Only a few days after their season ended in an ignominious, disappointing loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bears’ were dealt another blow: The departure of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Fangio will become the next head coach of the Denver Broncos after interviewing with general manager and president of football operations John Elway on Monday. Reportedly, the Broncos’ decision came down to either Fangio or Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak.
The Bears have known losing Fangio could be a possibility, and Matt Nagy surely has a contingency plan in place. The 60-year-old Fangio has long wanted to be an NFL head coach, especially after the San Francisco 49ers passed him over after the departure of Jim Harbaugh in 2015.
But in losing Fangio, the mastermind (or “evil genius,” as Khalil Mack called him) of the league’s best defense in 2018, the Bears’ challenge to stave off regression in 2019 will become even more difficult.
“We understand that the position that he's in just knowing that, and I say this positively, just knowing that he's not getting younger,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “So with him, 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.”
Amukamara’s sentiment was echoed around Halas Hall as players cleaned out their lockers on Monday. The members of Fangio’s defense would be happy for their defensive coordinator if he got a head coaching gig, but selfishly, want him to stick around.
“He’s a great coach, a great defensive mind,” safety Adrian Amos, an unrestricted free agent, said. “A lot of our success is due to him, as well. It’s all a business. We want what’s best for people. If he wants to be a head coach one day, we want him to take a job to be a head coach. Everybody just wishes him well.”
“I hope he stays, I really do,” outside linebacker Leonard Floyd said. “And if he don't that's my guy, that's one of my favorite coaches and whoever the next coach is we're going to play hard for him.”
The Bears’ defense was never going to be the same in 2019, not with three unrestricted free agents (Amos, slot corner Bryce Callahan and outside linebacker Aaron Lynch) about to hit the open market. Only Callahan and outside linebacker Sam Acho were placed on injured reserve from this unit in 2018, while Amukamara, Mack and Eddie Jackson were the only other starters to miss time due to injuries — and only combined to sit out five games.
That same kind of injury luck is difficult to replicate, even if Nagy, head trainer Andre Tucker and sports science coordinator Jen Gibson built and executed a successful plan for keeping players healthy and rehabbing existing injuries. The Bears’ depth was tested against the Eagles, with Jackson’s absence noticeable at times and slot corner Sherrick McManis — who replaced Callahan — allowing Golden Tate’s go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
It’ll also be difficult for the Bears to replicate the massive success they had turning the ball over (36 in 2018). No team in the last decade has had consecutive years with 35 or more takeaways; drilling down further, the only team in the last five years to have consecutive seasons with 30 or more takeaways is the Buffalo Bills, who had 30 each in 2013 and 2014.
That’s not to say the Bears’ defense in 2018 was built on luck. Far from it. Fangio’s complex scheme fit his personnel perfectly, especially after the Labor Day blockbuster trade to acquire Mack. There were no weaknesses in a defense that could stop the run, pressure the quarterback and take the ball away. And the level of talent on this entire defense took a massive step forward, with improvements from Akiem Hicks to Kyle Fuller to Eddie Jackson to Roquan Smith and plenty others.
As Fangio, who developed an enjoyably gruff rapport with the media in 2018, was fond of saying: “We played good.”
The challenge, now, will be for the Bears to still play “good” without the architect of their defense. The coordinator will be different, the players will largely be the same — but the success nonetheless will be difficult to replicate.
“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. So good luck to Vic and good luck to everybody and hopefully we can come back next year and keep it rolling.”