Any story on Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips, what football means to this third-generation NFL coach, and what that, in turn, means to Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell must include the tale of a retired Marine Corps sniper named Lee Hays waking up in the desert in 2004 in the passenger's seat of an old state police car that had been donated to West Texas A&M's Division II football team.
Hays was the school's second-year offensive coordinator. Phillips, 25 and 12 years younger, was the first-year quarterbacks coach.
"We're on a recruiting trip from Amarillo, Texas, to San Francisco, down to San Diego and back to Amarillo," Hays said. "The car's so old, we're carrying a jug of water because the radiator has a leak. Wes is barely making two pennies to rub together, stuck working for an old Marine. Buddy, if you can survive that, you really want to coach."
Hays drove until midnight. Phillips took over. Hays went to sleep, figuring Phillips would wake him up to drive or look for a hotel when he got tired. Phillips instead pulled to the side of the road, threw the seat back and …
"I wake up and the sun's up and we're boiling because it's 120 degrees in the car," Hays said. "I look over and scream, 'Goddangit, Wes! GET UP!' "
"And that's how Wes Phillips — Bum's grandson and Wade's son — got his start in coaching."
Hays and Phillips stay in touch. Now a line coach at Lubbock-Cooper High in Lubbock, Texas, Hays texted Monday morning asking for plays to beat the Cover 4 schemes used by the Fighting Pirates' next opponent.
A day earlier, another coach higher up the food chain leaned on Phillips during a TV timeout.
O'Connell's eye in the sky
O'Connell calls his own plays, but he was searching for one during a change of possession midway through the second quarter of Sunday's win over the Saints.
"Wes is upstairs, seeing the game from five levels up," O'Connell said. "I trust him. He not only understands the game, but I know how well he knows me as a play-caller and what I'm setting up."
Phillips suggested a play based on how the defense was flowing and the relative ease of the read required by quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who was making his starting debut and second appearance in his 13th day as Vikings QB/NFL Story of the Year.
"During that TV timeout, Wes said, 'Have you thought about this play?' " O'Connell said. "I said, 'Great call.' "
From his own 18-yard line, Dobbs faked a pitch to the left and ran a keeper to the right. With his reads cut down to half the field, Dobbs had Brandon Powell at 5 yards, Jordan Addison at 15 and Jalen Nailor at 25.
Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu's hard reaction to Powell left Addison open for a 29-yard completion, the longest play of the game. Eight snaps later, the Vikings led 17-3.
See the play at the 52-second mark of the video below:
"Kevin's the man, and I got no problems saying that," Phillips said, then compared O'Connell to Rams coach Sean McVay, their former boss. "These guys are really good at what they do. When they're rolling, you don't need to say anything."
After games, Phillips compiles an "After Action Report" that breaks down what the Vikings did and didn't do right offensively. He presents that to the players and moves on to his lead role in organizing the next game plan, scripting practice for the week and, he said, "taking anything off Kevin's plate that I can because we're close and I see all the different directions he gets pulled in. More than needs to be, in my opinion."
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Game plans come together in different ways each week. Example:
"I thought our short-yardage, goal-line plan against the Saints was really good," Phillips said. "Well, a couple of those plays came from the coaches in our run pod [meeting]."
Running back Ty Chandler's two-yard touchdown run from a direct snap after Dobbs motioned right came from running backs coach/run game coordinator Curtis Modkins, offensive line coach Chris Kuper and assistant line coach Justin Rascati.
'I want to be a head coach'
Phillips, 44, wants to be an NFL head coach, which would complete the first three-generation trio of head coaches in league history. But he wouldn't rush the process this past offseason when Chargers coach Brandon Staley essentially offered him L.A.'s offensive coordinator job with play-calling duties. Coordinators are free to make lateral moves if they're adding play-calling duties, which some teams feel is necessary in hiring a coordinator as head coach. Phillips turned it down because he felt he and O'Connell had unfinished business in Minnesota.
"Selfishly, that was huge for me, for us," O'Connell said. "Wes and I are incredibly close. There's a reason why he was the guy that I wanted here with me. He's going to make a fantastic play-caller, coordinator and head coach."
