By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) — Vic Fangio wished for a membership at Conway Farms Golf Club and shorter Midwestern winters that he didn’t get, but the opportunity to lead a budding Bears defense was still enough for him to return as coordinator.
Though Fangio never cleaned out his Bears office during his three days without a contract last week, he did explore other possibilities that became available. Poised to be a hot commodity as a free-agent defensive coordinator, he watched as the Packers hired Mike Pettine, the Ravens promoted Wink Martindale and the Chargers kept Gus Bradley. All the while, the door with the Bears remained open, as new coach Matt Nagy made it his first priority to retain Fangio as his defensive complement.
Fangio was willing to listen and agreed to terms late last week.
“I just had to feel comfortable with everything,” Fangio said. “You know, with who the head coach was going to be, the continued direction of the team as far as where we were headed roster-wise, things of that nature. Just the general stuff.”
Added Nagy: “To me it was really simple. The numbers speak for themselves. Here’s a guy that has been in this league for a very long time and the production is there.”
Fangio, 59, was the Bears’ first interview for their head coaching vacancy, taking his meeting with general manager Ryan Pace on Jan. 3. Pace interviewed Nagy four days later and hired him on Jan. 8.
Before interviewing with Pace, Fangio made it clear that he wouldn’t want that to impede on whomever the new head coach would be. He was keenly aware that the team would likely move for an offensive-minded coach to best suit young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick last April. When their meeting was over, Fangio packed up for his home base in the Bay Area and thought it all through.
Nagy had finalized the hires of offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor by last Thursday. The Bears were left waiting for Fangio, whose place leading the defense could ideally complement Nagy, a 39-year-old who has been an NFL assistant for just eight seasons.
There was plenty for Fangio to weigh — not only the logistics involved at Halas Hall but many aspects to his personal life as well. The straight-shooting Fangio said being passed up again as head coach wasn’t as frustrating as many would assume.
“People have a picture in their mind of what they want, what they’re looking for, and obviously I haven’t met that criteria to those people who are looking,” Fangio said. “And I don’t take it personal. I don’t think I’m any less deserving or less qualified. I know I do a hell of a job, but I don’t take it personal.”
Nagy called it was a positive process courting Fangio back to the Bears. Once they finally were able to meet, it was clear to Nagy that Fangio was the fit he needed as coordinator — that the turnaround over Fangio’s three seasons leading the Bears defense was real and the references checked out.
Next for Nagy was ensuring Fangio would be comfortable back in his office. He made it clear to Fangio that “this isn’t a one-way street” and that this would be his defense.
“You talk to coordinators around the league, they struggle against coach Fangio,” Nagy said. “They struggle. And that’s a credit to him and what he’s done. So, anytime you have that as a play caller or an offensive guy such as myself, you respect that immediately off the bat. When you can have that guy on your team, you better not lose him.”
By either Thursday evening or Friday morning — Fangio said the days were running together all week — the Bears had secured their defensive coordinator. Fangio had agreed to return.
Fangio inherited a Bears defense that finished near the bottom of the league in 2014 and developed it to the point that it finished ninth in scoring defense and 10th in total defense in 2017. His work was especially impressive considering the number of injuries the unit faced this past season.
Retaining Fangio was the first crucial task of Nagy’s transition into the head coaching role. Losing him risked giving up the growth accomplished over three years and potentially overhauling a defense suited to Fangio’s smarts and schemes.
Though Fangio might need to play on some public golf courses when the snow melts away, he gets to keep coaching a unit with untapped potential.
“The most important thing we have to do is improve the guys that we already have,” Fangio said, “regardless of who we might get in the draft or free agency. I mean, I think guys like Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Leonard (Floyd), Eddie Jackson — I know I’m going to miss some — I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen.
“I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game about who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etcetera, but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”