Days after the Buffalo Bills’ unsatisfactory 2000 season concluded, head coach Wade Phillips was summoned to Ralph Wilson’s home in Palm Beach, Fla.
Expectations were different back then. The Bills lost four of their last five games to finish 8-8. They failed to make the playoffs for only the third time since 1987. In Phillips’ previous two seasons, the Bills won double-digit games.
What a glorious run that would be these days.
But as the meeting unfolded then – or, in Phillips’ case, unraveled – the mood grew increasingly uneasy.
“I asked him after we talked, ‘Am I your coach?’ ” Phillips recounted for The Buffalo News this week.
“He wouldn’t say.”
Phillips had a year left on his contract. Wilson had fired General Manager John Butler three weeks earlier. Rumors swirled the Bills were about to hire Tom Donahoe to be the team’s president.
Phillips was left to wonder for a few days. The East-West Shrine Game was taking place in San Francisco, where NFL coaches and scouts would inspect the incoming college prospects. Phillips wasn’t sure what Wilson wanted.
“I called him and said, ‘Can I go to the East-West Game?’ ” Phillips said. “That’s what I would normally do as the head coach, you know?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah. Go ahead and go.’
“Then as soon as I got there I got a phone call: ‘You’re gone.’ ”
With that, the last coach to guide Buffalo to the postseason was fired.
The Bills haven’t been back for 12 straight years. They appear to be on the verge of extending the NFL’s longest active drought again this year.
The Bills are 3-4 and have a defense that’s trending among the worst in NFL history. They are double-digit underdogs this afternoon against the Houston Texans in Reliant Stadium.
A substantial reason the Texans are so heavily favored is because of their defense, ranked third overall and among the top nine in every important statistical category. Phillips is the Texans’ defensive coordinator.
“He’s unbelievable,” Texans defensive end and MVP candidate J.J. Watt said. “He’s a great coach and person. He’s a guy you want to go out there and play for ... because you know he’s going to put you in position to have success.”
The Bills have tried to reinvent themselves several times since Phillips left.
Donahoe ran afoul of Wilson. Hotshot assistant coaches Gregg Williams and Mike Mularkey didn’t work. Veteran coach Dick Jauron was no better. Marv Levy as GM proved pointless.
Fans are running out of patience with current GM Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey.
Phillips, meanwhile, has remained in demand. Although his time as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys generally is viewed as a failure because their Super Bowl promise never was fulfilled, his record there was 34-22, and he coached the Cowboys to their first playoff victory in a dozen years.
Ruben Brown, the perennial Pro Bowl guard, claimed the Bills snuffed their glory years when they fired Phillips.
“He had a good atmosphere going, and they lost it when he left,” said Brown, who spent nine of his 13 seasons in the league with the Bills after they selected him in the first round of the 1995 draft. “It’s hard to say what would happen, but getting rid of Wade was the final move to start all over with a new type of Buffalo Bills team.
“They’ve been trying to find that new type of Buffalo Bills team ever since.”
Phillips always has been known as a player’s coach. He absorbs blame for his players, emphasizes concepts like family and loyalty and is known for his easy-going demeanor – just like his dad, coaching folk hero Bum Phillips.
Wade Phillips went 29-19 with the Bills. Since his departure, the Bills are 41 games below .500 and have one winning season, averaging just 6.1 wins.
“The Bills have not recovered since they fired Wade,” said former Bills center Billy Conaty, an attorney and certified player agent in Philadelphia. “Looking back on it, I certainly think Wade would have had success in Buffalo had he remained the coach.
“Wherever he’s been he’s had success. Even in Dallas, really, no one did better there – before or after.”
Phillps’ .573 regular-season win percentage for the Denver Broncos, Bills and Cowboys – and interim jobs for the New Orleans Saints (relieving his father) and Atlanta Falcons – ranks him ahead of Don Coryell, Bill Parcells, Chuck Noll, Marv Levy, Mike Ditka, Jimmy Johnson and Jon Gruden.
“The perception is that I’m a great defensive coordinator,” Phillips said. He left the other half of the perception unsaid. “But that’s the way it is when you hadn’t won the big games – and I didn’t. I realize that.
“Perception isn’t always reality. But that’s fine. I’m glad they think I’m a good defensive coordinator.”
In each of Phillips’ past five stops as a defensive coordinator, he has helped a non-playoff team get into the tournament his first season there.
Despite his success, many view Phillips as a loser because of his inability to win as a head coach in the playoffs. His career postseason record is 1-5.
The most devastating loss was the Music City Miracle, a controversial game even before it began. Doug Flutie started 15 games that season; the Bills won 10 of them. But Rob Johnson started against Tennessee.
So many theories abound over why the switch was made.
“Over the years,” Brown said, “I’ve heard every story imaginable. I don’t even know now.”
Did Wilson force the move on Phillips? Did Phillips make the switch to quell a locker-room uprising against Flutie? Did Phillips make the call alone?
“The town was split. The locker room was split,” Conaty said. “Wade was being pressured from the fans and even internally from players who thought we had a better chance with Doug or with Rob.”
Phillips wouldn’t revisit the decision during an interview with The Buffalo News.
“I’ll just say the results were that we were ahead with 16 seconds left to go in the game, no matter who the quarterback was,” Phillips said. “We scored enough points, played good enough defense to be ahead with 16 seconds left. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Phillips then was asked how much control he had over the decision to start Johnson.
“I just made my statement,” Phillips replied.
The aftermath of that playoff loss in Nashville wasn’t pretty. The Bills released legends Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith on the same day that offseason. The Flutie-Johnson controversy engulfed the town.
With special teams coach Bruce DeHaven sacrificed for the Music City Miracle touchdown, Phillips hired Ronnie Jones as the replacement. Jones, although a former NFL defensive coordinator, was overmatched in his new role.
Phillips seemed like a coach with no control of his team.
When Wilson eventually fired him, the owner declared Phillips’ refusal to fire Jones was the chief reason.
“That wasn’t really the case,” Phillips said. “That’s what they said, but there’s always two sides to the story.
“I already told them that I was going to change Ronnie Jones. ... But then it was just questions of all my coaches. I said, ‘If you don’t like all my coaches, then you really don’t like me.’ I felt like I was standing up for the whole staff, not just one guy.”
Phillips, unlikely to get another shot as a head coach, ostensibly was fired for being loyal to his staff. Within the football community, he gained more respect. But it added to the stigma that he couldn’t be an effective head coach.
“I would be surprised,” the 65-year-old Phillips said about getting another chance. “Not that I don’t think I’d be good at it or don’t deserve it, but I’d be surprised if somebody took me at this stage of my career – even though wins are important in this league, I think.”