Akiem Hicks settled in for some relevant reading a few days ago: an article about how to build a stalwart NFL team.
“It takes more than one, two years to really build a foundation for your program to go further,” the Bears defensive end said Wednesday. “I really feel like that’s the case here.”
That means finding stability in players and coaches, he said — specifically, Vic Fangio.
The Bears’ defensive coordinator reiterated Wednesday that he plans to return next year, three weeks after denying a rift with coach John Fox.
To do so would be to see his defensive rebuild through to the point where it bears fruit.
“I see him as a person that understands that there’s a patience to this, and what we’re building going forward is something he had his hand in, and he wants to see it grow, he wants to see it bloom,” Hicks said. “I have confidence he’ll be here.”
Fangio inherited Mel Tucker’s group two years ago — after it posted the two worst defensive seasons in team history — and has molded it into a capable unit, albeit one ranked last in the league in takeaways.
They need more playmakers.
“Everybody does,” Fangio said, “Even the teams that are going to be playing next month.”
Fangio joked his statistics looked better before giving up 71 points over the previous two weeks, and said that “we have our fingerprints” on the team’s 3-13 record. Still, only 12 teams give up fewer yards than the Bears’ 344.9 this season; the 2013 and 2014 teams finished 30th.
“I think on an individual basis some are doing well,” he said. “As a unit, we’re not there yet obviously. But I think the groundwork has been laid. There’s been some foundation laid. And we’ve gotten a lot of guys playing time. So I think on an individual basis there’s some brightness there.”
That would dull under a new coordinator.
“Vic’s done an unbelievable job,” said outside linebacker Sam Acho, who said he deserves credit for transforming the 4-3 front into a 3-4.
Fangio said he’d given little thought to head coaching openings, given the Bears’ woeful record. He squirmed when asked about Fox’s personality — he jokingly deemed it a “philosophical” question — but said the two have grown to know each other better over two years.
Both have been called “old-school,” Fox said.
“I think Vic does a tremendous job,” Fox said. “Concept-wise, he does a good job. I think he teaches it to a variety of different levels of experienced players. I think even with all that’s happened to us really in both years, I think we’ve shown steady improvement.
“I know the last couple of weeks has not been outstanding. But some of that is who you play as well. But I think he’s a good teacher and he brings good results.”
Like Fangio, Mike Zimmer inherited a Tampa 2 defense when he was named the Vikings head coach in January 2014. The former Bengals defensive coordinator took over a team that gave up a league-high 30 points per game, but he had more to work with than Fangio did: the Vikings had selected safety Harrison Smith, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes in the first round over the 2012 and 2013 drafts.
“We had some pieces here,” Zimmer said, “but the statistics weren’t very good.”
Fangio had neither.
In the first two rounds of the three drafts leading up to his arrival, the Bears selected the position-less Shea McClellin, linebacker Jon Bostic, cornerback Kyle Fuller and defensive tackle Ego Ferguson. Second-rounders Ferguson and Bostic combined to start one game under Fangio. McClellin left via free agency last offseason, and Fuller hasn’t played this year after having arthroscopic knee surgery during the preseason.
Within two years of Zimmer’s hire, the Vikings were fifth in scoring defense, allowing 18.9 points last season.
“I guess the best way to say it is this: The first year you kind of have to adjust some of the scheme to some of the personnel and still try to put your scheme in,” Zimmer said. “And then the second year, you have a lot more pieces. And then you can go from there.”
The Bears invested, with mixed results, in Hicks and linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan last offseason. They’ll do more of that this offseason.
Fangio pointed to Hicks and linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski as players who shined in their first year under him.
“So hopefully,” he said, “We’re not looking to overhaul everything.”
Including the coordinator.