks down the stretch last season. And Phillips has had a hand in some of the high-profile departures from Valley Ranch in recent years.
"If anybody thinks that he won't bite, if anybody thinks that he will go along with an idea when he thinks there's a better way to do it, they're wrong about his style," Jones said.
"I'm 40 feet away, as you well know, so you're going to have the perception that that's got to be a yes man, that's got to be someone that will walk on eggshells. That is not the case. That has never been the case."
To his credit, Phillips never gets distracted by anything that doesn't directly affect football. He doesn't care if outsiders consider him soft. He doesn't sweat his job security. His approach is to just coach as well as he can until he's told to turn in his whistle.
"Consistency gives you longevity, and I think Wade is consistent in his approach every day," Brooking said. "He never gets too high; he never gets too low. He's very steady. That's very key in this league."
In other words, Phillips is boring, but the players buy into it. His blitz packages are the only exciting thing about him. His news conferences should be considered as potential cures for insomnia. And his pregame speeches won't remind anybody of Knute Rockne, either.
But boring has worked pretty well for Phillips so far. Philadelphia's Andy Reid and New England's Bill Belichick are the only active head coaches with at least 50 games of experience who have better winning percentages than Phillips (.600).
Of course, nobody will be satisfied if these Cowboys win only 60 percent of their games.
Pretty good isn't good enough for the gorilla.
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1dEric D. Williams