The Quiet Mastermind Behind the Niners’ D

Vic Fangio is a man of few words who simply prefers to put his players in the right position and let their bone-crushing hits do all the talking ... plus, five takeaways on recent NFL news and the key players to watch on Championship Sunday

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·
TK (Ben Margot/AP)
Niners’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. (Ben Margot/AP)

The year before his arrival, the defense ranked 16th in points and 13th in yards allowed. In his three years on the job, the unit has never finished worse than third in points or fifth in yards. His team has gone to three straight conference championship games. This coach has an even more expansive résumé, having been in the NFL for 26 years, 14 of them as a defensive coordinator.

So why is that 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio toils in anonymity while less-experienced coordinators such as the Seahawks’ Dan Quinn and the Jaguars’ Gus Bradley (Jaguars) have a dance card full of head coaching interviews, and even offers? So far, the only interest Fangio has drawn was from the Redskins, who ultimately hired Jay Gruden as their head coach.

“You wonder sometimes why it’s taken maybe this long,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said, speaking generally about all of his assistants, though he might as well have been referring to Fangio specifically.

Despite Fangio’s having almost total autonomy over the defense—Harbaugh is a former NFL quarterback—he remains off teams’ radar. Some of it probably has to do with the low-key manner in which he conducts himself. “He’s a real quiet guy,’’ said inside linebacker Patrick Willis. “He just says what needs to be said, and not too much more. He keeps it simple and puts us in great position.’’

That tactical acumen was on display in the 49ers’ 23-10 divisional win over the Panthers. Carolina had two critical drives halted at San Francisco’s 1-yard line in the second quarter. On the first play of the quarter, quarterback Cam Newton tried a sneak on 4th-and-goal and was stopped by Ahmad Brooks. Later, fullback Mike Tolbert was tackled by linebacker NaVorro Bowman for a one-yard loss, and Carolina had to settle for a field goal.

“I think he’s one of the all-time best defensive coordinators in the history of the league. I think that’s who he is. I think that’s what his legacy will be someday.’’ —Jim Harbaugh

The key to those stops was Fangio, who installed unscouted looks (plays the opponent hadn’t seen on film all season) in preparation for the game. Instead of going to their normal 6-2 alignment on the goal line, the 49ers switched to a 5-3 that moved Brooks from outside to inside linebacker.

“For the years we’ve been here we’ve never shown a 5-3 look,” said Harbaugh, who took over the 49ers in 2011. “I thought it was a great move by Vic Fangio. We talked about it during the week … that planning, that preparation by our players, especially by Vic Fangio and the defensive coaches was profound.”

Fangio’s meticulous nature is well known by the 49ers’ players. Bowman lauded his influence as the linebacker was being mentioned as an NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

“I think I understand him pretty well,” Bowman said. “Just his terminology, what he’s thinking when we are leading up to games … and I think it’s made me better.”

Fangio’s history in the game has been diversified, but this is the first time in the NFL that he’s run his own scheme. He entered professional football under Jim Mora Sr. in the USFL, and then with the Saints alongside Dom Capers. Now the Packers defensive coordinator, Capers had called on Fangio to be his coordinator when starting expansion franchises in Carolina and Houston.

Fangio was Mora’s coordinator with the Colts from 1999-2001, but their talent was not very good. Mora felt so strongly about Fangio’s job performance that Mora refused general manager Bill Polian’s advice to fire him, so the entire coaching staff was shown the door. Fangio eventually landed with the Ravens’ standout defense as an assistant coach directing Harbaugh’s defenses at Stanford and with the 49ers.

“I think he’s one of the all-time best defensive coordinators in the history of the league,’’ Harbaugh said upon arriving San Francisco. “I think that’s who he is. I think that’s what his legacy will be someday.’’

So far he’s shown that with the 49ers. You wonder when others will finally notice and give Fangio his deserved chance to be a head coach.

