GREEN BAY – If Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst are locked into hiring an offensive coach to replace Mike McCarthy, they might want to pay attention this weekend when the Green Bay Packers play the Chicago Bears.
Standing in the way of the Packers’ longest-of-long playoff odds is the best defense in the NFL, one that has turned Soldier Field into a toll road for opposing offenses, including the previously unstoppable Los Angeles Rams.
The architect of the defense is Vic Fangio, a guy with whom Murphy and Gutekunst should be well-acquainted. The Packers have lost more games than they have won against him during the years Aaron Rodgers has been the starting quarterback.
He has directed two of the greatest defensive turnarounds of the decade, the first under head coach Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco and the second under head coach Matt Nagy in Chicago.
When Fangio arrived in San Francisco in 2011, the 49ers' defense ranked 13th. In every subsequent year until he left after the 2014 season, the 49ers ranked in the top five in defense. In Chicago, he took over a defense that ranked 30th. In 2015 it jumped to 14th and last year it jumped to 10th.
This year, the Bears' defense ranks third in yards and points allowed.
None of this is to say the 60-year-old Fangio is the right guy. It’s just if they don’t do their homework and at least interview him, they could be making a big mistake.
In the NFC North, Minnesota and Detroit have defensive head coaches. Both teams shut down Rodgers in their own buildings and will continue to pursue defensive dominance as the years go on.
The Packers used to have a strong offensive identity, but due to injury, waning talent at the skill positions and less than-MVP play from Rodgers, their defense has emerged as the strength of the team.
They have a nice nucleus of young players in nose tackle Kenny Clark, cornerback Jaire Alexander, linebacker Kyler Fackrell, cornerback Kevin King, cornerback Josh Jackson, linebacker Blake Martinez, safety Josh Jones and defensive tackle Dean Lowry.
Aside from Clark, Alexander and defensive tackle Mike Daniels, they don’t have many impact players, but with two first-round picks and a lot of salary-cap money, Gutekunst, the general manager, has an opportunity to build on the improvement the defense made this season.
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It will be up to Murphy, the team president, and Gutekunst to determine whether Fangio is head-coaching material. Some guys are just career coordinators and don’t have the leadership capability to govern an entire team.
Key to Fangio’s candidacy would be his ability to generate a staff. He is said to have ties to 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello, who has worked under offensive guru and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan both in San Francisco and Atlanta.
There should be other options available such as Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor and New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi. Depending on firings around the league, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter and Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner could be available. Former New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo and former Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike McCoy are unemployed.
Fangio had to have made some terrific connections during his 30-plus years in the NFL, working under offensive head coaches such as Brian Billick, Harbaugh and Nagy. He has also worked for seven NFL organizations and has undoubtedly learned all kinds of lessons about running a football operation.
As far as his defensive credentials, they are undeniably rich.
He started out as a linebackers coach for Jim Mora in New Orleans, where he and former Packers coordinator Dom Capers worked on perfecting the 3-4 and zone blitzes. He worked for Mora again in Indianapolis, for Capers in Carolina and Houston, with Rex Ryan, Mike Pettine, Chuck Pagano and Dennis Thurman in Baltimore and under John Harbaugh with the Ravens.
It was in San Francisco that Fangio’s name began to catch fire.
The 49ers assembled a legion of outstanding defensive players and Fangio put them in positions to dominate the opposition. His No. 1 objective has always been to stop the run, and using the linebacking trio of Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, he rarely had to blitz to accomplish it.
The Packers ran into that juggernaut just as it was hitting its stride, losing in all four meetings with Harbaugh’s 49ers. Only once in those four games did Rodgers reach a 100 passer rating (102.2) and in three of the games he threw an interception.
When Fangio took over the Bears' defense under John Fox in 2015, there was some talent, but it had ranked in the bottom three each of the previous two years. Fangio changed the scheme from a 4-3 to 3-4 and solidified the unit, getting its ranking into the top half of the league his first season.
In ’16, the Bears suffered injuries all over the defense, but they still managed to rank 15th in total yards and 24th in points. Then in ’17, the turnaround continued, although it wasn’t until general manager Ryan Pace traded for all-world pass rusher Khalil Mack in September of this year that the Bears became dominant.
They hit their stride Sunday night against the Rams when they forced quarterback Jared Goff into four interceptions and sacked him three times, including once for a safety. They held the NFL’s second-leading rusher, Todd Gurley, to 11 carries for 28 yards.
The Packers will get to witness for themselves the greatness of the Bears' defense Sunday in a must-win game. Rodgers has tortured the Bears with last-second daggers, most recently in Week 1 when he returned in the second half from a sprained knee and rallied his team from a 20-point deficit for a 24-23 victory.
Three months later, it’s time to find out where both sides stand.
Even if the Packers somehow get the best of Fangio’s defense, Murphy and Gutekunst should be studying the Bears to get an idea of how hard they play for their defensive leader and whether they’re as disciplined as they seem. They need to find out if Fangio has just been blessed with great players or could field a tough unit with lesser talent.
Then they should go home and put Fangio on their list of candidates to interview. They can decide later whether he’s head-coaching material, but they would be nuts not to listen to what he has to say.
And if they like him, they could try to beat the Bears at their own game next season.