ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The first year Dick LeBeau and Wade Phillips worked the same season as NFL assistant coaches, current Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak was playing at St. Pius X High School in Houston.
Paul McCartney was passing his post-Beatles time fronting Wings, “Silly Love Songs" was the year’s No. 1 song and folks had flocked to the theaters for a year of blockbusters that included “Rocky," “All the President’s Men” and “Taxi Driver." In short, when the Broncos and Tennessee Titans conduct their football business in Nashville on Sunday, the defensive playcallers will have a combined 82 NFL seasons served as assistant or head coaches in the league.
Phillips is in his second season with the Broncos, his 39th overall in the NFL, while LeBeau is in his 43rd season as an NFL coach after his Hall of Fame playing career. And the two have moved through the decades making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks as they’ve found a way to connect with players, adapt with the times and still enjoy what they do.
Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders played four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers when LeBeau was the team’s defensive coordinator and has been with the Broncos since the 2014 season. So, he has seen LeBeau and Phillips up close.
He has seen how they work, how they interact with the players around them and deal with the challenges on the field in front of them. And he said each has his own way of building all of the bridges.
“You see Wade, he’s dancing on the sideline, having a good time," Sanders said. “It can be country, hip-hop, Wade’s dancing and you say, ‘I love that guy.'"
“Coach LeBeau is going to walk with you, he’s going to put his hand on your shoulder and he’s going to tell you he loves you," Sanders continued. “He’s going to make sure you know he cares, he’s going to tell you he loves you 100 times."
None of that included any comments about X's and O's within the game or the ability to design pass-rush packages that consistently free up rushers as offenses continued to evolve. But it comes down to a people business as both coaches have continued to find ways to coach players in 2016 who may be far different than those in 1980.
Both have been head coaches and both have seen their greatest successes running defenses that have led the league in sacks and handed out countless contusions along the way.
“It’s amazing," said Kubiak, who hired Phillips in 2015. “[LeBeau] is a special person. You look at he and Wade, how long they’ve been doing it and how well they continue to do it with all these young kids running around and how they continue to relate to these young kids and push the right buttons."
“The longer you coach, I think it helps, because you come in and they think you know something and you can help them," Phillips said. “Reputation helps you I think, word of mouth that helps. But I think you just be yourself and coach the way you coach. If you like a guy all right, I think you play for him a little better than if you don’t like him at all. That old thing where you have to be mean to players all the time and cuss them out, they don’t fear you, I can tell you that. You’ve got to relate to them on a level where you can help them be a better player."
Each has coached teams that finished No. 1 in defense -- Phillips did it last season when the Broncos' defense powered a Super Bowl run -- and won championships. And while their schemes may not always seem complicated, they have worked as the game has changed and offenses have increasingly put the ball in the air.
In 1980, for example, two quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards, 16 quarterbacks threw for 3,000 yards and five quarterbacks attempted at least 500 passes. Last season, by contrast, 12 quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards, 23 quarterbacks threw for 3,000 yards and six quarterback attempted 600 passes while 15 attempted at least 500 passes.
“You see his age and you think he wouldn’t be able to relate to the younger guys, but that’s who he flocks to," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said of Wade Phillips. “But I wasn’t expecting it. I’ve had older coaches before where you just said, ‘yes, sir, no sir,’ and you get your job done, go to work and not really a sense of humor."
In the end, two coaches who started their careers long before cable and the Internet will likely decide who comes away with a win Sunday in Nissan Stadium.
LeBeau said at the scouting combine earlier this year that he “would keep on going in this as long as somebody will have me. I love coaching and the players, they keep you young."
“The mastermind of the zone blitz," Phillips said of LeBeau. “He’s in the Hall of Fame as a player really, but he should be in the Hall of Fame as a coach. He’s tremendous. If they ever give assistant coaches in the Hall of Fame, he would be one I would put in for sure."