Joker Phillips has coached football for 26 seasons. He's been a head coach, an offensive coordinator, a wide receivers coach, a run game coordinator and even a defensive backs coach.
But he's never coached in the NFL.
"The thing you always heard about is the egos and the attitudes of the guys. You don't know what to expect," said Phillips, the Browns' new wide receivers coach. "But here in Cleveland, we've got a great group of guys. Great group of guys."
What's surprised Phillips the most during his five months leading the Cleveland Browns' wide receivers is the accountability in the room. The guys get on each other for the littlest things.
Veterans Dwayne Bowe and Andrew Hawkins often come up in front of the classroom and offer their blunt critiques on route running, using your eyes properly and how beating this tenacious, Pro Bowl-laced Browns secondary in practice is going to help this unit exceed expectations.
"I've always said when the players become the villains, it helps the coaches out tremendously," Phillips said. "Hawk and Bowe talk like coaches. It makes everyone work harder."
During the 2014 season, Cleveland's wide receivers were the unheralded group that sparked several victories – think Travis Benjamin against Tennessee; Taylor Gabriel against Tampa Bay. But Josh Gordon's 10-game suspension and Miles Austin's frightening kidney injury in November exhausted the unit of vital resources.
So general manager Ray Farmer addressed the issue in free agency, pouncing on bargain deals with Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe – the latter has averaged 67 catches and nearly 1,000 yards in eight NFL seasons. Fourth-round pick Vince Mayle will compete for a role this season and a handful of undrafted players, including Cleveland's very own Shane Wynn, are hoping to become the latest rags to riches story with the Browns.
Phillips perks up in his office chair when quizzed about all of the ammunition in his room. It's like asking a chef about what each unique spice does in his kitchen.
Hartline? "He is one the best double-move guys I've seen. He sets the cornerbacks up on his routes. Brian's older and he understands how to get open."
Benjamin? "You can feel his speed out here on the field unlike anyone else on the whole practice field. He has warp speed. His role will be to become a big-play guy for us, a guy who can stretch the field."
Gabriel? "I walked in here and had no idea who he was. But the guy is so, so explosive. He's a smooth athlete. If you aren't a cornerback aware of him, you will be quickly – 'cause he'll burn you."
In turn, players beam when they are cross-examined on what playing for Phillips is like. You don't keep a moniker like Joker (Phillips' real name is Joseph) if you don't have a contagious spirit. During practices, Phillips is either running routes with his unit or filling in is as a defensive back and jamming his receivers at the line. He's literally as hands-on as they come.
"He's so passionate and dedicated to football," Gabriel said. "I appreciate that because it makes me want to give 110 percent on the field for him."
Even though coach Mike Pettine said he knew 15 minutes into the interview he was going to hire Phillips, it's offensive coordinator John DeFilippo who helped deliver the 51-year-old coach to Cleveland.
Phillips' connection to DeFilippo dates all the way back to 1983, when he was a star wide receiver at the University of Kentucky and DeFilippo's dad, Gene, was the assistant athletic director. Young John was just five years old, running around the field and high-fiving players in the locker room.
Two decades later, in 2001, Joker and John would be reunited at Notre Dame, where Phillips coached wide receivers and DeFilippo served as a graduate assistant. Like he did with Pettine while coaching with the Jets, DeFilippo and Phillips built a strong rapport and kept in touch throughout the years.
"I think Flip has done a really good job of installing the offense – and selling," Phillips said. "As a coordinator, you've got to sell. You've got to sell in front of the room and be good at it. I've been in that position where you have to be a salesman. Flip has sold the guys on how important the little things are. He's sold to them that the plays he's calling at the time are the most important play."
Phillips said it's entirely too early to for him to predict which Browns receiver will lead the team in targets, yards and catches. That says a lot about the improved overall depth and how multi-faceted the offense will be.
"These guys are all smart. They all work. They all compete," Phillips said. "I always recruited guys in college that had a look in their eye, a bounce in their step. And all of our guys have that.
"This is a relationship-driven business. The better your relationship, the harder you can coach a guy."