THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The Los Angeles Rams haven’t been to the playoffs in 13 years. Their roster has only six players with NFL postseason experience, and they’re led by the youngest head coach ever to earn a playoff berth.
They’ve also got Wade Phillips, who has done, seen and counter-schemed just about everything that can be accomplished on a football field during 40 NFL seasons with 10 teams.
“He’s a guy that you love having on your side when you’re going into any situation,” said Sean McVay, the Rams’ 31-year-old head coach.
The Rams’ 70-year-old defensive coordinator in the NFL postseason for the 20th time after putting together yet another solid defense in his first season with a new team. Phillips has been a head coach, a defensive mastermind and a steady mentor to generations of football talent during an all-encompassing career, and he shows zero signs of slowing down.
“As long as you have a passion and you can contribute, and that’s what you like doing. I’m lucky to be where I am,” Phillips said recently. “I enjoy what I’m doing. I love what I’m doing. I love working with the players that I have. Those things in life — if that’s what your work is, it’s pretty gratifying.”
When the Rams (11-5) face the Atlanta Falcons (10-6) on Saturday night at the Coliseum, Phillips will be going after his second championship in three seasons after winning his first Super Bowl with Denver just two years ago. That title was a long-awaited reward for decades of hard work, but Phillips is visibly energized by the chance to contend for another ring with the NFC’s No. 3 seed.
For the eighth straight time since 1989, Phillips has accepted a new job and immediately taken a team to the playoffs in his first season. Phillips knows experience is important, but the veteran coach thinks these Rams already have it.
“If you’re playing for the division against Seattle or playing to get in the playoffs against Tennessee, those are playoff-type atmospheres,” Phillips said. “I don’t see a whole lot of difference, except the Super Bowl is the one that stands out from all the other playoff games, as opposed to the big games you play during the year.”
It’s tough for Phillips to face any opponent these days with which he has no connection, and the Falcons are no exception: He became Atlanta’s defensive coordinator for a 2002 playoff run, and he served as their interim head coach in 2003 for the fired Dan Reeves.
McVay and Phillips seemed to be an odd-couple pairing when they first teamed up last January, but they’ve reveled in their differences. Scarcely a day went by during the Rams’ playoff push when McVay didn’t publicly express his gratitude for being able to rely on the experiences and strategies accumulated by Phillips.
“Age doesn’t make any difference with me,” Phillips said. “I had some opportunities, but his seemed like the best.”
Phillips knew he could work with McVay based on the young coach’s relationship with Phillips’ son, Wes, who served as McVay’s tight ends coach for the previous three seasons while McVay ran the Washington Redskins’ offense.
The Rams already had a solid defense last season under coordinator Gregg Williams. But because of the Rams offense’s utter ineptitude, that defense wore down and struggled, particularly late in their 4-12 campaign.
While McVay transformed the offense, Phillips got the most out of a team that allowed 20.6 points per game this season, down from 24.6 last year.
Phillips changed the Rams’ scheme from a 4-3 front to a 3-4, but that strategy includes many lineups with five players hitting the line and four-man rushes. While the Rams’ average rankings in pass defense and run defense haven’t changed drastically since last season, Phillips’ defense has produced a whopping 48 sacks — fourth in the NFL and 17 more than last season.
Phillips is quick to direct much of that credit to Aaron Donald, the Rams’ line-destroying defensive tackle and one of the game’s best players. Phillips has campaigned for Donald to get league MVP consideration.
When asked about his biggest surprise this season, Phillips quipped: “Aaron Donald. I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was better than everybody.”
NOTES: Pro Bowl kick returned Pharoh Cooper missed his second straight day of practice with a shoulder injury, but McVay remains confident he will play this weekend. … LB Mark Barron was limited again with his Achilles’ tendon injury, but also is expected to play.