DENVER — As Vic Fangio sat alone in his temporary home — a hotel room south of Denver — and watched the Super Bowl, the Broncos’ coach wore his usual gray warmup suit and a contented expression that could be poured on waffles.
A subtle sense of self-satisfaction?
"Yes. I kinda knew (the Patriots) would use that defensive scheme. It was obvious they would copy us because of our success against the Rams," Vic, who looks exactly like an Italian guy named Vic should, told me during a lengthy conversation the other day in his expansive office on the second floor of the Broncos’ headquarters. Outside the bank of windows, an intense fog and snow engulfed Dove Valley.
The Rams, who averaged 34.1 points in 15 regular-season games and scored 48 once, had only two first-half field goals in Chicago on Dec. 9. Fangio was the Bears’ defensive coordinator.
One post-game headline shouted: "Vic Fangio Throws Perfect Game Vs. L.A. Rams." Fangio, a lifelong Phillies fanatic, would appreciate the baseball analogy.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff was sacked three times and suffered four interceptions. He was tackled in the end zone for a safety and completed only 20 of 44 passes for 180 yards. Running back Todd Gurley gained only 28 yards on 11 carries.
"We went old school on them," says the man who was born in 1958 and began coaching in 1979.
Steve Owen, who coached the Giants from 1930-53 and became an early Hall of Fame inductee, devised the original "6-1 Umbrella Defense" (six linemen, one linebacker, four defensive backs) in 1950 to beat the brilliant Paul Brown and the all-powerful Browns.
"When you started covering the NFL in the 1960s," Vic said, referencing that he’s a young man in comparison to the other man at the table, "a lot of teams were running the 6-1. Defenses evolved into the 4-3, then the 3-4."
Fangio brought back the ancient alignment for the Rams. In the 6-1, he had four, five, six linemen put extreme pressure on Goff and perplex Rams coach Sean McVay. The two would communicate on the headset about the defense up to the 15-second mark when the NFL official would turn it off.
At that moment, Fangio dropped ends into coverage, changed from zone to man-to-man and squeezed lanes. The Rams never comprehended.
Old school defeated new school, and Fangio outcoached McVay, who, in his 20s, was recommended by Vic to an NFL general manager as a possible head coach. Nobody really ever recommended Fangio for a head coaching job. He had three previous interviews before the Broncos met with him in January. "I never played college or pro football. I wasn’t the son of a head coach. I didn't fit the profile. And even though I coached on some very good teams (including one that advanced to the Super Bowl), I was with some bad teams, and I’m sure teams weren’t interested in me.’"
Of his victory over the Rams, "they couldn't run the football. And if they can’t run with Gurley or (C.J. Anderson), they aren’t very good. (Bill) Belichick) knew that. I wasn't surprised about what happened in the Super Bowl." The Patriots did as the Bears and held the Rams without a touchdown in a 13-3 triumphant effort.
Fangio hasn't got a call from the Patriots. But 2018's assistant coach of the year received congratulations from others in the league.
As he apologized for his "messy" surroundings, Fangio reached into a bookcase holding more than a dozen thick folders with his name on it and said: "Here, I'll show you something." He opened a spiral notebook and pulled out one of his playsheets." I assumed it was from the Rams game.
Unlike the fresh breed of coaches, who hold up to their faces multi-colored-coded, laminated, computer-typed, front-and-back — a complete, complex compilation of potential plays — Vic relies on a folded piece of cardboard with hand-written notations for play calls.
"I never let anybody type it or put it on a computer, or see it. Not even the other coaches." The sheet was for his eyes only. "Now that I'll be on the sideline" — he has spent all but one year of his 30 seasons as a defensive coach in the NFL upstairs in the coaching box — "I've got to figure out what I’ll do" about a playsheet since he'll still be making the defensive decisions on every play.
Vic will turn 61 on Aug. 22, just before the Broncos' fourth of five exhibitions. He’ll be coaching again in the Hall of Fame game the first weekend of the month. The Bears played in the game last year.
I asked if he hopes this is his last coaching stop. He got what I meant. If he is successful in Denver, Vic can retire with the Broncos. "Yes, 10 years would be a good number. I don't feel any different now that I did when I was with the Saints (his first NFL job in 1986). I don’t work any different. I just don't run as quick as I did from drill to drill when I was younger. And I'm working harder than I did.
"I haven't lost my stinger.
"The game has changed. I’m not coaching the same as I was in the '70s or '80s. The X's and O's have changed, to a degree. The players are different, and the surroundings of the game, the media, the internet. Back then there were the big-market teams that got all the attention. Now, with the internet, every team is a big-market team. Salary cap, rule changes. The game has constantly changed, so I'm not bored. I like the challenge of the game.
