The Phillips Legacy: Houston’s Déjà Vu

Houston's defense was terrible. They had given up more than 400 points the previous season, and only two other teams had given up more yards per game. For the second year in a row, their pass defense surrendered more touchdowns than anyone else while ranking in the bottom third of the NFL in sacks. The fans were frustrated that the franchise had yet to qualify for the playoffs since joining the league and wanted changes. The front office and the head coach had decided to hire a new defensive coordinator and everyone hoped Mr. Phillips would solve Houston's defensive woes.

Well, maybe not everyone. Since the country was embroiled in the Watergate scandal at the time, the Oilers' defensive problems were probably not everyone's top concern. I'm talking about 1974 and the new defensive coordinator was Oail "Bum" Phillips, although I could just as easily have been talking about 2011 and Bum's son, Wade Phillips. Thirty-seven years after his father was asked to do the same, Wade has returned to Houston to salvage one of the league's worst defensive units. As Father's Day looms, let's ponder just how much father and son are alike...and how much 2011 is like 1974 for Houston professional football. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, "Take the jump because it's déjà vu all over again!" 

Although the 1974 Oilers lacked defensive talent, they quickly improved under Bum's guidance. They gave up 165 points less than the year before and ranked third in the NFL in sacks (instead of the bottom third). Apparently the league didn't track individual sacks in 1974, but Elvin Bethea (DE) probably had more than his share. He was one of the few bright spots on the defense when Bum arrived in Houston, especially on the defensive line, and he still owns the franchise record for career and single-season sacks.

Luckily, Bum thought a coach's job was to craft a scheme that fits the talent on hand. While explaining his one-gap 3-4 scheme, Bum once said, "Coaching is pretty simple really. If you don't got something, find something you do got. Really, we didn't have but one [defensive lineman] - [Hall of Famer] Elvin [Bethea] - until we got Curley [Culp] in the middle of that season. Then we had two. What we did have was four real good linebackers, so all I done was find a way to get our best players on the field." (Quoted from Jene Bramel's "Guide to NFL Defenses, Part 4: The 3-4 Front" from the Sept. 9, 2010 NY Times.)

It should be noted that although he had "four real good linebackers", Bum did not acquire the great (should-be Hall of Famer!) Robert Brazile until his second season in Houston. Brazile would become an immense pass rush threat from the OLB position, known as "Dr. Doom."  Bum featured Brazile as a 4th rusher on passing downs, and as Jene Bramel says in the NY Times article, Brazile "was LT before Lawrence Taylor came into the league". Bum's one-gap 3-4 allowed his players to attack rather than read and react, which minimized the weaknesses on the defensive line and created tons of pressure on opposing QBs.

In addition to increasing team sacks, the defense decreased the number of passing TDs from 26 to 19. Houston finished the season at .500, a huge improvement from the previous two seasons, especially considering the talent on hand. Thomas Danyluk interviewed Bum in 1998 for a book called "The Super Seventies: Memories from Pro Football's Greatest Era". When Danyluk asked him about Sid Gillman and the 1974 Oilers, Bum said, "He had nothing! I mean, we had nothing as far as talent. We were really bad. We had just come off two 1-13 seasons, and we had nothing! And he took that team and made it into a 7-7 team. Now that is utilizing your personnel, when a guy can do that." Bum became the head coach after Gillman retired the next season. Thirty-six years later, Bum is still the winningest professional coach (by win-loss percentage) in Houston football history with a 55-35 record.

It seems adapting your plays to fit your players was the biggest influence Sid Gillman left on Bum. When asked what he found most impressive about Sid and his coaching style, Bum said, "I'd say his ability to adapt his offense to whatever talent he had on the team. Sid wasn't a guy who said ‘We're going to run the West Coast offense, or the Midwest Offense or the East Coast offense.' He was a guy that said, ‘Here's what we got - we've got this kind of receiver and that kind of receiver and this kind of running back,' and he adapted his offense to whatever he had. That's why he was so good for a number of years - because he could adapt." Although he's way too modest to ever do such a thing, Bum could have been talking about himself and his defenses.

Just like Gillman influenced the way he coached, Bum helped shape the way his son would coach as well. Wade began his coaching career as a graduate assistant to Bill Yeoman at the University of Houston in 1969. He was a three-year starter (1966-68) as a linebacker at UH and still holds the school record for career assisted tackles (228). Wade then served as the defensive coordinator at a high school in Orange, TX from 1970-72. In 1973, he became the linebackers coach at Oklahoma State University, where his father was the defensive coordinator. He remained at OSU another year after Bum became the defensive coordinator for the Oilers and then spent a year as the defensive line coach at University of Kansas. Wade joined his father in Houston as the linebackers coach in 1976. In 1977, he added the defensive line to his coaching duties and served as the front-seven coach until 1980. The Oilers fired Bum Phillips in 1980 after losing a wildcard playoff game to the Raiders. Bum went on to coach the New Orleans Saints, and Wade went with him, serving as the Saints' defensive coordinator for the next five years. When his father retired in 1985, Wade stepped in as the interim head coach of the Saints.

After spending so many seasons coaching defense for his father, Wade must have picked up some of Bum's tendencies and knowledge. His specialty was coaching the front seven, where his father had crafted unique versions of those positions for the NFL with his one-gap 3-4 scheme. When Danyluk asked if it was hard to sell his scheme to any of the defensive players, Bum said, "Yeah, the defensive ends! Those were the only guys! Defensive ends didn't like it because they had to almost head-up on a tackle, and it affected their outside rush." Since Wade was actually the defensive line coach in Houston from 1977-80, he was probably tasked with being the salesman more than anyone. Maybe that's why Wade picked 5-technique specialist, J.J. Watt at #11: he's tired of making that sale.

