It’s Jan. 24 and the San Francisco 49ers are still practicing. The team has a week to prepare in the Bay Area before it heads back to the Bayou for Super Bowl XLVII. Rest assured they’ll make good use of the time.
For defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the Feb. 3 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens will be a reunion of sorts, two-fold.
Fangio began his NFL coaching career as the New Orleans Saints linebacker coach for nine seasons (1986-94) and also coached for the USFL’s Baltimore Stars (1984-85) and Baltimore Ravens (2006-09).
The respected coordinator is certainly familiar with the personnel he’ll have to defend on Super Bowl Sunday. That doesn’t necessarily mean Fangio is ahead of the game, but it’ll help the 49ers coach decide on certain calls for Feb. 3.
Those calls are trusted by members of his defense, too.
When the Atlanta Falcons faced a fourth down in the closing moments of the NFC title game, the defense called by Fangio required a linebacker to cover a wide receiver in the middle of the field. The 49ers believed in the call and executed it.
It’s not easy being the stressed player in certain calls, but members of the 49ers defense believe their coach is putting them in position to succeed.
“The thing is, he lets you know when it’s on you, when that times going to be,”
So how enjoyable has it been for Smith and others to play for their defensive coordinator over the past two seasons?
“I think fun in this league is dictated on success,” said Smith, who has made four consecutive Pro Bowls, but will miss the game for the first time due the Super Bowl. “We’ve had a lot of success with him and he’s done an excellent job coordinating the defense. It makes it real fun.”
The 49ers have been one of the league’s most consistent defenses during Fangio’s tenure. They’ve quieted opposing rushing attacks, kept teams out of the end zone and delivered timely big plays in the fourth quarter.
Fellow defensive tackle
“He’ll throw a joke at you every once and a while,” McDonald shared. “He might have a little quote for you. We’ll come in, watch film on Tuesday and he’ll have a quote or something, somebody might have emailed him a little joke, so he kind of livens it up at the start of the week.”
Fangio shows that humor in his dealings with the media, too.
Asked about his start with the Baltimore Stars and how the USFL franchise operated out of Philadelphia, the 49ers coordinator wondered out loud if his current team could work out a similar arrangement.
“I was wondering if we could do that here,” Fangio began, “base ourselves in Nevada and just come over here and play the games so we don’t have to pay California State taxes. Do you think that could fly?”
Fangio was kidding, but his defense’s performance this season has been no laughing matter.
The defense supplied two timely turnovers in the win over Atlanta and effectively ended the game with a critical four-down stand in the red zone.
McDonald believes the 49ers defense can play at its best under Fangio because everyone is held accountable.
“That’s why we’ve had success on this defense,” the underrated defensive tackle said. “No matter who you are, whether it Justin Smith, P-Willis, Dashon (Goldson), anybody on the defense, if you’re messing up and not doing your job he’s going to call you out. It’s not in a disrespectful way; it’s just to get you on the right track.”
“He’s aggressive,” the sixth-year defensive back said. “He’s always been aggressive. He’s never a passive coach and he relies on us to make plays. That’s the great thing about him. It’s not just one call; he puts us in great positions to make plays.”
Fangio will have his hands full with an improving Baltimore offense.
The former Ravens coach also knows all about Joe Flacco and relayed the first time he knew the quarterback would be a force in the NFL.
“The first OTA (offseason team activity) sessions we had with him as a rookie, I said to John Harbaugh, I said you’ve got your horse here to ride for 10 years at least,” Fangio recalled. “I really felt that he could be a really good quarterback in the NFL. And I felt that from that day and I still feel that way. He’s got a big arm. He throws the ball effortlessly. The game isn’t too big for him. He’s calm. He’s confident. And he’s capable of making all the throws.”
Knowing the task at hand, the 49ers are making sure to do as much studying as possible before the biggest football examination of their lives.
“It’s just like coming off a bye week, we have two weeks to prepare for a team,” McDonald said. “Any time you have two weeks to prepare, you can limit your mistakes greatly. This week can help us, we can really get prepared for Ray Rice, Joe Flacco and those guys over there in Baltimore.”