Phillips joined the NFL when his dad got the Cowboys head coaching job and hired him as a quality control coach in 2007. It took Wes seven years to become a position coach (tight ends), including 3 ½ in Dallas after the Cowboys fired his dad.
"My dad was running the team meeting one day and Jason Garrett was running it the next," Phillips said. "My dad's sisters and everyone hated the Cowboys, and I was still working for them for 3 ½ years. Jason and I talked. I wanted him to know I'm whoever's guy I'm working for and I'm going to do my absolute best I can."
Wade, of all people, understood.
"I went through the same thing in New Orleans [in 1985]," Wade said. "My dad got fired with three games left and I coached the team. It's part of the business."
Wade sees some Bum in Wes.
"Wes has a great feel for the game," Wade said. "Football is about people, not X's and O's. My dad had a great knack for making people feel good about themselves. Wes has that."
Wes knows Dobbs Mania and its potential for unprecedented success is the only reason he has appeared on anyone's head coaching watch list the past two weeks. Just three weeks ago, the Vikings' season appeared doomed when Kirk Cousins suffered a season-ending injury. Now, the Vikings have won a league-high five straight games heading into Sunday night's game at Denver.
"Let's be honest," Phillips said. "If Arizona had thought Josh could play this way, he wouldn't be here. I've been on teams that lost their starting quarterback. I know what that usually feels like."
Phillips was in Washington in 2018 when Alex Smith broke his leg. Two weeks and two losses later, Colt McCoy broke his leg. Mark Sanchez was signed off the street. He went 0-1 and got benched after two quarters. Josh Johnson, who hadn't thrown a pass in a regular-season game in seven years, was signed and finished the year 1-2.
"To lose a guy like Kirk and then have someone else inject that same belief back into an entire team — that just doesn't happen very often," Phillips said.
No silver-spoon rich kid
Phillips played quarterback at UTEP. Not well enough to bother going to his NFL pro day, but he still had wanted to play in 2002, so …
"I looked on the AF2 Arena League website and got the number for the San Diego Riptide," Phillips said. "Called them up and asked if they had a tryout."
"I said, 'Sure, come on out,' " said Cree Morris, the Riptide's head coach. "Wes was a gunslinger. Wasn't afraid to run. Got really thumped one time, I think when he and I were with the Central Valley Coyotes the next year. He comes over, smiles and says, 'That one's gonna hurt in the morning.' "
Phillips was mostly a backup. In 2002, he completed 43.1% of his 55 passes for 319 yards, six touchdowns and an interception.
"I knew where my future was and wasn't," Phillips said.
Phillips returned to UTEP in 2003 as an unpaid assistant and a year later got the job at West Texas A&M.
"I was expecting some little spoiled, silver-spoon coach's kid to come rolling in," Hays said. "And it was quite the opposite.
"Lord knows I tried to run him off, but I couldn't have done it with a stick. I didn't work smart. I grinded. If we got out of there at midnight, 1 a.m., that was early. And the young guys, during three-a-days, they had to go down to the grocery store at like 5 a.m. to get the fruit they were going to throw out and come back and set up the breakfast table for the players."
West Texas A&M was 0-11 in 2002 and 3-8 in 2003. In 2004, Hays had an idea.
"No one was running the spread offense, except Mike Leach at Texas Tech," Phillips said. "He thought we should drive the 100 miles down the road and learn the spread from Mike Leach."
Wade had the same agent as Leach. The agent connected Leach with Hays and Wes.
"Wes was a godsend because I'm an offensive line guy," Hays said. "I could focus on that, and I'd send Wes in with Leach and know that Wes was smart enough to not only understand all the stuff Leach was talking about but to install it on our team."
In 2005, Phillips' last year there, West Texas A&M went 10-2 — its best record since 1950 — and made the playoffs for the first time while leading all D-II schools in passing offense (363.8 yards per game).
Phillips followed Hays to Baylor in 2006. Nearly two decades later, Hays is still leaning on Phillips' offensive savvy.
"Yeah, I did text him Monday about some Cover 4 beaters," Hays said. "In true Wes fashion, he got right back to me with three really good plays that were absolutely perfect."