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Vic Fangio can’t stop making life hell for NFL quarterbacks

Former Broncos Coach Vic Fangio, shown here after a 2020 win against the New York Jets, is taking the season off from football. But he's never far from the game. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Vic Fangio is on sabbatical, as he views it. The longtime coach and defensive guru has been out of the NFL since the Denver Broncos fired him in January, but he hasn’t let go of the game.

His office has moved from the corner suite of the Broncos’ facility to his kitchen table, but his computer is still a digital library of NFL games. Almost daily, he reviews tape, takes handwritten notes and saves his findings on thumb drives. He has watched every game from 2021 and many from 2022 and has no intention of slowing down.

His goal? To find new ways of making life hell for opposing quarterbacks: a tweak here, a new coverage package there, another front, another pressure, another weapon to keep his defense a problem, year after year after year.

Fangio’s renowned system is a product of his experiences across nearly four decades of NFL coaching. It is predicated on disguise, with a signature two-high safety look that can transform into almost any coverage. Presnap movement is followed by post-snap movement, and, if executed properly, the front should hide clues about the final picture.

“I [try] to make it harder for them to figure out what [coverage] we’re in, both before the snap and after the snap,” Fangio said. “The quarterbacks don’t like going against it.”

“It’s really muddy, so when you drop back, you don’t know quite what you’re getting,” Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins told reporters this year.

Like with a Russian nesting doll, there are plays within plays, and the outer shell is merely a cover for the layers inside. It can leave quarterbacks guessing on every drop-back, and over the years it has grown ever more prolific across the NFL.

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At least seven teams use some form of Fangio’s system, thanks in part to his growing tree of assistants who have carried it to various stops. Brandon Staley, once a linebackers coach on Fangio’s staff, runs a version of the defense as coach of the Los Angeles Chargers. Ed Donatell, a former Fangio assistant, brought it with him when he was hired as the Vikings’ defensive coordinator this year. Sean Desai, the former Chicago Bears safeties coach under Fangio, introduced it to the Seattle Seahawks. Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry is using it, and Chris Beake, a former Broncos assistant, works on a Fangio-inspired defense with the Los Angeles Rams. Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero is running the system perhaps better than any other coach, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has relied heavily on Fangio principles.

Each team has put its own spin on it, but Fangio’s foundation is carried throughout. So even as Fangio waits for his next opportunity, his work to continually update the defense remains paramount.

Making things ‘blurry’

The Fangio defense most know now — with the two high safeties, the pre- and post-snap movement, the light boxes — formed during his time as the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator from 2011 to 2014.

By the time Fangio got the Bears’ defensive coordinator job in 2015, his library of coverages was thick — and only beginning to grow. He incorporated post-snap reactions in Chicago, then he enhanced the system further in Denver.

The premise is simple — Broncos defensive backs coach Christian Parker called it an “illusion of complexity” — but it rarely appears so.

For opposing offenses, safeties (and linebackers) are often the tells; quarterbacks read them first to determine how defenses will unfold post-snap. But Fangio’s defense, Staley said, makes things “blurry.”

“We can play everything we want — two-high, single-high, no-high — out of the same look. And we don’t give it away with our fronts, either,” he added. “There’s a lot of times where the front dictates what type of coverage it’s going to be. It may not dictate the entire coverage, but it indicates a lot. We try to be more balanced in the front, and we run multiple coverages out of the fronts.”

The system is designed to take away the big plays that can turn a game on its head because of the help over the top. Though it can make a defense vulnerable to the run because the safeties start deeper, it also allows for adjustments.

There are built-in options — “if this, then that” scenarios — that give safeties some freedom on the back end to toy with quarterbacks. The options add layers, requiring safeties to understand the concepts fully — and to communicate them to the rest of the defense.

As a result, safeties who have succeeded under Fangio have made names for themselves across the NFL. In San Francisco, there were Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. In Chicago, Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos. In Denver, Justin Simmons was a centerpiece of Fangio’s system, and in 2021 he signed a contract worth the highest average annual value for a safety ($15.25 million).

“With Vic, each year we just seemed to graduate,” Simmons said. “There was the base foundation, but there were always wrinkles and levels that we could get to.”

