The NFL changes quickly. Be it because of new rules or schematic developments, the league hardly stays the same over a prolonged period of time. The New England Patriots are nearly always at the forefront when it comes to innovation and trying to stay ahead of the curve — it is what has helped them keep their dynasty alive for 18 years and counting in an era designed for turnover at the top of the metaphorical mountain.
However, staying successful not always has to be closely tied to adaptation and turnover. Just look at Wade Phillips, current defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams — the Patriots’ opponent in Super Bowl 53 next week — and one of the most experienced coaches in football. Phillips, who has served in a top coaching role as either a head coach or coordinator continuously since 1981, has hardly changed his scheme over the last decades.
At least that is what New England head coach Bill Belichick pointed out during a press conference earlier this week. “The scheme’s the same. I mean, I don’t think he’s changed his scheme,” said Belichick when asked during his Thursday press conference about having experience going against Phillips and his defensive units. “Wade does a great job of utilizing his personnel and putting his players in position to be productive and make plays.”
“When he had Von Miller, he didn’t change what he did, just the volume and the percentages shifted to accentuate a player like that or Aaron Donald or whoever it happens to be,” Belichick continued. “Certainly, there’s an element of game planning and how he plays one team or another team varies, but it’s within the system that he has. I don’t think he’s out there drawing up a lot of new defenses.”
His formula has served Phillips well in the past: throughout the years he has coached numerous defenses to top-10 rankings in the NFL — whether it was as head coach with the Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills or Denver Broncos (for whom he also served as coordinator in two separate stints), or as coordinator for the then-San Diego Chargers, Houston Texans or Atlanta Falcons. Phillips has had a lot of employers over his career, and a lot of success.
For Belichick, the reason behind this is a simple one. “I think he has a menu and he selects the [plays] that fit best against his opponent and the situations as the situations come up in that game. Now, this year, they’ve definitely gone from a higher percentage of man coverage to a higher percentage of zone coverage here in the second half of the season, but that’s been very effective for them.”
“It’s obviously been productive and a good adjustment, but I’m sure they’re capable, because I know what they have in their system, they’re very capable of doing that or doing something that’s also in their system, whether that’s split-safety coverages or their quarter-quarter-half or man coverage,” continued Belichick. “I mean, they can easily get to any of those things depending on how they want to play it.”
The Patriots have seen a lot of Phillips’ defenses in the past — with varying results. New England has played his defenses nine times with Tom Brady at the helm. And even though the team was able to win six of the games, Phillips’ 2015 Broncos defense for example was responsible for knocking the Patriots out of the postseason. So what makes his units so difficult to play despite the schematic consistency over the years?
According to Belichick, it has to do with a variety within the system. “Wade’s system is his system, and then within that system, there’s plenty of variety,” said the Patriots’ head coach. “So, they can get to what they need to get to. I don’t think we’re going to see like three new fronts and three new coverages in this game that he hasn’t run in the last 30 years. I just don’t think that’s going to happen — but, if it does, we’ll adjust to it.”
“But, they do what they do in their system, they do it well, they have a lot of confidence in it, which they should,” continued Belichick. “He’s been successful everywhere he’s been. He’s been doing it for 30 years in multiple organizations with multiple groups of players against every kind of offense he could see. I remember dealing with him when I was in Cleveland. And to his credit, there’s not many of us that have a system that can last that long.”
Belichick was quick to point out that he and his own approach are more flexible in a way, but seeing it as a positive that Phillips’ system has stayed in place ever since his early days as a defensive signal caller. “I’ve certainly changed a lot in the last 30 years schematically,” he said. “Wade really hasn’t... he really hasn’t. You’ve got to give him credit for that. But, the system has lasted. Really, this is part of his dad’s system that he’s developed and adapted and developed there.
“I have a ton of respect for what he’s done and how he’s done it over every different kind of offense you can see — multiple tight ends, run and shoot, 10 personnel, 11 personnel, 12 personnel, 21, 22,” Belichick continued. “He’s been able to do the same thing... not the same thing, but his system has been able to handle all that, and I think that’s a real credit to what he put together 30 years ago.”
Next Sunday, Belichick and company will see the latest version of this defense — one that has missed the cut as a top-10 scoring unit this year but is still dangerous behind players like the aforementioned Aaron Donald as well as Ndamukong Suh, Cory Littleton and John Johnson. And if Phillips has shown one thing in the past, it is a knowledge of how to use his players to the defense’s advantage — it is what got them to this point, and it might be what gets them even further if the Patriots are not perfectly prepared for it.