NICKEL PACKAGE

Five takes on recent NFL news …

1. So glad that Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman wrote about bookend corner Byron Maxwell this week for The MMQB. There may not be a more important player on the field in the NFC Championship Game. With 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree back for this game, Sherman won’t be able to matchup with Anquan Boldin like he did in the team’s last meeting in Week 14. The Seahawks almost always play left (Sherman) and right (Maxwell) cornerbacks, so the 49ers can scheme to get the matchup they want on Maxwell. That means he’s going to get a lot of action on his side. How Maxwell fares could determine the game’s outcome.

TK (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

2. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is on the spot against Tom Brady and the Patriots. Del Rio is 0-7 in his career against Brady, who has completed 72.8% of his passes with 17 touchdowns and no interceptions. This includes Brady’s NFL postseason record-setting performance in a 2007 wild-card game against Del Rio’s Jaguars, in which he completed 26 of 28 passes (92.9%). Brady has trouble against defenses that constantly change looks pre- and post-snap, as well as from down to down. That’s never been Del Rio. If the Broncos don’t get pressure on the quarterback, Brady is going to be effective again.

3. All the talk about legacies surrounding these games is complete nonsense, because the dynamics from team to team are so different. Would Peyton Manning have three Super Bowl rings if he and Tom Brady had switched places in their careers? How could anyone know the answer to that? Manning, Brady and Bill Belichick are all-time greats at what they do. Let’s just leave it at that.

4. It’s one thing for a general manager to defend a move that didn’t work out in the short-term and focus on the long view. That’s totally understandable. But it’s another thing altogether for Ryan Grigson of the Colts to say, “We don’t win 12 games if Trent Richardson isn’t here. That’s just a fact.” No, that’s just wrong. Richardson gave the Colts 2.9 yards per carry and three touchdowns after joining them in Week 3—the type of production some teams get from the practice squad. Grigson traded a first-round pick to the Browns for Richardson, and the GM isn’t ready to say he screwed up. And that’s fine. Richardson definitely deserves an offseason before people totally pan the trade. But don’t talk nonsense.

5. Really glad to see long-time defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer finally get his opportunity to be a head coach with the Vikings. Yes, Zimmer can be a bit blunt and turn off some corporate types—and that’s putting it mildly—but the man is a darn good football coach who knows what it takes to win. His players run through walls for him because they know he puts them in a position to be successful. Don’t know what else you could want in a head coach.

Championship Sunday Chip Report

We here in this space (meaning yours truly) believe postseason games are determined by how many top players each team has and whether or not they perform at that level (as opposed to the regular season, during which wins are dictated by offense and depth). Top players need to find a way to perform in the postseason because they are the ultimate difference-makers. Here is a rundown of the purple chips (a combination of players that are blue (elite), and red (very good) going into this weekend’s conference championships.

NFC Championship: 49ers at Seahawks

San Francisco (11): LT Joe Staley, OLB Aldon Smith, ILB NaVorro Bowman, ILB Patrick Willis, DE Justin Smith, RB Frank Gore, WR Michael Crabtree, WR Anquan Boldin, S Eric Reid, TE Vernon Davis, QB Colin Kaepernick.

Seattle (7): QB Russell Wilson, RB Marshawn Lynch, DT Brandon Mebane, DE Michael Bennett, CB Richard Sherman, S Earl Thomas, DL Clinton McDonald.

TK (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

How it’s trending: You’d have to be a dyed-in-navy-blue Seahawks fanatic to not see that the 49ers are the more talented team, mostly because of Seattle’s shortcomings on the offensive line and at receiver, where the ’Hawks are good, but nothing extraordinary without a healthy Percy Harvin. But that doesn’t mean the Seahawks won’t win this game. If the atmosphere inside CenturyLink Field adversely affects the 49ers like it did during their past two trips, then the Niners’ talent advantage is negated.

