Phillips' knack for juggling duties is key

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips took over the defensive coordinator duties, it seemed to give him new life.

In 2008, when Brian Stewart and Phillips shared defensive play-calling duties, the Cowboys finished with the eighth-best defense in the NFL and allowed 22.8 points per game.

Last season, with Phillips doing basically everything after Stewart was released, the Cowboys ranked ninth overall on defense but led the NFC by allowing just 15.6 points a game. They also posted consecutive shutouts for the first time in franchise history.

"My read is, he's confident he can be the defensive coordinator and the head coach," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said this week from the NFL owners meetings. "And when the defense is having success, it's a real plus for the head coach to have that credibility. He's told me that."

Although it's still uncommon, Phillips wasn't the only head coach who called defensive plays last year. Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears and Rex Ryan of the New York Jets also held the dual roles.

Part of the reason Phillips continues to call signals is that the development of several key players has given him confidence that he did the right thing in taking over the defense.

  • Cornerback Mike Jenkins improved from his rookie season to his sophomore season to the point that he earned a Pro Bowl berth.

  • Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer emerged as a quality pass-rusher off the edge to force teams to worry about him and DeMarcus Ware. Spencer finished second to Ware in quarterback pressures with 36 and led the team with nine tackles for loss.

  • Stephen Bowen, a nickel defensive end, improved his value to the Dallas coaching staff by getting 33 quarterback pressures, tied for third with starting nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who became a first-time All-Pro this past season.

  • Veteran newcomers such as strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh, inside linebacker Keith Brooking and defensive end Igor Olshansky became solid contributors during the season.

    Phillips' ability to coach up defensive players has never been questioned. The difficulty of running the defense while making key in-game decisions for the entire team, however, has been a concern.

    "I think the game strategy is certainly important," Phillips said. "I think that's a big role as head coach, but I took on the role of defensive coordinator also."

    Phillips said it's not much different than for a head coach who also calls offensive plays, a more common scenario in the NFL.

    "It's just a lot of the decisions that are made during the game are offensive decisions. That's where it's a little different for the guy that's been calling all the defense."

    Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who is good friends with Phillips, has called the offensive plays while the head coach in Denver and Oakland.

    Shanahan feels defensive coaches are well prepared to make offensive decisions because they have to break down opponents' offensive game plans, especially on the fly when things change.

    "There is great input there that can be given," he said. "What you're trying to do is come up with the best plan."

    Phillips had the best plan this past season, and it's something he's going to need again. The expectations will be higher this year after the Cowboys ended a 13-year drought without a playoff victory and Phillips won his first playoff game as a head coach.

    "I think he says, 'I've experienced that feeling of being influential to the whole team with success on the defensive side of the ball,'" Jones said. "I think he feels better because he knows he's a good defensive coordinator and he knows at the right parts he can be a part of a championship team."

    Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.