El­way rolls dice by let­ting Phillips walk

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - THE SECOND PAGE - DAVID RAM­SEY

Risk. It’s John El­way’s thing. In Fe­bru­ary, The King of the Bron­cos risked the 2017 sea­son when he let Bron­cos de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Wade Phillips walk away from his vi­o­lent, mag­nif­i­cent defense. Phillips had just com­pleted another coach­ing mas­ter­piece in 2016, nearly car­ry­ing a busted of­fense to the play­offs.

El­way, Mr. Risk, let him walk any­way.

If Wade had re­turned for 2017, the Bron­cos would have been in no dan­ger of tum­bling into the NFL’s bot­tom half. The defense, un­der Wade’s crafty di­rec­tion, would have kept the Bron­cos hov­er­ing, at worst, around 8-8.

With Wade work­ing in Los An­ge­les with the Rams, a long tum­ble in the di­rec­tion of the bot­tom is pos­si­ble. That’s the risk El­way took.

New co­or­di­na­tor Joe Woods was a wise hire. He’s coached the Bron­cos se­condary the past two sea­sons. He shares Wade’s ampedup, at­tack-first phi­los­o­phy and un­der­stands the com­pli­cated, vol­canic per­son­al­i­ties on the de­fen­sive ros­ter. So, El­way and Coach Vance Joseph made the right move af­ter the po­ten­tially fran­chise-al­ter­ing wrong move of al­low­ing Wade to de­part.

Safety Dar­ian Stew­art of­fered strong anal­y­sis of the tran­si­tion.

“I felt like there wasn’t a bet­ter coach ready for the op­por­tu­nity,” Stew­art said. “Wade was a great coach, but if you re­place him, what bet­ter per­son than Joe.”

Let’s get back to that wrong move.

In 2015, Wade be­came a Colorado folk hero af­ter his defense lugged a bro­ken-down of­fense to NFL supremacy. Pey­ton Man­ning looked more like a 79-year-old than a 39-year-old dur­ing the fi­nal three quar­ters of Su­per Bowl 50, but his strug­gles barely mat­tered. The defense, un­der Wade’s di­rec­tion, de­voured Cam New­ton and his Pan­thers.

Wade and his defense were nearly as stingy and scary in 2016. If you want one game to sum up last sea­son, ex­am­ine the Dec. 18 bat­tle with the Pa­tri­ots. Den­ver de­fend­ers swarmed Tom Brady, beat­ing up No. 12 while hold­ing him to 188 yards passing. A mighty defense sub­dued a pow­er­ful of­fense. The Pats crawled to 16 points. (They would av­er­age 36 points in their next five games.)

One prob­lem: The Bron­cos scored only three points. In the three weeks in De­cem­ber that buried the sea­son, the Bron­cos of­fense scored a to­tal of 23 points against the Ti­tans, Pa­tri­ots and Chiefs.

Phillips, mean­while, de­liv­ered a near re­peat of the won­ders of 2015. The Bron­cos ranked third in points al­lowed (296) in 2015. They ranked fourth (297) in 2016.

A few days af­ter Wade’s de­par­ture, Von Miller spoke truth about his for­mer men­tor.

“Phillips will go down as one of the best de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tors to ever coach the game,” Miller said.

So why re­place one of the all­time greats?

An­swer: That’s how El­way op­er­ates.

In 2012, he took a chance on a brit­tle quar­ter­back who seemed well past his prime. El­way paid Man­ning $96 mil­lion over five sea­sons, a level of cash usu­ally re­served for healthy su­per­stars. All the thrills and tri­umphs of The Man­ning Era blur the ini­tial risk of the ven­ture.

On Jan. 12, 2015, El­way ban­ished head coach John Fox. The move came less than a year af­ter Fox led the Bron­cos to vic­tory over Bill Belichick and the Pa­tri­ots in the AFC ti­tle game. Fox had won 38 of 48 reg­u­lar-sea­son games along with four con­sec­u­tive AFC West ti­tles. The man even won the AFC West with Tim Te­bow as his quar­ter­back.

El­way, a gam­bler, wanted even more.

We all know how this risk turned out. Gary Ku­biak again joined forces with El­way and directed the Bron­cos to a Su­per Bowl ti­tle. (With a lot of help from Wade.)

Tak­ing risks is fun, which ex­plains those hu­mon­gous build­ings on the Ve­gas Strip. But tak­ing risks also car­ries dan­ger, which ex­plains those weep­ing, sud­denly pen­ni­less men and women on the same Strip.

On June 6, 2013, the Kroenkes fired coach Ge­orge Karl af­ter Fu­ri­ous Ge­orge led the Nuggets on nine con­sec­u­tive trips to the play­offs. The Nuggets had won 57 games in 2012-13, a fran­chise record. Didn’t mat­ter. The Kroenkes wanted more.

The Nuggets fell out of the sky af­ter Karl’s de­par­ture. His dis­missal re­mains a day that lives in Colorado sports in­famy.

El­way was a su­perla­tive NFL quar­ter­back, one of the two or three best ever. He’s be­come, largely be­cause of his de­fi­ant nerve, a mas­ter NFL exec, too. He’s trav­eled beyond beloved sta­tus in Colorado. He’s revered.

But al­low­ing Wade to walk puts him, and his fran­chise, at risk of ad­ding another day to that in­famy list.

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