HOUSTON -- Two weeks ago, Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips cracked jokes about going on medical leave to have surgery on his kidney and gallbladder.
The 64-year-old Phillips returned to practice Wednesday in a more somber mood, though he's confident he'll be able to work from the press box Sunday when Houston (10-5) plays Tennessee (8-7) in the regular-season finale.
"It's good to be back," Phillips said. "It's not as funny now as it was before I was going in. I'm a little more sore than I thought I'd be. It's taken a lot out of me, but I'm working my way back, doing what the doctors say."
Phillips went on medical leave Dec. 14, and had surgery the next day. Linebackers coach Reggie Herring ran the defense in his absence, and the Texans lost their next two games.
The players got a pleasant surprise Monday when Phillips showed up at a meeting, and they got another emotional lift when he joined them on the practice field Wednesday.
"Even just seeing him out there and smiling and making calls," linebacker Brian Cushing said, "I know that means a lot for him, as well. To be away from football like that, it really hurt him. For him to be back out there, all of us are just happier to see him out there."
Phillips mingled with his players during the practice, but walked to the sideline late in the workout to sit on a golf cart with his father, Bum, the former coach of the Houston Oilers.
Phillips was hospitalized for eight days, and says he's only now getting back to eating regular food.
"I'm starting to feel better and better," Phillips said. "I'll feel good, and then all of a sudden, my energy level does go down a little bit. But that'll get better as it goes."
Houston's defense has made a dramatic turnaround from 2010 in Phillips' first season, ranking second overall (281 yards per game). The Texans have already set a single-season record for sacks (41) and rank 10th in takeaways (26).
Phillips said the hardest part of his recovery is over, and returning to his regular schedule this week has boosted his spirits.
"Once you get into your routine, once you get to start eating and start being with the players and with the team, in the meetings and so forth, then everything gets easier," he said. "I'm just starting out, solid foods now. Once I get back to normal, which seems to be the case right now, that will get better and better."
Coach Gary Kubiak visited Phillips in the hospital and was relieved to see him back on the field.
"Just for me, knowing what he went through, to see where he was then and where he's at right now, it's a great feeling," Kubiak said . "It's one thing you can't take for granted in life, your health. It's good to see him back out here, and I know we all appreciate it. The players are glad to see him back."
Phillips said earlier this season he was getting too much credit for reviving a defense that ranked 30th overall last season (376.9 yards per game). Fired as coach of the Dallas Cowboys in the middle of last season, Phillips was hired last January, implemented a 3-4 alignment and moved Mario Williams to outside linebacker.
The defense showed instant improvement and was ranked No. 1 in the league for several weeks. But the unit gave up long touchdown drives in the fourth quarters of the two games he missed.
Phillips broke down film of the two games, and defensive end Antonio Smith said he downplayed his condition and got back to business Monday.
"He just told us the situation," Smith said. "He told us about how he missed us and how he missed football most of all. And then he told us what he thought of the games he missed, because he said he watched all of them. And he told us what we need to do in the future."
Smith said the Texans were keeping each other updated on Phillips' condition throughout the last two weeks. Seeing him back at work, Smith said, has put everyone at ease this week.
"You can hear somebody tell you that somebody's all right," Smith said, "but when you see him talking and he's in good spirits, it gives you an easier heart for the people who are really just worried about him as a person, and his health. That was good, just to see that he's all right."