Rehiring Vic Fangio last January as the Bears’ defensive coordinator was arguably the best move Matt Nagy made in his first season as the team’s head coach.
Fangio oversaw a defense that was arguably the best in the NFL this season, the culmination of four years of work that began with his hiring in 2015.
Now, Nagy has to replace Fangio, who has reportedly accepted the job as the Broncos’ head coach.
His players will hate to see Fangio go because, in addition to his tireless scheming to outmaneuver the opposition, he excelled at putting his own players in the best position to succeed.
But those players also understand that the 60-year-old Fangio has more than earned the right to run his own team after 32 years as an NFL assistant, including 19 as a defensive coordinator.
“We understand the position that he's in, and I say this positively, just knowing that he's not getting younger,” Bears CB Prince Amukamara said. “If he aspires to be a head coach, I would say that his time is now, and he's worked hard to put himself in a position to be sought after, as he is.
“Of course as a defensive group and I'm sure everyone in this organization would love for him to stay and not go and get interviews, but we do understand that this could be something, a goal that he's aspired to achieve. Me personally, I support him, but also selfishly I would love for him to stay.”
Fangio had steadfastly refused to reciprocate the interest that was shown to him as a head-coaching candidate in the past few weeks, especially the week before Sunday’s 16-15 playoff loss to the Eagles. His focus remained on the task at hand.
“I have not returned one phone call,” Fangio said. “I have not done one piece of work for it. I refuse to. And that's it.”
The Dolphins also had preliminary interest in Fangio, requesting an interview, but did not follow up with any meetings. Fangio did meet with Broncos president of football operations and general manager John Elway in Chicago earlier this week, and the Hall of Fame quarterback apparently told Fangio what he wanted to hear. A week ago, Fangio was asked what would attract him to a head-coaching job.
“If the situation’s good,” Fangio said. “Then you’ll say, ‘Well, what’s good?’ There’s a lot of things; working with management, players, etc. I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I’m not lying to you guys. I’ve got zero up there done (in preparation).”
In Denver, Fangio inherits a middle-of-the-road defense that was 13th in points and 22nd in yards allowed but 10th in sack percentage and fifth in interception percentage. He will have one of the league’s top pass-rushing OLB duos to work with in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. But that’s still a far cry from the Bears defense he’s leaving.
Fangio will leave to someone else a defense that led the NFL by allowing just 17.7 points per game, and was also No. 1 with 36 takeaways, 27 interceptions, five interception returns for touchdowns, lowest passer rating allowed (72.9), three-and-out percentage (26.8), fewest rushing yards per game (80.0), fewest plays of 20-plus yards (46). The Bears were also third in total yards allowed per game (299.7) and in sacks with 50.
Four of Fangio’s players were voted to the Pro Bowl this year, OLB Khalil Mack, CB Kyle Fuller, S Eddie Jackson and DE Akiem Hicks, and all but Hicks also made All-Pro. Before he came to the Bears, Hicks had the reputation as a talented player but somewhat of an underachiever, who didn’t always give consistent effort. But he blossomed under Fangio, who constantly asked for more from the 6-foot-5, 332-pounder.
“He doesn’t mind getting on my stuff,” Hicks said. “He loves to dig into me, and I appreciate it. I have a lot of respect for him and I enjoy being coached by him and that’s not just for him to listen to say and say, ‘OK, I’m going to keep Hicks for a little longer.’ I really appreciate it.”
S Adrian Amos may be moving on as well, since he’s schedule to become an unrestricted free agent in March, but he saw in his four years with the Bears what Fangio meant to a defense that got progressively better each season.
“He’s a great coach; a great defensive mind,” Amos said. “A lot of our success is due to him. (But) it’s all a business. We want what’s best for people. If he wants to be a head coach, we want him to take a job to be a head coach. Everybody just wishes him well.”
In his last meeting with Bears reporters, Fangio, as always a man of few words, expressed his appreciation for the outpouring of well wishes from his players, who had a strong sense that he might not be back.
“It’s nice of them to say that,” Fangio said. “I appreciate that. Feedback from those guys is always valued. So I like it.”
Nickel CB Sherrick McManis has been a Bear longer than anyone on the current roster, and he summed up the feeling for Fangio best.
“Good for Vic, man,” McManis said. “I feel like he knows it’s a good opportunity for him. It’s something to try out. Whatever he decides to do, I know it’s the best. Hopefully we can come back next year and keep it rolling.”
That will likely be the most difficult task the Bears face in 2019.