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Lord of the Schemes

Posted Feb 18, 2011



Vic Fangio knows football. He knows defense. And he knows the NFL’s pending labor situation won’t change that.

That’s why the new 49ers defensive coordinator spoke with an air of confidence to a room of reporters Wednesday. Having 24 years of NFL coaching experience certainly warrants that disposition in uncertain times.

Should a new collective bargaining agreement not be reached before the league’s March 4 deadline, Fangio will make the best of it.

“Once everything settles and we have direction as to what we can and can’t do and how much time we have or don’t have to do it,” Fangio said, “we’ll figure out a way to get it done. It’s just that simple.”

He’s not sweating the situation; only things he can control enter his thought process. Fangio’s mindset, shared by the entire 49ers coaching staff, is to prepare like there won’t be a lockout.

However, if one takes place, the coaches will do what they do best – make adjustments.

Labor issues weren’t a problem in Fangio’s most recent role. The longtime NFL coach took a year away from the pro game to coach Stanford’s defense last season and left such an impression, players on his team referred to him as “Lord Fangio.”

“All knowing,” cornerback Richard Sherman said of his former coach at the Senior Bowl.

But when he starts implementing his defense with the 49ers, Fangio won’t rely on last year’s success at Stanford. College football is much different than the professional game. Rules, schemes, field dimensions, physicality and talent were all listed by Fangio as major differences between the two.

In understanding the nuances of the game, Fangio’s 3-4 scheme is more diverse than your average three down linemen, four linebacker front.

“We personnel it as a 3-4, but we’ll do a lot of things out of it that will look, to the visual eye, like a 4-3,” he said. “I like to say that we’re a 3-4-3, a 3-4 that does 4-3 things also.”

A similar defense can be found in Green Bay, where the Super Bowl-winning Packers demonstrated a multi-faceted 3-4 scheme coached by Fangio’s mentor, Dom Capers.

Fangio spent 18 years of his coaching career working alongside Capers and shares similar defensive philosophies.

“We have our differences like all two people would have,” Fangio said. “But I think basically a lot of the things he believes in, I believe in. A lot of the things we’ll be doing, they do, and vice versa.”

One of those core beliefs is being an attack-first defense. But before that can be accomplished, Fangio must evaluate the players he’s inherited.

However, one player who won’t require much evaluation is All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, who Fangio has admired since Willis was in college. But since joining the 49ers satff, Fangio hasn’t spent much time watching Willis’ highlights. For that matter, he hasn’t watched much tape on any of his new players.

“I want to form my own opinion,” Fangio said. “I don’t know what they were being told, what they weren’t being told, I don’t know what the circumstances were.”

What he does know is that the best NFL offenses tend to very effective in the passing game, and that means Fangio will have to put together a defense that can either get pressure to the quarterback, cover soundly on the back end, or preferably, do both.

“It’s become more spread out in the NFL over the last 25 (years),” he said. “What’s happened in the NFL from the time that I’ve been in the league is the zone-pressure package, zone blitzing that became in vogue, started in the mid-90’s to become very popular.”

Fangio broke into the league in 1986 as the New Orleans Saints’ linebacker coach. He worked there for nine seasons with arguably the greatest linebacking corps in NFL history, appropriately dubbed, “The Dome Patrol.”

He then moved on to the Carolina Panthers in 1995 to become the team’s first ever defensive coordinator under Capers. That coaching staff happened to have 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman on it as well.

Like Roman, Fangio went on to a number of coaching opportunities. He served as defensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts (1999-01), Houston Texans (2002-05) and worked as an assistant for the Baltimore Ravens (2006-09).

With so much experience to his credit, Fangio is glad to be coaching in the NFL again. This is where he belongs. He enjoyed his year in the college ranks, but relishes the opportunity to be competing at the highest level.

“This is what I’ve done forever almost it seems. It’s good to be back.”