One Last Ride: Wade Phillips as Denver's Defensive Coordinator

New Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has worked with Kubiak before. Can they create a winner this time around?

I haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain in years, but one particular scene I remember very clearly. The two ranchers -- played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger -- stand on the edge of a mountain lake arguing about the last time they’d seen each other and the emotional stress they put each other through until Jake Gyllenhaal finally turns away and laments, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

I imagine Wade Phillips' defensive coordinator interview with the Denver Broncos and head coach Gary Kubiak looked something like that. When Kubiak was fired from the Houston Texans during the 2013 season, Phillips -- his defensive coordinator there, too -- was handed the head coaching job and the two spent a whole year apart.

Now, however, it seems that Kubiak has gotten the whole gang back together -- including offensive coordinator Rick Dennison -- for one more trail ride with the Broncos. But can the magic they had in Houston at points ever be like the old days? Will Wade Phillips strengthen this defense and create a solid foundation for their success, or will everything fall apart again on Mile High Mountain? Let’s find out…

Ain’t No Reins on This One

Wade Phillips is part of NFL coaching royalty: he is the son of legendary Houston Oilers head coach Bum Phillips, who was the pioneer of the one-gap defensive scheme for the 3-4 defense. Wade has followed in his father’s footsteps to a large degree, coaching in Texas for most of his career, and adopting the one-gapping 3-4 as his own.

To explain, in the most common variation on the 3-4, the two-gap scheme, the defense aligns the nose tackle directly over center, and the ends line up directly opposite of the offensive tackles. With this formation, the linemen’s responsibilities comprise the two gaps -- hence the name -- on either side of their offensive counterpart. The nose tackle is responsible for controlling both “A” gaps, the ends are responsible for a “B” gap and “C” gap each. This is a defensive alignment and scheme predicated on control of the line and not so much pressuring the pocket or increasing coverage in the pass game.

Bum Phillips decided to align his 3-4 linemen more often in odd fronts -- that is, off center and not directly over an offensive linemen -- and give them more one-gap penetrating responsibilities. It became more imperative to have sturdy, run-stuffing inside linebackers then, and outside linebackers that had the ability to not just rush the passer but play-read and drop into coverage if need be. The linemen were given permission to pin their ears back and rush, so everyone else needed to be on their toes.

Both Phillipses have employed this defense with different measures of success in their time in the league, and it’s very interesting to consider the historical success of this innovation, watching it continue to evolve to this day.

You're the Best Combine Salesman I've Got

Both Phillipses have employed this defense with some measure of success in the NFL, but we actually have data on Wade’s defensive units; how has this cowpoke done at coordinating defenses since 2000? To figure this out, we turn to our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP), which gives us a better way to show in numbers not only the physical production that happened on the football field but also the contextual value of that production.

The table below shows the Adjusted Defensive NEP (adjusted for strength of opponent) data of every season that Wade Phillips has coached since 2000, including his time as a head coach, represented in the form of league ranks in the metric. Also, at the bottom, I have aggregated these ranks into an annual average. When we analyze the Phillips 3-4 over the last fifteen years, what do we find?

YearTeamRoleAdj. D NEP RankAdj. D Pass NEP RankAdj. D Rush NEP Rank

I was actually stunned when I compiled and ran the numbers on Phillips.

Let me put into perspective the accomplishments he’s had in annual team rankings: he’s had 10 of 13 years of coordinating defenses that put him in the top half of the league, and half of those (five) were top-10 defensive seasons by Adjusted Defensive NEP. His pass defenses by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP have never been “elite” -- just one top-five finish in 13 years -- but, boy, have they been steadily impressive: six top-10 finishes, and 10 seasons in the top half of the league.

Another interesting note: there seems to be almost no trajectory for seeing how Phillips’s defenses progressed or regressed during his time there. The only team we see any sort of arc with is the Dallas Cowboys, who were good when Phillips arrived but then became a top-ten defensive unit by Adjusted Defensive NEP two years in a row. This is actually a good thing, however; that means that Phillips is a sustaining force on a team and keeps them from degrading. It’s also important to know that before Phillips arrived in Houston in 2011, the team had struggled through the third-worst season by Adjusted Defensive NEP in history. Phillips instantly made them nearly a top-five unit in one season.

Yes, there are two seasons where we see his unit fall off the table completely (his last years with Dallas and Houston, 2010 and 2013, respectively), but I’m curious to know how those years were affected by player personnel shifts. That seems to be the only explanation for that sharp of a drop-off.

Texans Don’t Drink Coffee

So, we’ve seen the evidence that Wade Phillips creates quality defenses -- sometimes out of nothing. What will he do when he gets to Denver? The first thing is that he’ll have to move them into his 3-4 alignment and figure out how to translate these players’ skills into his style of defense. Denver’s only spent two of the last 15 years in a 3-4 defense, so this will be a sizable change.

The fortunate aspect of this? Those two years were in 2009 and 2010, so a fair number of these players were involved in that experiment during the Josh McDaniels Era. The Broncos have also been drafting and signing very versatile and impressive defensive players all across the front seven, so it’s not a stretch to imagine Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe shifting to full-time 3-4 ends, Terrance Knighton or Sylvester Williams playing one-tech nose tackle, and Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware as stand-up outside linebackers. The one thing that will be key is moving Miller all over the defensive front; if they keep using him as a movable chess piece, he will remain immensely disruptive and not get stagnant as a pure rusher off one side.

It looks like there is hope for the rekindled love affair between Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips. Only time will tell if it’s sustainable this go-around.