Ever since Wade Phillips took over the defense of the Denver Broncos back in 1989, he has improved every new unit he has been involved with the following season — in most cases by leaps and bounds. Seven different times Phillips has come in over the past 27 NFL seasons and made a clear, unmistakable impact running the defense in his first year with a new team.
Talk about one of the best hired guns in NFL history. Who can boast such a mark?
Phillips took over an aging Broncos defense that year, one that allowed 341.9 yards and 22 points per game the year prior. After his first season as coordinator, the Broncos had made massive improvements — and with only one major defensive addition, with rookie Steve Atwater — to 275.4 and 13, respectively.
Now in 2017, Phillips is the new defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams, and his mission is to repeat his brilliant history. A few weeks prior to his 70th birthday, he remains at the top of his game. He also has maintained his wonderfully dry sense of humor and is enjoying the successful release of his new book, “Son of Bum,” and having some fun with it.
I think Oprah liked the book-Son of Bum pic.twitter.com/UyQxcB9jbY
— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) May 10, 2017
If you don’t appreciate Phillips on some level, you might want to ask yourself why. He’s a funny guy and a heck of a defensive coach. Phillips also could have a lot more fun in 2017.
This season he’ll be running a Rams defense that has the reputation of being one of the league’s best, but it was one that underachieved last season under Gregg Williams. It allowed 337 yards and 24.6 points per game, which didn’t help an overmatched offense in what ended up a 4-12 season — one that started out with a 3-1 mark. The talent is there, but the results were not.
Can Phillips make that much of a difference, serving under a first-year head coach (and a 31-year-old at that) in Sean McVay? We shall see. But Phillips’ history suggests that the Rams can expect immediate statistical improvements, including one crucial stat that could lead directly to more wins.
Over those past seven first seasons running a team’s defense, which included his 2007 stint as the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach, Phillips has shaved off an average of 35 yards allowed and 5.1 points scored. Those are fine results indeed, especially the points. But the biggest difference in his teams’ defensive turnarounds? Turnovers.
Only once since 1989 has a Phillips-run defense created fewer turnovers than the unit he inherited the season before. Four times his teams made major improvements — the ’89 Broncos improved by 16 turnovers created (from 26 to 42); the 2002 Atlanta Falcons improved by nine (30 to 39); the 2004 San Diego Chargers by 13 (20 to 33); and the 2011 Houston Texans by nine (18 to 27).
In most cases, the defenses Phillips helped improve only added one major player, such as Atwater to the Broncos or J.J. Watt to the Texans. But Phillips’ impact can’t be overlooked. And with the Rams, it’s clear that Phillips’ first job will be to figure out how create more turnovers. They had a mere 18 last season (after 26 and 25 the two prior seasons in St. Louis).
We expect the Rams to be closer to those mid-20s numbers, and perhaps even touching the 30 mark. The Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders were 1-2 in the NFL turnovers created rankings, with 33 and 30, respectively. Those two teams tied for first in turnover margin at plus-16 and made the playoffs from the AFC West. The Rams were tied for the eighth-fewest turnovers last season and had a minus-11 turnover ratio, which was fifth-worst.
There’s a direct relationship between turnover ratio and wins and losses, and finding ways to get the ball back in the hands of the Rams’ young offense will be a huge storyline this season. If McVay can turn quarterback Jared Goff into more of a caretaker — he turned it over nine times in his seven starts — and Phillips can coax the Rams into forcing, say, 8-10 more turnovers this season, that ratio could see some serious improvement.
Of course, it’s not as easy as Phillips just taking over. He has some serious challenges at hand. First off, two of his best defenders — defensive lineman Aaron Donald and cornerback Trumaine Johnson — are currently sitting out offseason workouts in hopes of new deals.
That might only be a temporary distraction, but the more interesting developments could come in how the old personnel (plus a few additions) fit into Phillips’ defensive scheme, which is often advertised as simply a 3-4 defense but really is more aptly described as an “under” front that puts five men on the line of scrimmages and attacks with one-gap principles.
All of this likely means there will be role changes for Donald, Robert Quinn (standing up in a DeMarcus Ware-like role), Alec Ogletree, Mark Barron and Lamarcus Joyner (moving from slot corner to free safety), among others. Throw in new contributors, such as linebacker Connor Barwin and cornerback Kayvon Webster, and it will be fascinating to see how Phillips unleashes what could be a good group.
But no matter how he does it, we’ll put money on it: Phillips will get the unit playing better and the numbers will bear it out. The Rams lost five games by seven or fewer points last season and flipping even a few of them this season could result in more victories, assuming Goff makes even the most marginal improvement under McVay’s watch.
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