I finally relented and put Kaepernick into the purple chip category. I still think he’s borderline, but I can’t keep him off and include Wilson, who has struggled since a Dec. 12 victory over the Saints. Both are basically the same quarterback at this juncture: they can make key plays with their feet, but they are limited in the pocket.

If the 49ers’ get off to a poor start offensively, and the Seahawks defense helps the offense with field position and points—the keys to the domination in their past two home victories over San Francisco—then Seattle will win the day. But if the 49ers can be productive early, their talent base will carry them to victory.

AFC Championship: Patriots at Broncos

New England (7): QB Tom Brady, LT Nate Solder, RB combo LeGarrette Blount/Shane Vereen, LG Logan Mankins, DE Rob Ninkovich, S Devon McCourty, CB Aqib Talib.

Broncos (9): QB Peyton Manning, RG Louis Vazquez, WR Demaryius Thomas, WR Eric Decker, WR Wes Welker, TE Julius Thomas, DT Terrance Knighton, DT Malik Jackson, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

TK (Denis Poroy/AP)
Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. (Denis Poroy/AP)

How it’s trending: This game should be much different than the Patriots’ 34-31 overtime victory in Week 12, mostly because the weather is supposed to be perfect. Brutal cold and ridiculous wind basically took Manning out of the last game before it had even started. He simply doesn’t have the arm strength to function at full capacity in strong winds, and you could see it in the way he declined to throw to deeper open receivers—on the few times that Denver even elected to run deep during that game. The Broncos also have Julius Thomas for this one, whom they didn’t have the first time around.

The best-case scenario for the Patriots is they execute at a high level, which they have since the Ravens game in Week 16, and Broncos play with some of the jitters they displayed in barely holding off the Chargers in the divisional round. Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker didn’t come close to playing to their expected level. If the can’t elevate their games against New England, the Broncos will lose.

The Patriots could also be boosted by repeat great games from normally average producers such as linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, and WR Julian Edelman. Edelman’s a borderline purple chip because he has been taken out of games (Weeks 3, 5-10). But he’s been on a tear lately, so there’s a strong argument to be made for him.

If the Broncos execute like they should, in good weather at home—the Patriots are 4-4 this season on the road, and they’ll be playing their first road playoff game since 2006—then Denver will win. But if they slip up and Bill Belichick continues to have his team humming, the Patriots will reach another Super Bowl.

mmqb-end-slug-square

16 comments
westcoastbias
westcoastbias

Manning is running the best offense in history - stats-wise, and the Patriots are decimated by injuries and lost free agents compared to "purple chip players" from last year.  Also, the game is at altitude in Denver, which before Seattle was notorious as the best home advantage in NFL.  This game shouldn't be close.  If it is, Brady >> Manning and Belichick >> Fox...


If Manning can't win this one easily it puts him clearly into the 2nd tier of great QBs (with Marino), and Brady in the upper echelon (with Montana).  

westcoastbias
westcoastbias

A little history will show that NO - Manning could not have been as effective as Brady if switching teams.  One simple reason, Brady has been intentionally CHEAPER, allowing Patriots to spend for talent & depth in other positions.  He started cheaper in his rookie contract and has consistently taken below market deals so the team can stay strong elsewhere.  Check a recent story here, but it goes back a decade.  

http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/01/19/is-tom-bradys-contract-the-secret-to-the-patriots.aspx

Dunsterdoc
Dunsterdoc

If ... if ... if... Should this MMQB gig fizzle, I recommend you become a HEDGE fund manager.

MikeKenney
MikeKenney

This 9er defense has actually underperformed at times this year, but not lately. They have the talent to pitch shutouts, but have had a tendency to give up scores that could have been stopped. Every player in the front 7 is playing at pro bowl level, and a good case can be made for Reid and Whitner at safety. CB has been hit by injuries and still come up big. There is depth. There is Fangio. There is a great running game to get them some rest. They should keep teams to single digits, maybe even Seattle

MicahThoughtlife
MicahThoughtlife

Glad to see someone in the media talking sense about the whole Manning Brady legacy debate. The players are equal. Brady won his rings on the strength of stout defences whilst Manning has spent his career being the determining factor for almost every victory. It'd be tough to say he wouldn't have an extra ring or two if he'd had a Belichick defence on the other side of the ball.


