This time last year there was much anticipation about what the new coaching staff could do with the stacked talent on the Broncos roster.
We listened to veterans like T.J. Ward, Von Miller and Danny Trevathan rave about the newly implemented 3-4 scheme that was going to allow our athletic linebackers to go fast and furious to the quarterback.
But we were skeptical.
We had heard the rhetoric every offseason with Jack Del Rio. Our defense had been adding more weapons each year, and the promise was always that it would be even more aggressive.
And it was always a letdown.
But 2015 changed all that. Winning a Super Bowl because of a menacing pass rush, a relentless defensive line and a threatening secondary finally made Broncos Country believe.
All thanks to Wade Phillips.
And now as the 2016 season is ready to kick off, Broncos Country is truly more excited about what this historic defense can accomplish than what is happening under center - which must be a first.
It’s also the reason Phillips has been named Mile High Report’s 2016 "Sportsperson of the Year." Defined as a person who most makes a difference for the football club, Phillips’ new approach made not only a difference for this team and its fans, but across the NFL.
Because one player didn’t make all the difference, but one coach helped them all make the difference.
September 4, 2016
Our 69-year-old defensive coordinator transformed the Broncos defense just by letting players "go."
Not content to keep the NFL’s best pass rushers at bay or most impressive athletes bottled up, Phillips designed the Broncos defense around the talents of the players he had. And the coach admitted more than once that it was the most talented group of players he had ever coached.
Once a Broncos head coach, Phillips saved up all his training from 46 years of successful and unsuccessful coaching among the high school, college and pro ranks - plus a lifetime of growing up with legendary coach Bum Phillips - to architect one of the best defenses the NFL has seen.
As Nick Groke recently described it, Phillips and the Broncos have "bucked the trend" when it comes to playing defense. And the best part is, it’s not even complicated.
"The Broncos are conservative radicals, a stick-to-basics defense that bucks the trend of complicated schemes in favor of beautiful simplicity. The best defense in the NFL plays in plain sight. And nobody can pin it down."
It shouldn’t come as a surprise given Phillips’ defensive success - even if not much head coaching success - at his former teams, including the Broncos, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills and Texans. Although Phillips’ head coaching win percentage stands at .562, no one disputes the man is a genius when it comes to the defense.
Last season Bucky Brooks ranked Phillips No. 6 among the Top 10 of best defensive coordinators in the NFL in the last 30 years.
"Phillips has built stellar defenses at nearly every stop, including his most recent in Houston. He is a creative 3-4 schemer adept at tailoring his system to his talent, allowing his premier playmakers to disrupt the game at every turn. While unleashing explosive rushers off the edge and moving around destructive interior defenders, Phillips will utilize stunts, loops and blitzes to terrorize opponents at the point of attack."
Yet, for a genius known best for his ability to "terrorize opponents at the point of attack," you couldn’t find a more likable guy as well as respected coach. That’s not an easy combination to master.
Perhaps nowhere is this more noticeable than in the Broncos locker room.
A man nearly 50 years the senior of most of his hot shot all-Pro defenders is still considered the smartest guy in the room by those same players.
It’s not every day an old white man can don the "bling" of his streetwise cornerback and be considered "cool."
But that’s exactly what he is, and it’s all because Phillips believes in giving his players the credit - whether it’s on the field in a position for success or verbally in the press room after a game.
In fact, the coach is so unassuming, that after the Super Bowl - the game that gave the Broncos their first ring in almost 20 years - the coordinator was more excited about having seen Lady Gaga than having masterminded a game plan to be world champions.
But a lot of that probably comes from his East Texas upbringing by another legendary coach - Bum Phillips - known as much for his coaching as for his quotables, such as: "I always thought I could coach. I just thought people were poor judges of good coaches."
Of his late father who died almost three years ago, Phillips said he was blessed to have him as both a father and a coach.
"I got to coach with him for 11 years. He taught me everything I know about coaching," Phillips said. "He taught me right and wrong. He taught me to enjoy life."
But the "son of Bum" also learned from his father how to revolutionize defenses.
Bum Phillips fundamentally redefined defenses in the 1950s as a small town high school football coach in East Texas. He was trying to make it easier for his players to understand what they were doing. So he put three linemen up front and four linebackers in the middle.
Wade Phillips, also a Texas football product, understood better than most that his father’s 3-4 had more adaptability for players rather than the traditional five-man front and was designed to let players do what they could do best. Cornerbacks could rush the passer. Linebackers could drop into coverage. It all depends on the personnel.
"That’s our philosophy. Just do what the guy can do," Phillips told the Denver Post. "I can think of a lot of different defenses. But it’s about what the players can do. I’ve always thought that way. When I coached in high school, some guys can’t play very well at all and you have to get by with what they can do. Maybe I got that from my dad. But when I started coaching, it just made sense to me that way."
And it definitely made sense to the Broncos.
After Von Miller was named Super Bowl MVP, the All-Pro linebacker gave credit for the Broncos’ win and the defense’s dominance to his coordinator, calling him "amazing."
"Wade is amazing. He always says the losses are on him. Well, the Super Bowl is on him too." - @Millerlite40 pic.twitter.com/QSmzWoc4OK— L.Lattimore-Volkmann (@docllv) February 8, 2016
It’s quite appropriate to bestow this honor on the Broncos defensive coordinator two days before his defense attempts to define history once again this season - by being a squad that can stop everyone but cannot be stopped by anyone.
Congratulations, "son of Bum," you are truly a difference maker.