Is Wade Phillips anything more than a less experienced, more portly Marty Schottenheimer?
The latter's defensive coordinator in San Diego, Phillips is a head coach who, like his former superior, tends to excel through December before falling flat at the year's turn.
Of course, there's one important difference: Schottenheimer's weak 5-13 playoff record means he still has five more wins than Phillips, who might only get one more chance to change that in Dallas.
The news that Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett won't coach either the Ravens or Falcons provokes rumblings that he will eventually coach his current employer. The only person whose views on the subject count for more than speculation is Jerry Jones; as for fans, the question is not whether Phillips will be gone but if Phillips should be gone.
Specifically, he has to prove that he's more than a regular-season champion.
Phillips is 61-42 as head coach in ordinarily scheduled games yet 61-46 overall, as he's lost each of the four playoff contests where he's been the boss. Consistent standard-season efforts haven't exactly translated into postseason domination, and it's at the point where he's had enough tries for this to be considered a tendency and not just a fluke because of rawness or insufficient opportunities on which to be judged.
His inability to perform as a leader who rises to his circumstances was on display at home versus the Giants, as his team played down to an opponent it beat in both September and November. During the regular season, this squad's greatest strength was persevering through challenges and adapting to whom it was facing, often coming out at halftime with a modified game plan that allowed the Cowboys to outscore whomever they were battling in the final two quarters.
But that didn't happen against New York, as the usually potent Cowboys offense only managed three measly second-half points while Eli Manning efficiently got his team in a position to get the touchdown it needed against a defense that conceded too much at the wrong moment.
A regular-season juggernaut fell flat instead of dictating the tempo.
Phillips might be cast in the Buddy Ryan mold, where he's great at positioning guys as a coordinator but doesn't possess the necessary charisma or generalship to be the chief for the long term. It's not necessarily a slam against him: Some people are better qualified to be the assistant than the boss, and one doesn't necessarily need to be standing at the ladder's top step to be a success.
Unfortunately, there's also a negative way to perceive that viewpoint, namely by noting that a coach who's led four teams with at worst decent rosters to playoff losses in four tries might not be able to handle the demands of being the ultimate authority.
What happened specifically before his second playoff appearance in Buffalo, where Phillips' wavering between quarterbacks eventually wrecked any shot his team had at a deep playoff excursion, didn't as much define who he is as reveal what he lacks. He got a chance this year to prove that his previous clumsiness was an aberration, but he instead further confirmed it with a flat showing as the conference's top seed.
The cumulative effect of Phillips' missteps is what led to Garrett becoming a very well-compensated coordinator; he's also now the assistant coach, an interesting new title that he was given with his contract.
It's another reason why Phillips should be concerned about job security this upcoming season, even after a 13-3 2007 mark.
This is a case where, without a playoff victory after the next campaign, Phillips' firing could not only actually happen but also be justified, despite his high winning percentage, by a team that's expecting both regular and postseason achievements.
When it comes to the playoffs, forget the next step: Phillips hasn't even taken that first one.
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