As linebackers coach in Houston, Wade coached such greats as Robert Brazile, Greg Bingham and Ted Washington Sr. (Wade also coached Ted's son, Ted Washington, who was a Pro Bowl NT many years later in Buffalo. Yeah, a "true" NT.) When talking to Danyluk about why he chose his one-gap 3-4 scheme for the Oilers, Bum said:

"If you can't find two more [solid defensive lineman] and you're still trying to play the 4-3, then you're in trouble. Plus, you have to have a real hoss middle linebacker. We didn't have a middle linebacker who was that kind of guy, but we had a bunch of good linebackers. The players we had basically dictated what kind of defense we could play. Robert Brazile, who was one of our best linebackers, liked it because he got to blitz a lot. Actually, he got to rush. He didn't blitz. He got a lot of sacks. He was the guy who made the 3-4 popular for sending an outside linebacker, he and that guy [Lawrence] Taylor that played for the Giants so long that got all the credit for it. Robert was really the guy that got that thing started."

Well, I would say Bum "got that thing started" as well, and Wade was there to help. Like his father when he was asked to save Houston's defense, Wade has some obstacles to clear. First off, there are lots of holes in the defense, especially in the secondary. Wade has made some effort to address this by drafting three defensive backs this off-season. Hopefully, he'll also get some help from Rick Smith and Bob McNair on that front via free agency. Like the '73 Oilers, the 2010 Texans had a ton of linebacker talent while lacking solid defensive linemen (especially since Wade sees DE Mario Williams as an outside pass rusher and plans to move him to OLB). Hence, Wade's decision to implement a version of his dad's one-gap 3-4 and draft DE J.J. Watt  in this year's draft.

Also like his dad, Wade made finding a pass rushing specialist from the outside a priority. His dad had to wait a year before drafting Brazile, while Wade found his Dr. Doom already on the roster: three-time Pro Bowler Mario Williams. (note: I'm using Dr. Doom metaphorically here and NOT advocating calling Mario that; that tag will always belong to Mr. Brazile.) Wade also showed more of his dad's tendencies when he drafted Brooks Reed in the second round to add speed and pass rushing to the linebacker depth. Reed is another former defensive end that Wade sees more as an OLB. Add DE Connor Barwin's planned move to OLB, and it starts to look like Wade has some kind of OLB astigmatism.

This next alleged similarity might cause the "Moar NT!" contingent to go into convulsions, so proceed at your own risk. Like his dad, Wade has also found a nose tackle that others consider too small. Bum obtained the 6'1" 265 lb. Curley Culp and a first round pick (the one used to draft Brazile) from Kansas City for DT John Matuszak. Although Culp helped anchor the Chiefs' defensive line during one of their greatest eras and was instrumental in their Super Bowl IV victory, many coaches thought he was too small for the NT spot. Bum took advantage of his quickness and penetrating-style and lined him up next to Elvin Bethea with spectacular results: Houston won 7 of their last 9 games after acquiring Culp. Since Culp required two or three players to block him effectively, he freed up lanes for his teammates. Bum once said, "Curley made (the 3-4 defense) work. He made me look smart." Culp was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and named the Defensive Player of the Year by the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1975, but like Brazile, he has also been slighted by the Hall of Fame so far.

Wade's munchkin NT looks to be 6'2" 290+ lb. Earl Mitchell. Scouts (and fans) have questioned his suitability as a NT, but praised his quickness and penetration. Sound familiar? While I doubt Mitchell commands the same respect from offensive linemen as Culp, Wade must see the kind of quickness and penetration in Mitchell that he thinks can succeed at the NT spot in his scheme. If he's wrong, Wade will have to find his "Curley Culp" elsewhere, because Shaun Cody is not quick, nor is he the kind of guy who draws two or three blockers.

While the déjà vu here seems almost palpable, there are some key distinctions that should be noted. While the 1974 Oilers were bereft of talent on both sides of the ball, the 2011 Texans are loaded with offensive talent. The Texans were third overall in compiling offensive yards last season. Arian Foster (and the offensive line) led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns while Matt Schaub was the second highest rated passer with over 4,000 yards. Everyone knows that Andre Johnson is one of the best wide receivers ever, and we also have some decent tight ends, especially Pro Bowler Owen Daniels. Bum's top shelf offense would have to wait until 1978, when the team drafted Hall of Fame running back, Earl Campbell. Yeah, they finally gave one of Bum's boys some HoF credit. Even sports writers aren't dumb enough to omit The Tyler Rose.

Not only does Wade not have to worry about the offense, he apparently doesn't even have to share any draft picks with them prior to the 5th round. I've already mentioned the help Wade acquired through the draft and alluded to the free agency help needed in the secondary, but unlike his dad in 1974, Wade has several talented defensive players already on the roster. Besides The Elephant (Mario Williams), Wade also has 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Brian Cushing, and two-time Pro Bowler, DeMeco Ryans, to play as inside linebackers. He also has a solid DE in Antonio Smith, and perhaps another OLB who can rush the passer in Connor Barwin. Ryans and Barwin are returning from major injuries last season, so Wade can only hope they are ready and able to make major contributions this year (especially Ryans, since he is the captain of the defense).

So what does all this déjà vu and not-so-déjà vu add up to? Will Mr. Phillips ride into town and save the day again? Will the Texans improve their winning percentage by 42% like the ‘74 Oilers, or merely finish .500 like those same Oilers? If it's the former, the Texans win 12 or 13 games and most likely make the playoffs for the first time ever. If it's the latter, the Texans will most likely miss the playoffs again and Kubiak will most likely get fired. If that happens and Wade replaces him, Houston gets another chance at some major déjà vu.

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