"What's my goal?" he asked himself. "Obviously, everybody wants to win Super Bowls. But I get a real kick out of seeing players improve and teaching all the little things. I, we, defensive coaches I've been with have been successful with players who were drafted high, and it didn't work out for them with that team. We've gotten them and turned their careers around. I look forward to coaching the low-drafted, undrafted young men. I like the relationships with the players. I'm not a guy who gets buddy-buddy with a player. I'm not going to chest-bump a player, and I don't think I will here, but maybe someday I'll get excited and do it. But my approach with the players lasts a long time. One of the most gratifying things about getting this job was getting phone calls and texts from players going back to the 1980s. I've had a great relationship with players without being their buddies. That means a lot of me that they still care."
When Fangio played safety at Dunmore (Pa.) High School, he realized he wouldn’t be a college player, so his goal was to become a coach and a teacher. "P.E. (physical education)". After graduating from East Strousberg College, he returned to Dunmore as a defensive assistant, then moved at Milford (Conn.) Academy.
Vic was hired as a graduate assistant at North Carolina. "I had a friend who was a voluntary assistant for the Philadelphia Stars (of the United States Football League). I’d gotten to know the Philadelphia coaches and went up for a practice or two. When they'd want information on a (North Carolina) player, I'd give it to them. They lost an assistant (coach) Jim Mora (Sr.) bumped up my buddy to a paid coaching job, and told him he needed a replacement. My friend said, 'I got the perfect guy.' So I went up there. No money. I slept on my buddy’s couch, with the understanding I was going back to North Carolina in the fall. At the end of the (the league's spring) season Mora calls me in and says you're not going back, you're going to stay here fulltime. I got a small salary, and I had to be strength coach, too. That’s how Mora could justify giving me the money.
"That was my big break. That was the moment. Every once in a while Mora or (general manager) Carl Peterson would give me an envelope with $100 in it.
“After my second year, there was doubt about whether the USFL would continue. We knew Mora would get another job. He was the hot coach then, and he told us to hang tight. He said he’d bring me with him. “Not because I like you, but you are one of the best coaches I've ever been around.' I was only 25.
"That was it."
Vic dreamed of being a head coach in the NFL someday. He didn’t know it would take until 2019.
"I had to just wait and be patient. I've always been OK with that.
"I was perfectly happy in Chicago. We had gone through the hard years, and we finally got some players, and won, and I could have stayed there for another 10 years if they had kept me."
Finally, the important question.
"Will you be as patient as Broncos head coach?"
Vic paused for several seconds. "That’s a difficult question. If I say I'm not going to be patient, you and everybody else will think I'm going to make some knee-jerk short-term decisions that won't have long-term benefits. What we've got to do, I believe, is let's go out there and evaluate this team, find out where we need help. Make some good choices for the future, not just for today, if I'm making sense. I'm not looking to go 4-12 or 5-11, thinking that we're rebuilding. But we must realize that two years from now, three years, that what we did in the 2019 season was why we are at that point.
"We have to establish a work ethic in the players here and work very hard in the acquisitions of players (in the draft and free agency).
"Here's what happened to the Bears before I got there. What they were doing was putting Band-Aids on every little problem, hoping they would be a good team the next year. By the time we got there, they sucked. They were old, no young talent, no nothing. I've coached on two expansions teams in Carolina and with the Texans, and our roster on defense when I was hired was worse than those expansion team defenses.
"We can't let that happen here. We can't do everything to just get to 8-8 now and be 3-13 in 2021. Does that mean that we won’t get a veteran in free agency that will help us for a year or two? We can do that. But we can't go and throw a bunch of (stuff) against the wall and hope it sticks."
I asked specifically about a future quarterback. "Do we go for a high draft choice and find out he's not what we'd hope he'd be, or throw a ton of money for somebody (a veteran), and he turns not to be worth it?
"We have to be smart."
Vic Fangio certainly is a realist, a wily veteran, a solid, experienced, smart man who seems so comfortable with himself and those around him, a strong, straight-forward head coach who will remind Broncos loyalists of the late Red Miller and John Fox. Both guided the Broncos to the Super Bowl soon after taking over.
Several nights ago Fangio — who has a son, a daughter, a brother who has lived in Colorado Springs for 40 years and a lady who lives in San Francisco (where they met when he was a coach with the 49ers) — decided to go alone to the Nuggets game against, of course, the Philadelphia 76ers. An associate said Fangio didn’t ask for a free ticket, a parking pass or a front row or suite seat. He slipped into the arena and sat among the fans.
He is one of them. "I'm a sports fan."
Vic seeks, after all the passage of time and patience, to not sit alone in a room on Super Sunday.
He wants to formulate a gameplan for his own championship.