We break down Vic Fangio's comments about the 49ers linebackers and his old Saints linebackers, and consider whether the 49ers group is the greatest of all time.
49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio chatted with the media on Thursday, and he had a chance to discuss NaVorro Bowman's contract extension and the value of having the entire linebacker corps signed moving forward. Coach Fangio is as worthy of such a discussion as anybody given his history.
From 1986 to 1994, Fangio was the New Orleans Saints linebackers coach. During that time, he coached the "Dome Patrol", which has been considered by some to be the greatest collection of linebackers in NFL history. NFL Network even voted them so. The group included OLBs Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, and ILBs Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson. The group combined for 18 Pro Bowls, and in 1992 the entire foursome was voted to the Pro Bowl.
The current 49ers have a stacked linebacker corps of their own, a group signed together through 2014, with three of the four signed until at least 2016. The group is very young, but they have grown into a dominant group. In his press conference yesterday, Coach Fangio would not compare their abilities head-to-head, but he did make some comparisons about where they were out in their respective careers, which showed some similarities.
Our friends over at Canal Street Chronicles recognize the dominance of the group, going so far as to wonder whether this group is better than the Dome Patrol. It's still incredibly early, and hard to make these comparisons, but this group of 49ers is certainly doing what they can to establish themselves among the all-time greats. Patrick Willis will almost assuredly go to his sixth straight Pro Bowl. NaVorro Bowman was an All Pro last season without earning a Pro Bowl nod. Aldon Smith is on a record pace for sacks and is in the running for defensive player of the year. And Ahmad Brooks quietly puts together strong performance after strong performance.
Coach Fangio did make a good point about his current group of linebackers: before I start answering any questions about comparing those groups, these guys need to be together a little bit longer. So, maybe next year at this time I'll give you a good answer."
What does this group need to prove to be included among the best of all time? Or are they already there?
Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio
Press Conference - November 29, 2012
San Francisco 49ers
How much have the Rams changed in three weeks?
"They haven't. They're playing good football. They came into our game and played very well against us. They had a game against the Jets where the turnovers kind of set them back. And then last week they played very well against Arizona. So, they're a team that's definitely improving. They're a much better team than they were last year. And it's really a tough assignment."
Did WR Danny Amendola look like he was struggling last week?
"Well, he must have been because they only played him sparingly. He only played I think somewhere between 10 and 15 plays. They were picking the spots when they put him in there."
Do you expect him to be at full strength or have the other guy in there, too?
"I have to assume that until I see otherwise."
In terms of intensity and passion, that first quarter against the Rams, was that a low point for you guys, as far as the defense?
"Well, it was a low point because they blocked us and they ran the ball extremely well against us. Give them credit. They're O-line, their tight ends and their backs blocked us and ran the ball harder than we were able to defend at that time. So, give them credit."
Some of your players have said they just didn't feel like they came into that game mentally prepared, that it took them a while to get going?
"Well, to me that's just an excuse. We got blocked."
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher was talking yesterday and said he's looking at this game as the sixth quarter. Do you guys do the same thing, or do you forget about last game?
"No. It's the first quarter. Because it was the sixth quarter, that'd mean it'd be a playoff game and the next score wins, and that isn't the case."
How much is it a luxury for you to have all four linebackers locked up for at least three more seasons after this one?
"I think it speaks well for the organization that they've been able to in this age of salary cap. And it's not always easy to keep your good players together. I think it says a lot for them the way they're managing the cap and getting that done. Hopefully we can keep those guys together for a long time. I had those linebackers in New Orleans for seven straight years as starters together. And that'd be a good thing to shoot for."
Why is it so good to keep, I think I know, but why is it so good to keep a linebacker unit together? What do they get out of playing together? How does that work in terms of effectiveness having them together for so long?
"Well, first and foremost in this situation, it's important to keep them together because they're all good players. If you keep four average players together it doesn't really mean a whole lot. But, alluding to your question, you get good players playing together in the same system for that long of a period, good things are going to happen. And they learn each other, things become second nature. And the first time they have to communicate a tough situation isn't the first time anymore. It's the third, it's the fourth, it's the fifth. I've been around that. Again, alluding back to those guys I had in New Orleans, they were seven years starting together. And when you're good players, that little extra you get, you guys know there's a fine line between being really good in this league and being average. Anything you can push yourself above that line helps."
So, it's communication? Communicating?
Saves like what, half a second on the field or something?
