ATLANTA — His father, Bum Phillips, once said of another coach, probably Don Shula but possibly also Bear Bryant, “He can take his’n and beat your’n, and he can take your’n and beat his’n.”
In other words, you would be out-coached no matter who was in uniform on either side.
When it comes to defense, that cutesy bit of football philosophy would similarly apply to Bum’s son, Wade Phillips.
Suddenly the NFL, with rules changes and officials’ interpretations — and quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees — has become an offensive league, touchdowns and field goals by the dozen.
And yet the old idea that defense wins in football survives with a man like Wade Philips, now coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams, who Sunday face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
Wade has been there, done that, as an assistant coach at practically every place there’s a NFL team — hey, the guy is 71 — and head coach at Denver, Buffalo, Dallas and New Orleans.
He tosses out a play-dumb line, but against the opposition his teams throw up a virtually unbeatable line. He’s sharp and very aware. Not only about what he sees in films or on the field.
Asked how he might stop Brady and the Patriots, according to James Palmer of the NFL Network, Phillips said, “Get an earpiece so Tony Romo could tell us what play the Patriots were going to run next.”
Romo, who was Wade Phillips' quarterback at Dallas, received accolades for his prescience as the CBS-TV analyst, predicting what Brady and the Pats would do in overtime against Kansas City in their AFC Championship game.
Phillips' greatest moments came three years ago in Super Bowl 50 at Santa Clara, when he was defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, who were heavy underdogs to the Carolina Panthers and the quarterback of the moment, Cam Newton.
Two weeks earlier, with Newton running as well as passing, unpredictable, unstoppable, the Panthers stomped the Arizona Cardinals, 49-15, for the NFC Championship.
But Phillips wasn’t awed. He had a strategy: Go man to man, and make sure someone tackled Newton if he took off. Phillips also had an outside linebacker named Von Miller, who was voted the game’s MVP. Yes, the Broncos won, 24-10. Defense!
The Patriots aren’t the Panthers, certainly, and Brady, in his 10th Super Bowl, isn’t Cam Newton. The other guy, Bill Belichick of New England, is acknowledged as one of the great coaches ever. Maybe the greatest.
And there’s a New England offense that picks and pounds and, when you believe you’ve halted them on third and long, inevitably finds a way to make it first and 10 again and again.
But the Rams do have defenders up front in Aaron Donald and, in a season in which he’s revitalized his reputation, Ndamukong Sue, to keep pressure on Brady, who felt pressure from Kansas City at times. And, of course, the Rams have Wade Phillips.
In the nine times Brady has played against a Phillips defense, he’s had some of his poorer games, and in one, against Denver, facing those same 2015 Broncos who would win the Super Bowl later in the season, Tom had a miserable quarterback rating of 56.4.
So as Sherlock Holmes might have said, the game is on. Not the one on field, but the one in the minds that will affect the one on the field. Tom Brady vs. Wade Phillips. Chess masters. Grand masters.
“You can’t fool the great quarterbacks,” Phillips said, alluding to Brady, “you have to outplay them.”
That means rushing Brady to a point of discomfort — if that’s even possible. That means keeping Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski covered. That means tackling Sony Michel before he gains the extra and necessary yards.
“They are really efficient in what they do,” Phillips said of the Patriots, emphasizing the obvious. “In the playoffs they’ve got the leading quarterback, the leading receiver and the leading running back. It’s a tremendous challenge to play this team with the offense they have.”
If anybody’s up to that challenge, it should be Wade Phillips. To paraphrase the Farmers Insurance commercial, he knows a thing a thing or two because he’s seen a thing or two. Including Tom Brady.