“If you’re running cover-four, there’s, like, 10 different ways we can run that, depending on what the offense is giving us, where the players are positioned, depending on what personnel we have out on the field, depending on what linebacker we have out on the field,” he added. “I think that’s what makes it great but also hard at the same time.”

The options add complexity to the defense, but they inherently make it flexible, too.

Fangio cycled through 15 linebackers in Denver last season because of injuries, but the Broncos still finished eighth in total yards and passing yards allowed and had the third-best red zone and scoring defense in the league.

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“The way our defense is set up schematically, it does help ... a new player to come in and learn quickly,” Fangio said. “Now, he may not master and conquer the nuances right off the bat, but at least he can get in there and get lined up and know what to do and play good enough from a mental standpoint.”

‘10 chapters’

The dissection of the X’s and O’s of Fangio’s defense can often mask the heart of it.

It is a system that requires dedicated teachers who have to be willing to accept a change in philosophy.

Staley, a former quarterback at Dayton and Mercyhurst College, began his coaching career as a college defensive assistant. He was a coordinator at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas when he began to follow Fangio, who transformed Stanford’s defense into a top-tier unit in 2010, then went on to revive the 49ers’ defense.

“The more I studied Vic, the more I tried to incorporate things that I saw from those San Francisco units,” Staley said. “I think it starts with fundamentals and ... kind of the essence of football before you even get into the scheme. ... Structurally, we just have a lot more ways to play you than most people.”

“Most teams may have five chapters in their book,” he added. “... We write 10 chapters on it.”

The complexity is compounded by a need for players and coaches to understand why such principles are run and why they’re run in a specific style.

During Staley’s first year in Chicago, in 2017, Fangio coached the outside linebackers early in the season before handing the keys to Staley.

“I wanted him to see how I did it and for him to continue that,” Fangio said. “And so I wanted a young guy that was willing to learn and be able to implement what I liked done with those guys.”

The so-called extra chapters in Fangio’s system changed Simmons’s perspective of the game. His lens is wider now, partly because of the multiple positions he played under Fangio but mostly because of the coach’s philosophy on confusing quarterbacks.

“I think it’s fun to sit back there and play mind games with the guy that gets paid the most money on the field,” Simmons said.

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Jim Hostler, a senior offensive assistant for the Washington Commanders, learned years ago that Fangio’s view of the game was rare.

It was 2008, and Fangio was a defensive assistant to Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh, working on advance scouting and defensive game-planning. Hostler coached the Ravens’ receivers and remembers Fangio detailing the plan of attack from both sides.

“Vic understands what an offense is going to do from the standpoint of what they are,” Hostler said. “Most defensive guys understand what an offense is going to do against them from one perspective of, ‘Okay, this is an overall perspective of how offenses are going to attack my defense.’

“He knows enough about offenses and how they attack the defense that he can communicate with offensive guys. Same thing with defense. There’s not a lot of guys that can do that, and that’s an art.”

But as more and more teams use Fangio’s system, or parts of it, the onus on him to evolve becomes greater.

Studying for the future

Fangio’s first foray into head coaching ended after three seasons. The Broncos failed to make the playoffs during his tenure and went a combined 19-30. Yet Fangio’s system remains widely applauded; the Broncos ranked among the top 10 in the league in scoring defense in two of his seasons, and even now, amid turmoil on the offensive side of the ball, their defense is third in total yards, passing yards and scoring.

Fangio said he had options to coach this season but he is holding out for the right fit. So, in the meantime, he has traveled to visit his children, watched his beloved Phillies go to the World Series and continued his research of the game he never really left.

Among his conclusions: The quality of play is down. The dearth of elite quarterbacks outside of Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen may be a factor. The proliferation of his defense might be adding to the struggles of the passing game, too; the use of schemes with two high safeties has increased significantly over the past four years.

Though he can only watch from a distance this year, Fangio is confident he’ll be back in the league next fall, pulling the strings on a defense that will probably create more hell for quarterbacks.

And, surely, it will include a few new wrinkles.

“I’ve already come up with a couple of coverages to add to the package to look at,” he said.

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