Anyway, a question: Why doesn't Bobby Wagner or Kam Chancellor get included as a purple chip player for the Seahawks? Where's the love?

Pierre1
Pierre1

What did Fangio do before he got to SF? His defenses were mostly mediocre before he got coach guys like Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. Before going to the Niners two years ago he had not coached an NFL defense ranked in the top 10 in yards or scoring since 1996.

Sashimomura
Sashimomura

Kam Chancellor is not a blue or red chip???  

juan.triumph1
juan.triumph1

Bedard is right. From a pure talent perspective, the Niners have the players. But that just makes Seattle's success even more remarkable and i think is a credit to Pete Carroll.  

LeeLaRiviere
LeeLaRiviere

HAHAHA!!! Really Greg? SF is hands down more talented that Seattle? You obviously didn't realize that Marshawn Lynch has more rushing yards and TD's than Frank Gore, that Russell Wilson has a higher passer rating, more yards and more TD's than Kaepernick, that the Seattle D is better than the SF D in every single statistical category, Seattle had the better record, oh yeah and Seattle outscored SF 46-22 in the 2 games they played this season.


But you're right, no one other than Seattle fans think Seattle is more talented than SF. You sure know your stuff.

westcoastbias
westcoastbias

@MicahThoughtlife  NO on Manning....  A little history will show that NO - Manning could not have been as effective as Brady if switching teams.  One simple reason, Brady has been intentionally CHEAPER, allowing Patriots to spend for talent & depth in other positions.  He started cheaper in his rookie contract and has consistently taken below market deals so the team can stay strong elsewhere.  Check a recent story here, but it goes back a decade.  

http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/01/19/is-tom-bradys-contract-the-secret-to-the-patriots.aspx

modsuperstar
modsuperstar

@LeeLaRiviere If by better record you mean it took overtime at home to beat the TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS, while the 49ers got jobbed by the refs in that Saints game. Then yes, by all means, the Seahawks were far and away much better record than the 49ers.

I can't wait for the Niners to send 60,000 12th men home crying tonight.

KerryDavis
KerryDavis

@LeeLaRiviere  "You’d have to be a dyed-in-navy-blue Seahawks fanatic to not see that the 49ers are the more talented team"


Nice job making his point.

Realist
Realist

@LeeLaRiviere Gee, Lee. Defensive much? That fact is that RIGHT NOW the 49ers are clearly superior to the Seahawks. Wilson has struggled for 5 straight weeks, both passing and running, and there's no reason to expect things to suddenly change on Sunday. Kaepernick's QBR (flawed but much more meaningful than the obsolete passer rating stat) is MUCH higher than Wilson's for the season, and he also has MORE passing yards and touchdowns, not less. Not to mention that Kaepernick is now 3-0 in road playoff games in his short career, which is more road wins than every other quarterback in 49er history COMBINED.


I suggest you unbunch your panties and just let them play the game before you get so upset. When it's over, and your team stretches it's streak to zero titles in 38 seasons, maybe you'll admit that Bedard was right. I doubt you'll admit it - you'll probably blame Harvin or the refs - but there's always a chance.

Boo-urns
Boo-urns

@LeeLaRiviereI think you missed the point of Greg's analysis.  It's not that Gore is more talented than Lynch or Russell is more talented than Kap (I actually agree w/ Bedard that this is a wash right now, as Russell has been terrible lately), but rather that the 49ers have more of these types of players (Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis, etc.).  You can take issue with his analysis (it's certainly open to criticism), but at least try to understand it correctly first before launching into a diatribe.  Thanks.

Newsletter