BOURBONNAIS —A former practice squad player who has started 30 games in seven NFL seasons, safety Ryan Mundy might be a back-up for the Bears in 2015. But playing under Vic Fangio and his defensive staff, Mundy thinks he could make the Pro Bowl.
“When you see coaches that are able to produce multiple Pro Bowlers and get guys to play at a high level consistently — regardless of where they came from — that gets you excited and you say, ‘If they can do it for them, then they could do it for me,’” said Mundy, who ranked 36th among NFL safeties last year while playing on the 30th-ranked defense in the league — one of only two safeties to make the top 40 while playing on bottom-five defenses. “This is a great opportunity for not only myself, but all our safeties.”
That’s just part of the impact that Vic Fangio — along with and secondary coach Ed Donatell — has on an NFL defense. Fangio’s reputation as a coordinator who puts players in the best position to succeed, his record of turning non-Pro Bowlers into Pro Bowlers, his aggressiveness as a play caller and scheme-devisor and his knack for instilling a level of intensity and relentless aggressiveness all do the same thing —motivate every player on his defense to think big.
“Absolutely. It gives us confidence that he knows what he’s doing,” said Bears cornerback Tim Jennings, a Pro Bowl player in 2012 and 2013 who slumped last season. “He knows the legue. he knows the game well. He’s definitely going to put guys in position to make plays and use our strengths.
“He’s seen it all. He’s seen all types of offense. He’s seen all types of defense. So I’m real confident in what he’s trying to do.”
Fangio’s reputation precedes him. In four seasons with Fangio as their defensive coordinator and Donatell as their secondary coach under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers produced 17 Pro Bowlers — 10 different players, including five defensive backs, four of them safeties.
And of the 10 players, only linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive end Justin Smith were Pro Bowlers before Fangio got his hands on them. Some, in fact had no better standing in the NFL than several players Fangio has with the Bears today.
— Linebacker NaVorro Bowman was a third-round draft pick who had started one game pre-Fangio in 2010. He made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2013 before suffering a devastating injury in the NFC Championship game after the 2013 season.
— Safety Donte Whitner was a disappointing first-round pick in five seasons with the Bills from 2006-10. Under Fangio, he has made the Pro Bowl the past three seasons.
— Safety Dashon Goldson, a former fourth-round draft pick, had said his goodbyes to 49ers fans after the 49ers signed Whitner to replace him in 2011 after four underwhelming seasons. But with little interest in free agency, Goldson signed a one-year deal with the 49ers and Fangio helped turn him into a star.
Goldson made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014 and finally got the free-agent bonanza he was looking for — signing a four-year, $41.2 million contract with the Buccaneers. But Goldson wasn’t the impact player for Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith that he was for Fangio. He was traded to the Redskins in April.
— Safety Antoine Bethea, a two-time Pro Bowler with the Colts, had not made the Pro Bowl in four seasons when he signed with the 49ers last year. He was Fangio’s lone Pro Bowl player on an 8-8 team that struggled with several injured players last season.
Those stories — and there are others — provide motivation for others that they might be the guy in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t want to downgrade any of the guys that he’s coached and say they weren’t Pro Bowl caliber before,” Mundy said, “but it’s just a matter of things lining up. When you get the right coach, he’s able to get the best out of you.
“You look at the safeties he’s coached —Dashon Goldson, Dante Whitner, Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea —all those guys made the Pro Bowl. There’s got to be something that he’s telling them, that he’s coaching them. And also with Ed Donatell — those guys know what they’re doing. Our job is to buy in and I think we’ve been doing a good job of that so far.”
Fangio, who will turn 57 on Aug. 22, has been doing this for years. In nine years as the Saints linebackers coach under Jim Mora from 1986-94, the Saints had five linebackers combine for 16 Pro Bowl berths — including all four starting linebackers in 1991 (the Saints had one Pro Bowl linebacker in their 19-year history until then).
