The Quiet Mastermind Behind the Niners’ D

January 17, 2014 by Greg A. Bedard
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.

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