While Vic Fangio’s future didn’t gain any clarity until Friday, one thing has been abundantly clear for weeks: Fangio’s players wanted him back.
Those players will get their wish, with the Chicago Tribune reporting Fangio is expected to return as the Bears’ defensive coordinator. ESPN reported Fangio was convinced to stay by head coach Matt Nagy and will receive a three-year deal.
“I think players are a big part of any type of success, but coaching is huge,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “On our side of the ball, with defense, I think Vic is a huge part of why we were pretty good this year on defense. I feel like he’s a mastermind, one of the smartest DCs, most-detailed DCs I’ve been around. It’s hard to make him smile, but when he smiles you know it’s a good thing. Guys love him. We respect him. If I was here, I’d hope he stays.”
The Bears ranked 10th in total defense in 2017 and ninth in points per game, and did that without a Pro Bowler on their roster (though Akiem Hicks’ slap-in-the-face fourth alternate status is a separate diatribe; he played at a Pro Bowl level this year). This defense overcame season-ending injuries to two veteran captains in linebacker Jerrell Freeman and safety Quintin Demps within the first three weeks of 2017; outside linebackers Willie Young and Leonard Floyd were lost to injury later in the season.
The point here: Fangio did a lot without much “elite” talent. But he (and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell) got a ton out of Kyle Fuller and Adrian Amos, two players who didn’t have starting jobs when the season began. Rookie safety Eddie Jackson had a solid debut season, while Hicks and Eddie Goldman were a stout run-stuffing duo in the defensive interior. Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Christian Jones played well when asked, too.
After the Bears’ season ended — with 11 losses — Fangio’s message to his team was optimistic.
“(He told us) you guys are progressing, you guys are on the rise even though our record isn't what we wanted, you guys should still be proud of yourselves,” Amukamara said.
Another critical point here with regard to the Bears defense: Multiple players talked before the season about how a second year in Fangio’s system (specifically, for Hicks) would allow them to play faster and think less about the principles of the scheme and their assignments. Had the Bears changed coordinators — even if that coordinator still used a 3-4 — it could’ve slowed the progress this group saw in 2017.
“I just think we could be as good as we want,” Goldman said on Jan. 1. “I can't talk too early because we don't know the situation we're going to be in. But as long as we just come in and adopt whatever system we're going to be under next and just go hard at it.”
The Bears won’t have to adopt a new defensive system. This defense still needs more talent — specifically, at outside linebacker — and needs to address the cornerback position, which starts with finding a way to keep Fuller after his breakout season (“I definitely feel like we’ve built a good relationship,” Fuller said of Fangio, who was sharply critical of him as he missed the 2016 season).
But the arrow is pointing up for the Bears’ defense. Keeping Fangio ensures that arrow will keep going in that same direction.