HOUSTON -- With a black cowboy hat on, Antonio Smith might as well have been chewing on straw when asked about the first time he shot the breeze with Wade Phillips.
The Houston Texans' garrulous defensive end paused, thinking back to the vow made by the new sheriff in town.
"The No. 1 defense. From Day 1, he had no interest in mediocre," Smith said. "He was confident in what he thought we could be and how we could fit into the system."
Phillips came off sounding like a sage prophet after his first season as Houston's defensive coordinator. The Texans were the league's top defense late into the season before finishing second after a slide that coincided with Phillips leaving the team for a couple of weeks on medical leave.
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Houston was 30th out of 32 teams in total defense last year.
Phillips is back now, and the Texans are headed to the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's decade-long history. AFC South champion Houston hosts Cincinnati in the wild-card round Saturday at Reliant Stadium.
Phillips had kidney and gall bladder surgery on Dec. 15 and missed the following two games. He returned to practice in the week leading up to the regular-season finale and coached from the press box in Sunday's loss to Tennessee.
"It's taken a lot out of me," Phillips said, "but I'm working my way back, doing what the doctors say, ready to keep building up and getting ready."
The transformation of the Texans' defense is nothing short of remarkable. So is Phillips' makeover. The son of former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips and a native of Orange, Wade is standing tall again after what had been a successful run as the Dallas Cowboys' head coach collapsed in spectacular fashion in 2010.
The Cowboys began last season as a Super Bowl contender before a 1-7 start cost Phillips his job, marking the first time Jerry Jones fired a coach during a season. Phillips is a hot commodity once again whose name has already popped up for coaching vacancies in Jacksonville and Miami, and will surely be mentioned when new jobs come available.
"Who wouldn't want him as a head coach? I understand how it ended in Dallas, but he had a pretty good couple of years there," Texans linebacker Brian Cushing said. "What I don't understand is why anyone wouldn't want to play for him. He's one of those guys who makes football so fun. He's got a great relationship with his players. He's a perfect defensive coordinator and a perfect head coach."
You'll get no arguments out of Keith Brooking, who played for Phillips in Atlanta before signing with the Cowboys three years ago.
"His system has held up for over 30 years now in the NFL. That speaks for itself," Brooking said. "Wherever he's been he's had tremendous amount of success as a head coach, as a coordinator, so it doesn't surprise me a bit. They're arguably missing their best defensive player, as well. It's just a testament to his ability to put guys in the right position."
The Texans' injury roll call includes being without Mario Williams, a Pro Bowl defensive end-turned-outside linebacker with a team-leading five sacks through the first five games before being lost for the season with a torn pectoral. Houston's defense has held up with Phillips working in newcomers such as rookie Brooks Reed and finding spots for others.
Phillips moved Cushing from outside linebacker to inside, and the three-year veteran out of USC has responded with a career year. Cushing wasn't stoked with the change when it was first broached, but talking to Phillips changed his mind.
"It does start with scheme, it starts with attitude and the personality the team has to come in and win," Cushing said. "He's really instilled this in the team and done a great job since Day 1 of telling us what to do, keeping it simple and attacking the offenses.
"He's moved guys into certain positions that no one really thought they were capable of playing."
Houston defenders have praised the simplicity and aggressiveness of Phillips' 3-4 scheme. But, as Cushing indicated, Phillips brought more than X's and O's to the Texans.
"People believe in his system, and it's allowed us to have confidence," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "A confident defense and a confident player is always the best combination."
Phillips helped the Texans become what they also thought they could be.
"Most of it's about want-to from the players, and with Wade coming in, everyone was eager to adapt to Wade's system and see what he had for us," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "Everybody bought in. Everyone was gunning to be good defensively. We wanted to be a lot better than we were last year. Guys have stepped up. Guys have been accountable every week. That's the biggest turnaround for us."
The Texans are happy to have their defensive sheriff back anywhere in the stadium. Unlike the Cowboys, Houston is headed to the postseason.
Not that Phillips would point that out.
"Coach Wade would never, ever say, 'I told you so.' He lets his work speak for itself," said Reggie Herring, Houston's linebackers coach and interim defensive coordinator during Phillips' absence.
"He's too good a person. He doesn't have time to worry about that nonsense. He's a very genuine guy who wishes everybody well and he cheers for Dallas -- his son [Wes Phillips] coaches for Dallas -- just as hard as the Texans."