DENVER | Wade Phillips returns to Denver this weekend and several Broncos can’t wait to hug it out with their former defensive coordinator.
Phillips was the Broncos’ beloved bandmaster when they were riding firetrucks in a downtown parade and Von Miller was showing off the Super Bowl trophy 2 1/2 years ago.
“Coach Phillips is football royalty ,” a man for whom “the moments were never too big and the moments were never too small,” said Miller, who recalled Phillips depressurizing his defense before Super Bowl 50 by declaring: “All the mistakes are on me and you can just go out there and play.”
“It just shows you what type of coach that he is,” Miller said. “He’s dope.”
Now 71, Phillips is leading a revitalized Rams defense for 32-year-old Los Angeles head coach Sean McVay, who brings a 5-0 team to Denver on Sunday to face the reeling Broncos (2-3).
This game was supposed to mark Aqib Talib’s return, too. But the star cornerback is sidelined with an ankle injury, which bums out Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
“Definitely. You love having that competition,” Harris said. “He’s going to talk mess to me if we lose, and if we win, then I’m definitely hollering at him.”
Harris is certainly embracing Phillips, win or lose.
“Wade, he just gave you so much confidence in yourself. I’ll never forget, I had one bad game, and he’s just, ‘You’re the best. You’re going to get it next week. I’m ready for you next week. I’ve got a big game plan for you to make plays next week,'” Harris recounted.
“He just knows how to lift you up and brings your potential out of you.”
The Broncos didn’t renew Phillips’ contract after the 2016 season and McVay was thrilled to hire him shortly after becoming the youngest head coach in modern NFL history.
“You’re probably going to have a tough time finding anyone that doesn’t really like him and enjoy being around Wade,” McVay said. “He’s got a great way about himself, a great feel for this game, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s all about making sure that he listens to people, wants to try and put players in great spots.”
Denver’s defenders still talk glowingly about their time with Phillips.
“He’s an old guy, but he acts young,” Harris said. “He tries to be hip with everything and he just loves the game. It’s not hard to play for a coach that really loves the game, really wants to win.”
Broncos coach Vance Joseph called Phillips “my football father,” a football genius and a great man.
“He was a killer on Sundays,” Joseph said. “He had great timing with his calls and he was going to be aggressive. I’m watching this defense and it’s Wade Phillips.”
Phillips, who began his NFL coaching career as an assistant for his father, Bum, in Houston in 1969, is now doling out praise and pointers with his 10th NFL franchise.
“Man, Wade’s been around since dinosaurs have been here,” Broncos linebacker Shane Ray said. “So, I think he’s just got that feel.”
Other subplots as the Broncos aim for their first win over the Rams since 2002:
Phillips’ protege, Joe Woods, hasn’t enjoyed nearly the same success since replacing him last season, and the situation is quickly becoming dire.
The Broncos, who are 7-14 since Phillips’ departure, have surrendered 958 yards the last two weeks, but Joseph said he won’t be taking over the play-calling duties Sunday.
“Joe’s the coordinator,” Joseph said. “So, he’s calling the plays.”
Joseph said he’d shake things up after Denver’s demoralizing 34-16 loss to the Jets, but declined to bench struggling cornerback Bradley Roby, who allowed three long touchdowns and failed to follow proper protocol for calling in sick Monday.
One change that might occur is Max Garcia replacing right guard Connor McGovern, but it appears left tackle Garett Bolles’ job is safe despite being unable to break his holding habit.
Poor protection has contributed to QB Case Keenum rushing his mechanics. He had just five TD passes, has already tied last year’s seven interceptions and is on pace for 42 sacks, about double the number he had in Minnesota last season.
The Rams are aware of the snow in the forecast for Denver this weekend — “Hopefully it slows them down a little bit,” Broncos GM John Elway said — but McVay isn’t worried about his warm-weather team’s ability to handle it.
“Out here in Southern California, unless we want to go to an ice rink, I don’t think we can mimic and emulate that,” McVay said.
Receivers Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp both left their last game with head injuries, but are expected to play as the Rams seek their first 6-0 start since 2001.
All-Pro kicker Greg Zuerlein has a groin injury, which means Cairo Santos will kick in Denver. Santos made both of his field-goal attempts in Seattle last week, including the winner with 6:05 to play, but also missed an extra point.
— AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham contributed.