"Yeah, it's the spoken communication and the unspoken communication because the ILBs are used to playing behind those guys. The OLBs are used to knowing what they're going to get inside, in pass defense in particular. How to run a stunt, they've run it with those guys time and time and time again. It just becomes repetition is the key to success."
Did you see those guys in New Orleans take significant steps in year three, four, and five?
"Yes, much like it was here at that time. [former New Orleans Saints LB] Rickey Jackson was pretty much already established like [LB] Patrick Willis was already established here. But, like Rickey Jackson, Patrick Willis has gotten better in the last year and a half. And Rickey Jackson's career took off after we got there and got the group together. And then [former Saints LB] Pat Swilling became a starter in his second year after being a pass rusher in his first year, much like [LB] Aldon [Smith] has done in his career. And then our two inside backers actually came over from the USFL. So, they actually had some pro playing experience in [former Saints LB] Sam Mills and [former Saints LB] Vaughan Johnson. And [LB] NaVorro [Bowman]'s a second-year starter now. So, before I start answering any questions about comparing those groups, these guys need to be together a little bit longer. So, maybe next year at this time I'll give you a good answer."
Because of the dynamics each of these guys bring and they're going to be together for so long, could this be a group that maybe 20 years from now people will talk about this as one of the all-time greats. Do they have that kind of potential? Since they're going to be together, what do you see the potential being?
"Hopefully. Yeah, I think the potential's there. But, we've got to do it. We all know what the word potential means. Again, those guys did it for seven straight years together. This is really their first year together as a starting unit because Aldon's first year starting. And it's only Ahmad's second year starting. It's only NaVorro's second year starting. So, these guys have got to do it over a long period of time at a level of excellence to get to that status that you're alluding to."
Both of your nose tackles are going to become free agents in March. Is that the reason why you've had them rotating more than other positions on the defense?
"No. We're rotating during games to give us the best chance to win that game."
How has NT Isaac Sopoaga played this year? Is he dealing with any after effects from his injury?
"No. Not that I know of."
Are you seeing offenses key in on Aldon more at this point because of what he's been able to do? Or do you expect to see that starting to happen?
"Well, they've been doing it now since we've been here really. And when you say key in on Aldon, [DT] Justin [Smith]'s over there, too. So, he's a big part of that equation. And we have the ability to split those guys up and put Aldon on the left and Justin out wide on the right if need be."
What does that do to an offense?
"For some offenses, it would do nothing. For some, it would. It's up to them how much they want to tinker with their protections."
Have you seen any adjustment from Aldon as far as you're putting him in as a full-time outside linebacker as far as finding that next year now to be able to be that great pass rusher he's been? Do you see something like at mid-season where he kind of maybe got used to being a three-down backer, now he's able to kind of get that gear where you don't have to worry about him?
"Well, like I think I've said to you guys, or I've said to many people, you can't measure his progress week to week. You've got to measure it in three-or-four-game spans. He's a new player at the position, in light of what he played in college as mainly a defensive tackle. So, you're not going to always see great strides week to week. But, I think if you were to put him in played games of three or four, you'll see the strides. And the other thing that happened with him, too, at the beginning of the year, he got hurt in training camp and he only played five preseason plays all year. So, he missed a lot of valuable practice time as an outside linebacker in training camp. And then our first two games we were basically in nickel a good bit of the time. And that practice was correlating that. So, he had about a five-or-six-week span there where he either wasn't practicing because he was hurt. And the practice he was getting we were getting ready to play a lot of nickel. So, he had a big gap there. And now, lately we've been playing more and more base. And he's improving more and more. He's making good plays as an outside linebacker. And his dropping has improved. And his tackling's improved. He made an excellent drop last week in the Saints game on that critical third down when we got the sack by Patrick and [LB] Ahmad [Brooks]. He made a critical, really nice drop on that play, which played a big part in thwarting that play."
How tough is it for a third-down to come along and you decide to drop him and not send him?
"It's tough at times. But, I just felt that that was the right thing to do at that point."
Are you impressed with the way your safeties have been able to hit, but avoid penalties and keep it clean at the same time?
"Well, we coach these guys hard on what's legal and what isn't legal. It's not my job to complain about the way their officiating those rules. It's not their job to complain about it. It's our job to adjust and still hit aggressively and with impacts that will not get the flags. And that's what we emphasize. And that's what these guys do."
From your viewpoint, how tough has it become for a receiver to go across the middle against the San Francisco 49ers?
"If they watch enough film, they'll see that there are some landmines in there that they might step on."