In one sense, Kenny Phillips can understand why NFL teams were reluctant to try him out for two seasons.
Knee problems had sidelined the safety for nine games in 2012, and three seasons earlier they kept him out of 14 contests. When Phillips switched teams in 2013, a hurt quadriceps limited him in training camp, prevented him from appearing in a pair of preseason exhibitions, and convinced his new club to cut him.
However, in another sense, Phillips can’t comprehend why it took until Wednesday for him to receive his next opportunity in the NFL, when the New Orleans Saints signed him to an expanded roster for the 2015 offseason.
It wasn’t that long ago that Phillips was at the top of his profession, winning the Super Bowl for the 2011 season with the Giants, who had chosen him out of the University of Miami in the first round of the draft three years earlier. That year, he’d registered single-season highs in interceptions (four), passes defended (11) and tackles (86), and he’d forced a fumble to demonstrate that he could be a productive member of a championship team.
“I was confused — so quickly, ... it was like nothing I did had even mattered,” Phillips said Thursday. “And I’m watching the play of some of the (safeties) that were in the league; and nothing against them, but I was like, ‘Man, I know I can do a better job than that.’”
The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Phillips now will get his chance to prove that. But he almost ran out of the patience it required first.
After starting 41 regular-season games for the Giants from 2008-12, intercepting eight throws, defending 26 passes and recording 200 tackles (138 solo), Phillips joined the Eagles in free agency. But he had not fully healed from the quad issue that shortened his final campaign with the Giants, during which he’d unsuccessfully attempted to play on a bad knee.
“I don’t want to say I regret trying to play through my injuries, but I probably would’ve been well off if I had maybe just sat down and tried to get myself all the way healthy rather than rush back and play through,” Phillips said. “But I love playing this game. I wasn’t thinking as a businessman. I was thinking with my heart, as a football player.”
Phillips wasn’t physically where he “needed to be” when he reported to training camp with the Eagles in 2013, which was coach Chip Kelly’s first year in Philadelphia. The Eagles released Phillips before final cuts.
Phillips subsequently focused on rehab and maintaining his physical shape. He spent time at a park in his hometown of Miami toiling through defensive back drills. For many of those drills, his father played quarterback. His brother lined up at tight end. And his girlfriend ran routes at receiver.
“My family was right there with me — they’re probably the worst corps of receivers and skill-position players you’ve ever seen, but we definitely got the job done,” Phillips said, laughing.
The dedication to his craft didn’t immediately pay dividends for Phillips. Every two weeks or so after his release from the Eagles, Phillips checked in with his agent to see if any teams were interested in bringing him into the mix. The answer from August 2013 to November 2014 was the same: “Not yet.”
Phillips didn’t respond passively to that. For one, he changed agents. He gathered coaches’ email addresses and phone numbers. He sent them emails and text messages insisting he was healthy again and would be worth at least a workout.
There were no replies, though. So Phillips began planning for life after football. He’d complete his college degree at Miami. He’d seek a gig coaching high-school football and explore the possibility of launching a business.
That was until an ex-college coach he remained in touch with needed help. Wesley McGriff, the Saints’ secondary coach who was at Miami from 2007-2010, had seen three safeties — Jairus Byrd, Vinnie Sunseri and Rafael Bush — suffer season-ending injuries between Oct. 2 and Nov. 16. The Saints decided to work out free-agent safeties, and McGriff called Phillips to see if he’d be up to flying to New Orleans to be evaluated.
Phillips leapt at the opportunity. The Saints didn’t extend him an offer following the workout, but they told him they could see him returning in the future.
“The information they gave me gave me confidence I can still play this game,” Phillips said.
Three days after New Orleans concluded a 2014 season in which it went 7-9, fell short of the playoffs and fielded the second-worst defense in the NFL, Phillips officially became a Saint.
Phillips is realistic about his prospects of making the Saints, who — aside from Byrd, Bush and Sunseri — have Kenny Vaccaro, Pierre Warren, Jamarca Sanford and Marcus Ball at safety. They all have experience in the Saints’ system and have at least played in the NFL recently. They’re stiff competition.
But Phillips finds comfort in this.
“I wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity if I wasn’t ready,” he said. “And that’s all I’ve been looking for: an opportunity. I feel good. My body feels good.”
And that’s more than he could say the last time he pursued NFL employment.