ENGLEWOOD—Wade Phillips is gone for a myriad of reasons, the most important of which is the Denver Broncos wanted Joe Woods to replace him.
It was never put quite like this, of course.
The Broncos have said they needed to promote Woods from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator or else lose him to other teams who were expressing interest in him as coordinator.
Not said is the Broncos could have blocked other teams from hiring away Woods because he was under contract through the 2017 season. The Broncos knew this because they were rebuffed by the Cincinnati Bengals while offering a similar promotion to Vance Joseph in 2015.
Joseph is now the Broncos’ head coach and at his press conference Tuesday to introduce his new coordinators, he and Woods each indicated Phillips left because he was a free agent who chose to become the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams.
They were being nice. Phillips didn’t take the Rams’ job until he learned the Broncos weren’t bringing him back. Here are the events that led to Phillips departure: After his defensive unit was largely responsible for the Broncos winning Super Bowl 50, he asked general manager John Elway for a pay raise and an extension.
Elway gave most of the Broncos’ assistant coaches extensions and raises after their Super Bowl victory, but Phillips was asking to become the league’s highest-paid defensive coordinator by a substantial margin. It was Phillips’ right. The Broncos’ defense was the best in the league.
But it was also Elway’s right to balk. According to multiple sources, Elway gave Phillips an either-or option: An extension or raise, but not both. Phillips took the raise. Once the 2016 season ended and Phillips’ contract was set to expire, the Broncos quickly moved to the Joseph-Woods duo to replace him.
Joseph had been a defensive player or coach the previous 21 years at the college and NFL level, including defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins in 2016. He knew enough about Woods to not only promote him, but entrust him with the Broncos’ defensive play calling in 2017.
“It was Joe’s time,’’ Joseph said.
“He’s involved in the defense,’’ Woods said of Joseph. “He sits in all the meetings. He lets me run the meetings, he doesn’t say much but I know there’s things where he has done it as a defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator that he wants to implement here.’’
It may be a stretch to say Woods is replacing a coaching legend. But Wade Phillips was, and is, really good. The first time the Broncos give up 30 points in a game, the team’s decision to part with Phillips will be second-guessed – even though it happened four times in the last two years, three times in 2016.
Understand Woods’ secondary was the NFL’s best the past two years. As in the Broncos ranked No. 1 against the pass in both 2015 and 2016. No word play needed. Woods does not have to apologize for the promotion he more than earned.
“Wade Phillips is one of the best defensive coordinators ever to coach in the NFL,’’ Woods said. “I can’t try to be Wade Phillips. I have to be Joe Woods. I have to be the best Joe Woods I know how to be. I’m not going to go down in front of the guys and try to simulate or do things that Wade did. Because they’ll see right through that. They know me for who I am. They know I’m a passionate guy. They know I work hard and I put the time in and they know I coach with a lot of energy. So I’m going to be that same guy. Really, back in Minnesota in 2006 I kind of went through a similar situation.’’
So what is a Joe Woods’ defense going to look like?
“It’s going to be the same thing that you’ve seen the last two years,’’ Woods said. “The footprint, the foundation is there. We’re an attacking defense. We want to dictate to the offense. We don’t want to sit back on our heels and let them dictate to us. We’re going to do the same thing we have done from a cover standpoint, a pressure standpoint. We’ll have a couple little tweaks that will enhance the defense along the way.’’
The rest of the Broncos’ defensive staff – line coach Bill Kollar, inside linebackers coach Reggie Herring and outside linebackers coach Fred Pagac – returns. The Broncos are expected to add a starting defensive tackle to replace free-agent Sylvester Williams and another defensive end, either through the draft or free agency. The team is also expected to try and re-sign defensive lineman Vance Walker, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL.
If all goes well for the Denver defense in 2017, Woods may become a hot head coaching candidate as soon as 2018. It’s hardly far-fetched. He became the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive backs coach in 2006, working with first-year coordinator Mike Tomlin.
After just one year as a defensive coordinator, Tomlin became head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he still rules.
And now Woods is working for Joseph, who was a coordinator for just one year when he got the Broncos’ head coaching job.
“My whole coaching career, when I started coaching defensive backs, I never really worried about taking that next step as a defensive coordinator,’’ Woods said. “I just felt if I kept my head down and I worked hard then if people thought I could become a defensive coordinator they’d come after me. And right now it’s the same thing. Right now as a defensive coordinator I’m going to work as hard as I can to be the best defensive coordinator I can be. And then along the line if somebody wants to come after me as head coach then it’ll happen.’’