By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) – Upon arrival at Halas Hall, Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara thought he had defensive coordinator Vic Fangio figured out.
An NFL veteran of seven seasons, Amukamara has seen all kinds of coaches during his time and had presumptions of Fangio. He was ready for the F-bombs and fire, then was surprised to find something different. Amukamara found a man with a calm, quiet demeanor and a tireless work ethic.
“Vic is extremely detailed,” Amukamra said. “He’s probably one of the most detailed DCs I’ve ever been around. He loves to go situation by situation and never leaves a stone unturned.”
The Bears’ hiring of Fangio in January 2015 was intended to alter the identity of their defense, and he did just that. Fangio had built the 49ers defense into one of the league’s best during his time in San Francisco before being let go along with Jim Harbaugh. Bears officials were thrilled to nab him, hiring one of the most respected coordinators in football to take over a unit that set records for futility in 2014.
Three years later, the Bears are 3-9 in another lost season and 12-32 since John Fox’s regime arrived at Halas Hall. The end of this season will likely bring the firing of Fox and a new coaching staff for the Bears, who have shown little growth in a pivotal year.
In dismissing Fox, the Bears could lose Fangio and a budding defensive identity. He was coveted for coordinator positions last offseason, including one with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, but the Bears denied an interview from occurring. Fangio would be cast off to any suitor if Fox is fired.
With the Bears still developing a young unit, the loss of Fangio would be devastating.
“Vic’s a mastermind,” cornerback Marcus Cooper said. “The commitment of time he puts into getting us ready is outstanding. It’s second to none. He just comes in so prepared.”
Slowly but surely, the Bears have given Fangio the pieces with which to be successful. They drafted defensive lineman Eddie Goldman, edge rusher Leonard Floyd and safety Eddie Jackson. They signed linebacker Pernell McPhee, linebacker Danny Trevathan, linebacker Jerrell Freeman and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks before shoring up the secondary with players like Amukamara, Cooper and Quintin Demps.
But the Bears’ grand vision for Fangio’s defense has been thwarted by injuries, suspensions and inconsistencies. It has been rare for Fangio to have a full complement of talent for his defense. Last Sunday, the Bears started veteran Chris Prosinski at safety and plugged in Lamarr Houston at outside linebacker after McPhee suffered a shoulder injury. Both Prosinski and Houston were signed late in the week.
Fangio has rarely had a fair deck in his hand. His defense sat just outside the top 10 last season before injuries took their toll. It reached the top 10 this October before more setbacks occurred. Now in Week 14, the Bears rank 14th in both points per game allowed at 22.2 and yards per game allowed at 333.2.
One can only wonder what a healthy defense would have meant to this season – and this regime.
“A carpenter never blames his tools,” Fangio said Thursday. “He just finds a way to get the thing built.”
To his credit, Fangio has kept his focus on building progress. There have never been any complaints and certainly no excuses for the difficulties he has faced. When Freeman was lost for the season, he turned the attention to getting the best of Nick Kwiatkoski and Christian Jones at inside linebacker. When Amukamara suffered a preseason injury, he trusted Kyle Fuller and saw the fourth-year cornerback play his best football.
There have been constant injuries at outside linebacker – the most important position in his 3-4 defense – that have hindered the entire unit. Houston couldn’t generate the rush of a Floyd or McPhee stepping in last Sunday. Sam Acho isn’t a forceful rusher. Willie Young is also on injured reserve. With little pass rush, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo picked apart the Bears on third down, moving the chains 10 times on 18 attempts.
All Fangio can do is trust the next man up and call his plays. The effort he puts forth has earned him the respect of his players. Young players like Kwiatkoski marvel at how they’re constantly put in the right places. Veterans like Amukamara and Cooper realize the difference Fangio brings compared to others in his position.
“Tops off to him,” Cooper said. “I can’t say how he’s done it, because I don’t know if I would be able to handle that situation. He’s second to none when it comes to stuff. The way he prepares, it’s a testament to who he is and his coaching style and philosophy.”
Growth has been revealed over time, though it has been a difficult task. Fangio is doing his best with a unit lacking. General manager Ryan Pace and his front office are expected to stay in their positions after this disappointing season ends, meaning they will have a fourth offseason ahead to keep adding to the defense.
Assuming change is coming, whoever the Bears tab as their next head coach would be wise to make retaining Fangio a priority. He’s comfortable in Chicago and has certainly earned a place with a new coaching staff.
The Bears and a defense with potential would lose a lot without Fangio.