Phillips busy tweaking away at Dallas' D

Wade Phillips has a passion for chess, but none of his outside interests compare with his passion for devising defenses.

Originally Published: February 22, 2007
By Matt Mosley | ESPN.com

IRVING, Texas -- It's no wonder Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips loves to play Texas hold 'em.

The man changes expressions once a decade, although that's based on circumstantial evidence.

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes in Phillips' Valley Ranch office talking about his plans for the team and his passion for chess.

The original plan was to find out what Phillips was like away from the field, and within minutes, he was opening up about his "one-gap" defense.

He's not promising the 61 sacks his defense had in San Diego last season, but he believes the Cowboys can be a lot more effective in that area. You may have heard that Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman had 17 sacks last season even though he missed four games to suspension.

But you probably hadn't heard that Phillips lived on Merriman St. when he was growing up in Port Neches, Texas.

Anyway, Phillips said that he has excellent "edge guys" in linebackers Greg Ellis and DeMarcus Ware, who led the team with 11½ sacks last season.

Phillips also talked about how he planned to utilize Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams, saying that he wouldn't use the Tampa 2 coverage that he's used some in the past because it exposes Williams' weaknesses.

"You have to get him to attack the line of scrimmage," said Phillips, who pointed to how he used Steve Atwater and Dennis Smith in Denver. "We'll blitz him from the outside and blitz him some up the middle. You'll see a lot more zone blitzes."

When not hiring former Cowboys and their siblings, Phillips has been breaking down film of last year's defense. He said the Cowboys were solid against the run, but their inability to pressure the quarterback led to a late-season slide.

"That's what I do well," he said of the pass rush. "And we won't make a lot of mental mistakes."

In talking to some of Phillips' former assistants, the one point they continue to drive home is that he puts players in position to succeed. He won't ask a defensive end like Marcus Spears to constantly try to win one-on-one battles.

Instead, he'll use a lot more slants to try and confuse opposing linemen.

On the other side of the ball, Phillips sounds convinced that former Cowboys quarterback Jason Garrett is ready to run the offense. Of course, it's not like he had any say in the matter since Garrett was hired before him.

Asked how difficult it would be for someone with only two years' coaching experience to run an offense and still have time to tutor quarterback Tony Romo at the same time, Phillips said, "I don't think he's going to have a problem at all."

Garrett inherits the fifth-ranked offense in the league and assistant head coach Tony Sparano, last year's play caller, will serve as his insurance policy.

When Romo's fundamentals started to break down in December, Bill Parcells was desperate for answers. One of his theories was that too many coaches had Romo's ear.

But on Thursday, Jerry Jones hired yet another blast from the past, Wade Wilson, who was banished from Valley Ranch when Parcells arrived in 2003. Wilson has been the Bears' quarterbacks coach since 2004.

By my count, Romo has now been instructed by Sean Payton, David Lee, Chris Palmer and Mr. Belding. He'll be an attentive student to Garrett and Wilson, but when he has a problem, he'll give Lee a call at the University of Arkansas.

Don't ask me how it happened, but we somehow transitioned from Garrett to Phillips' love of chess.

He taught himself how to play in eighth grade, but the only person he could find to play against was his legendary father, Bum.

"I think he stalemated me one time," Phillips said. "And he didn't even know it."

He eventually started playing computer chess and still manages to sneak in an occasional game.

But just when I was about to ask whether he felt like one of Jones' pawns, the Cowboys' public relations chief chased me out of Phillips' office.

Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com. He may be reached at matt.mosley@sbcglobal.net.

ALSO SEE