Outstanding field coverage is one of new starting safety Jermaine Phillips' strengths
On March 11, Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Bruce Allen had this to say about one of the team's young, rising players: "We think Jermaine Phillips has a bright future."
And, as far as the Buccaneers are concerned, that future is now.
Allen wasn't just riffing on Phillips out of the blue. That was the afternoon on which the team announced it would be parting ways with John Lynch, the five-time Pro Bowl safety and immensely popular Buccaneer. The main reason Allen and the Bucs' coaching staff felt comfortable with that surprising decision was the play of Phillips during the 2003 season.
Phillips was drafted by Tampa Bay in the fifth round in 2002, and has thus had two full seasons to absorb the Buccaneers' defensive system and adjust to the level of play in the NFL. Though he played mostly on special teams as a rookie, he had the good fortune to be around a secondary that put together one of the greatest pass-defense seasons in NFL history.
That he put that experience to good use in his own development was evident in 2003, when a rash of injuries to the defensive backfield put Phillips on the field more often than not. The coaching staff loved his range, learned to trust his play-making skills and decided that, indeed, the future was now.
So Phillips will go into his third NFL season as an opening-day starter on the most consistently outstanding defense of the past decade. That alone makes him a compelling story for the Buccaneers this offseason. Factor in his replacement of Lynch, the long-time team leader, and Phillips is sure to be under the fans' microscope for some time.
And that in turn made Phillips the perfect guest for the "Your Turn" interview series. For several weeks, visitors to Buccaneers.com have submitted questions for the safety's consideration; predictably, a majority of those queries centered on how he felt about replacing Lynch.
And how does he feel? Read on. On Wednesday, Phillips sat in front of a Buccaneers.com video camera to answer 20 of those questions sent in by the fans. A recording of the first half of Phillips' Your Turn interview can be found in Buccaneers.com Video Archive and on the home page in the Buccaneers Broadcast Network.
In addition, a full written transcript of the interview follows below. Later in the week, Phillips' answers to the second 10 questions will be posted, as well.
Your Turn with Jermaine Phillips, Part I
1. Dewey Helvestine, San Francisco, California: Exactly how much pressure is on you now replacing John Lynch in the secondary, and how do you deal with it?
Phillips: "I was putting a lot of pressure on myself at first, but after talking to (Derrick) Brooks, he was saying, 'You're not replacing John Lynch, you're replacing a position. You're replacing a safety. You've got to come in and fill that position of safety that we don't have.' Because, of course, replacing John Lynch is something that I'm not able to do right now. He's been a Pro Bowler, he was a team captain and he's been a leader on this team for several years."
2. Chris L., Austin, Texas: You have the unenviable task of replacing a Pro Bowler and a fan favorite. How do your abilities differ from his and what are your strengths and weaknesses in comparison?
Phillips: "I think that my strength is the way that I run to the ball, sideline-to-sideline. Just covering ground, covering grass – I think that's my strength. Of course, I'm not the hitter that Lynch is, and of course the experience is a big difference. Being in the league 10 years as opposed to three is a big difference. With experience comes a lot of things."
3. Clay, Morgantown, West Virginia: Is there any added pressure on you given that this franchise has been known for its great defensive teams?
Phillips: "No, I think stepping in last year – I guess I started about seven or eight games last year – and being able to come in and show what I can do, and have them have confidence in me, I think that I can fill the void that's needed and we can still be a top-ranked defense in the NFL."
4. Leroy Webb, Tampa, Florida: How much has playing behind John Lynch helped you in the two years you've spent so far with the Bucs?
Phillips: "Oh, it's helped me tremendously. He's shown me the ropes. He's shown me different things, different techniques to make me better as a football player. He brought me down to San Diego to train with him for a week and to spend time with his family, and that was huge for me. Just to see how a Pro Bowler (trains) and why he's been in the league for so long…I got to see that first-hand. And he bought me my first suit. It's been great playing behind him."
5. Chris, New Port Richey, Florida: Will you be a big part of the blitz packages this year?
Phillips: "Will I be a big part of the blitz package? That remains to be seen. I don't know how much I can say and how much I cannot say, but we'll see. Hopefully, you'll get your wish, and that would be mine too, that I would become part of the blitz package. But we'll just have to wait and see."
6. Kim Thurmond: Augusta, Georgia: You play for Jon Gruden, a fierce, in-your-face coach. In college at Georgia, you played for Mark Richt, a more calm, not in-your-face-type. Both coaches seem to bring out the best in players. What was the transition like from one style of coaching to the other?
Phillips: "I think it really wasn't a transition for me, for the simple fact that Coach Richt was really an offensive coach and he was dealing with the offense a lot of the time. Coach Gruden is the same way. He's with the offense most of the time. So I've had the same style of coach at Georgia and here at Tampa, both in-your-face and get-the-job-done type coaches on defense. It's a big difference between the two (head) coaches, but me personally, I never had to deal with either one of them."
7. Simon Humphrey, Tampa, Florida: How much does your past experience as a receiver help you as a safety?
Phillips: "I think that just knowing what to look for out of receivers, different breaks and everything that might help me out just a little bit. But it really doesn't help me out too much. Just ball skills and being able to catch the ball. You know, DBs are know to be receivers who can't catch, so hopefully I can change that trend."
8. Mike Hallman, Wilmington, North Carolina: You ended the 2003 season with a good game against the Titans. Do you think this momentum will carry into 2004 and could you have a breakout year?
Phillips: "I think that gave me a lot of confidence going into the offseason. I'm working hard this offseason, and God willing I will have a breakout year this year. But we'll see what happens. I'm just taking it step-by-step, day-by-day and trying to get better each day."
9. Keith Pommer, Clearwater, Florida: The safety position is known for some ferocious hitters. Do you think you are ready to be this type of hitter as the new starter for the Buccaneers this season?
Phillips: "I don't know if I'm ready, but I definitely want to try to be that type of hitter and that type of player. But I know that's going to take time and you have to pick and choose your battles. I think I'm ready and willing to do that."
10. Sedrick Cook, Roswell, Georgia: Are you nervous or anything or are you just ready to do what I know you can do?
Phillips: "Well, Sedrick, he's out in Arizona right now. He knows I'm going to do what he knows I can do and what I'm ready to do."