As defensive coordinator for Dom Capers with the expansion Carolina Panthers from 1995-98, Fangio had the league’s No. 2 scoring defense in the team’s second year of existence in 1996, when the Panthers amazingly went to the NFC Championship Game.
From Carolina to the Colts, the Texans, the Ravens, Stanford under Jim Harbaugh in 2010 and then the 49ers, Fangio has developed a knack for building defenses and getting through to players, without bombast.
“He’s a real calm guy,” said Bears linebacker Christian Jones, a prime candidate to blossom under Fangio. “It’s not like you mess up a play he’s going to yell and curse you. He’s going to talk to you and tell you how to do something better.
“Even in the meeting room he breaks things down for you. He takes his time and is teaching us the different aspects of the game. I feel like a lot of guys respond better to that, especially as men. You don’t want someone yelling at you like that. So it’s been good so far.”
Fangio has a lot of work to do in rebuilding a defense that finished 30th and 31st in points allowed in the past two seasons. It’s no surprise that players have embraced the coaching change. But they are particularly and pointedly excited about what Fangio is doing.
“He has a great scheme,” Mundy said. “It puts players in position to make plays and just be athletes and really trust your instincts, develop your instincts and make plays and have fun playing football. That’s what it’s all about.
“You could look at the guys he’s coached the last four or five years and even before that. Just turn on the tape and see the success they’ve had. They’ve been really good tackling teams and get the ball back for the offense. That’s one of our focal points in training camp — tackling and getting the ball back for our offense.”
For his part, Fangio was typically understated when he assessed the Bears’ defense in his first and only media interview of training camp Friday. If he thinks he has a NaVorro Bowman or a Dashon Goldson here, he isn’t saying.
The defense? “It’s going fine, about what I thought it would.”
Lamarr Houston? “It’s hard to say.”
Jared Allen? “It’s been going well.”
The defensive line? “Right now we have one really good player in Jay Ratliff. The other guys are fighting for [the remaining roster spots].”
Does Antrel Rolle still have it? “I think he does. But time will tell.”
Shea McClellin at inside linebacker? “I think he’s found a home there.”
Christian Jones? “He’s not where he needs to be. He won’t be until two or three years from now. You know, it takes time.”
Ego Ferguson? “I think he’s gotten better.”
Though Fox himself is a former defensive coordinator of some repute, the defense appears to be Vic Fangio’s show.
“I’ve known Vic for a long time,” Fox said. “He’s done a lot of good things in the league defensively … all the way back to New Orleans, I think he’s had a great defensive career and he’s a great defensive mind.
“I don’t think I was going to hire Vic and say, ‘OK, we’re running the 4-3. You’ve got to let a guy do what he’s accustomed to doing and in many cases how [he wants to do it].”
Fangio isn’t infallible, but his track record trumps all. So when he moves McClellin from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, it can’t be dismissed as easily as the previous regime’s attempt to find a home for the former first-round pick. If he thinks Rolle can regain his 2013 Pro Bowl form, he might be right. Everybody has a chance in this defense.
“He’s very straight-forward. He has a great personality. Funny guy,” Rolle said. “But at the same time, when he talks, you know he means business. When you have a guy like that, you can’t do anything but bring your best. He makes you want to go out and compete and just be ferocious on every play.”
That above all else might be the key to Fangio’s success — his ability to bring out the emotion and intensity in his players. Can he do that with the Bears?
“We’re off to a good start,” Fangio said. “But like I tell the defense in meetings, it’s easy to be enthusiastic and emotional and physical early on. You’ve got to maintain it over a 16-game schedule, through a bad performance, a bad day. You’ve got to just keep grinding.”
Every defense wants to play ferocious, salty, nasty and violent. Sometimes it takes a coach like Fangio to being it out of them.
“That’s part of our job,” Fangio said. “We try and instill it any way we can. But ultimately they’ve got to take it upon themselves.”