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Considering Vic Fangio’s future, and the 49ers defense

Kyle Shanahan was intrigued by the Bears defensive coordinator earlier this year.

The San Francisco 49ers travel to face the Chicago Bears this weekend, marking the third straight season they will face the Bears in Week 13. This also means it is the third straight season they will face former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

Fangio left the 49ers after he was passed over for Jim Tomsula in the rush after Jim Harbaugh was mutually parted. There were all sorts of stories about what might or might not have happened if Adam Gase had been hired, but at the end of the day, Fangio was out.

Earlier this year, when Kyle Shanahan was filling out his coaching staff, Fangio was a name that was reportedly considered. Matt Barrows reported that Shanahan was interested in bringing in Fangio as defensive coordinator, but the Bears denied the move since he was under contract.

Around the same time, we heard some rumors that Gus Bradley was an option. He eventually left to join the Los Angeles Chargers, and Shanahan eventually hired Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers coach Robert Saleh for the role.

Shanahan chatted with Bears media on Wednesday, and naturally he was asked if he had interest in Fangio when he joined the 49ers. Shanahan simply said Fangio was under contract and nothing could happen.

It’s not a shocking revelation, simply confirming what we heard previously. But it does raise some questions about Fangio’s future after this season. Most people assume John Fox will be fired by the end of this season. Fangio could very well end up getting a courtesy interview for the job, but it would not be surprising if we saw some house-cleaning of the coaching staff.

I spoke with Windy City Gridiron writer Jeff Berckes this week, and asked him what he thought of Fangio’s future in Chicago.

That’s a dang good question. I think a lot of Bears fans would like to have their cake and eat it too by hiring an offensive-minded head coach and retaining Fangio as defensive coordinator. That worked out for one Super Bowl championship under the Mike Ditka – Buddy Ryan years with similar circumstances (but was also incredibly volatile). The prevailing thought is that Fangio wouldn’t be happy with being passed over for the job and would quit, similar to the Rod Marinelli situation after Lovie Smith was fired.

I think he’ll get a shot at an internal interview for the HC gig but he won’t get it. This is a team looking in a new direction and General Manager Ryan Pace will want to hire one of “his guys” this time around. The Fox hire happened with Pace just days on the job and with a healthy push from Ernie Accorsi and ownership. Pace is a young GM and I understand why he’d agree with ownership and Mr. Accorsi in his first days on the job, but he’ll want to interview his batch of coaches this time around. In a way, this terrible year is a great blessing for Pace as he doesn’t have to justify firing his head coach as Fox has done a great job of digging his own grave.

So, Fangio’s best shot at remaining in Chicago is having a connection with the next HC who wants to keep him and Vic checking his ego to stick around for a new regime. Fangio’s reputation doesn’t paint him as the friendliest of human beings, so I don’t imagine that there is anyone in the front office trying to force him on any potential head coaching candidates. And, if Pace does that, he needs to be fired. That’s exactly how the Bears screwed up the Bruce Arians hire and wound up with Marc Trestman. Say what you will about Arians approach, he’s a far better coach than Trestman. To be clear, this is all just my sense of things – I have zero inside information.

Robert Saleh has done a generally solid job for the 49ers in his first year as defensive coordinator. It is not surprising Shanahan would have wanted somebody with more experience to handle the defense, but this indicates considerable trust in what Saleh and his position coaches are able to do.

I continue to get angry when I see a 300-pound defensive tackle dropping into coverage multiple times a game, but otherwise, it seems like Saleh has done enough to justify continued work as the 49ers DC. The defense has had some inconsistency for sure, but I like the direction in which it is headed. With another offseason to infuse talent, things could take a notable turn up next year.

The defense must improve next year, but I don’t think we see a change at DC, even if Fangio is available. And considering the sizable change in philosophies under Saleh, it would make even less sense. That’s certainly a big what if of this whole thing. If the 49ers had been able to hire Fangio, how much of what we see now on defense would we see with a significantly different DC?