In a venue as consistently boisterous as Highmark Stadium, it’s a bit eerie to hear even a momentary silence.
And though fans of the Buffalo Bills were still raucous in the final moments of the team’s Week 3 matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2019 season, they showed universal concern when defensive tackle Harrison Phillips sat on the turf and motioned to the sideline for assistance.
Just what, exactly, was wrong with Phillips was unknown. His injury looked rather innocent, as he was virtually untouched on the prior play. Fans cheered as Phillips walked off the field under his own power.
They didn’t realize that this would be the last time they would see Phillips all season.
Roughly 24 hours after Buffalo’s win over Cincinnati, head coach Sean McDermott announced that Phillips had torn his ACL and would miss the remainder of his second professional season.
And while there’s never a fortunate time for injuries, especially not those with the magnitude of an ACL tear, there perhaps was not a more inopportune time for Phillip’s ailment. He was coming into his own as a key defensive piece for the Bills, a rotational ace on a Buffalo defensive line that drew its success from its heavy rotation.
Phillips had seen his snap-percentage increase in each game of the 2019 season, playing on 43.3% of defensive snaps in Week 3. After looking primed to enter a greater defensive role, he was forced to start from scratch, to rehabilitate himself in hopes of being ready to play not next week – but next year.
Naturally, his recovery came with some hardships.
“Many [hardships],” Phillips told Cover 1. “Many, many, many. Just as many physically as mentally. It was very frustrating to try to do everything the right way, train the right way, practice hard, do everything you can, and your body still not answer to what you believe it can do.
“You can only train your body so much, right? Different than a wide receiver, or a defensive back, my body was fine for the force that it would take from itself. If I were to run up and jump on my leg, I felt comfortable that my knee was healthy enough to sustain that. But in the trenches, I’ve got to play a double team from two people weighing 330 pounds and me planting on my leg, there was so much more force than I could ever replicate through training. That’s why it’s a little bit different for linemen coming back versus a skill position. There’s just so much more force when you calculate it and think about it.”
Phillips, who underwent surgery to repair his ACL in September of 2019, stayed in Buffalo throughout the majority of his rehabilitation, determined to be ready to go in time for the 2020 season. In the face of the numerous obstacles that could have sidetracked him – a global pandemic in addition to potential recovery setbacks – Phillips persevered.
If he was physically able to, he was working to get back on the field. His rehabilitation process started just one day after his September surgery, not taking a single day off until the start of the season.
“Once the injury happened, had surgery, the next day I’m in physical therapy,” Phillips said. “That entire offseason, through Covid, I stuck around until they kicked me out, but it was working out, working out, working out, six hours a day, eight hours a day, just training in the offseason every day, then straight to training camp, and then straight to the season. I didn’t have a day off.
“A lot of people, when they’re coming back from injuries, they might take a day or so off in training camp, or have a lightened load. I didn’t. I was full through the whole time.”
Phillips’ offseason of excruciating preparation paid off, as he played on 36% of Buffalo’s defensive snaps in its 2020 season opener against the New York Jets.
But just as one set of obstacles was conquered, more were presented. Though Phillips was healthy enough to play at the start of the season, he – as one may expect out of a player in his situation – stumbled out of the gate.
“Just getting into some of those positions and watching the film through some of the first games, I was on the ground a lot, or I’d be in a position where I probably should plant, but instead I took a couple steps, kind of stuttered my feet instead of just plant and go,” Phillips said. “That took a while to get comfortable in and to get myself in situations that I built up that trust in myself and my trust in the knees.”
Buffalo’s once-formidable defense started to show cracks in the early part of the 2020 campaign. After finishing the 2018 and 2019 seasons ranked second and third in total defense, respectively, the unit struggled to kick off 2020, allowing over 300 net yards in four out of its first five games. In two of those contests, it allowed over 400 net yards.
Displeased with the team’s defensive play, the Bills’ coaching staff aimed to shake things up following a 42-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 5.
Their message was sent through the inactivation of Phillips.
The interior lineman, who had tallied just three tackles throughout the first five games of the season, was made inactive for the team’s Week 6 matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs, and again for its Week 7 bout with the Jets. After playing in Week 8, he was again made inactive for Weeks 9 and 10.
Though many players may have viewed such a move as a demotion, or as a decision made with malice, Phillips viewed it as an opportunity. He was finally going to get some rest, something he desperately needed after refusing to take a day off for over one year.
“During the middle of [the season], I was inactive for a few games and got some rest,” Phillips said. “When I came back, I felt like I was playing a lot better as I got some rest. Also started to trust myself, and it was just further along than when the actual injury happened. I thought I grew a lot as the season progressed.”
Phillips was productive once he got back into the lineup, finishing the season with career highs in quarterback hurries (seven) and knockdowns (four) (per Sports Info Solutions, subscription required). He saw his snap percentage continue to increase as he reacclimated himself to Buffalo’s defense, ultimately playing on 51% of the team’s defensive snaps in its AFC Championship game loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Just as Phillips was beginning to refind his form, beginning to once again look like the starting-caliber defensive tackle that Buffalo fans have seen flashes of; the season stopped.
So how does he plan to carry this momentum over into the new season?
With a refined offseason plan, one that he’s fine-tuned over his four years in the league.
“Believe it or not, you age so fast, your body can only take so much training,” Phillips said. “Also, since the injuries, you have to be more corrective on your body versus constantly grinding and grinding. But there’s a time and place for anything. My first year, it was kind of vetting all of these other players, ‘what worked for you? What worked for you? What worked for you?’ So kind of messing with that through these offseasons, I kind of found what works for me.
“In the month or so that I do my two-a-days, five hours in the weight room, and grinding, and then where do I taper off from the strength stuff and shift more towards on-field drills of defensive line play? Where do I want my weight to be at what point in the offseason? Those are just things that you learn and pick up and try to find something new each offseason. Pilates was a big thing that I picked up this offseason, doing some more core-type things. The offseason before, I did a lot of boxing for some cardio and things like that. [It’s] like a motor, and you’ve just got to fine-tune the motor each year and figure out what works best for each player.”
Phillips spent the majority of the 2021 offseason in Buffalo, something that Sean McDermott took note of. The head coach recently told reporters that Phillips was at the facility, “helping lead our football team,” throughout the offseason before suggesting that he expects the defensive tackle to take a leap in his second year back from his injury.
In the face of adversity – an ACL tear, a temporary fall down the depth chart, and a brutal postseason loss – Phillips has not only battled back to full health, but he’s also evolved into a leader, a role model who sets the standard for his teammates on and off the field.
For Phillips, it’s all part of the job.
“There [are] two types of leadership,” Phillips said. “One is the positional leadership, and that’s like, your middle linebacker is going to be a leader, your starting quarterback is going to be a leader, and your 10-year vet is going to be a leader, because of the positon they’re in. Then there’s personal leadership, and that’s the leadership that you get, gain respect, when players walk by after practice, and they see Tre’Davious White doing extra reps, and doing his extra work. He gets a little bit of leadership for that.
“In the same aspect, now that I’ve been here for three years, going on four years, those players who see the way that I am as a player, how serious I take my craft, the way that I am in the film room, staying late, first car there in the morning, last car to leave, those types of things, built up a lot of personal power, as well. As we really build this thing to reach the goals that are out in front of us of not only getting to the game that we got to last year, but making it to the next one, everyone has to step up and lead in some capacity.”
If you liked this piece, check out Cover 1’s interview with Bills safety Jordan Poyer here.