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Brad Biggs: If best thing about Bears is defense, Vic Fangio should be in conversation for a head-coaching job

CHICAGO – If Matt Nagy really has a shot to be NFL Coach of the Year, and entering Week 12 he’s clearly a candidate, the first call he makes should be to Vic Fangio.

While it took a certain lack of ego to understand his most important move was to convince Fangio to stay, the fact is as great as the Bears’ new offense has been, as fun as the creativity has been, it’s happening on both sides of the ball, and Fangio’s role shouldn’t be ignored. Fangio’s contribution should have him in conversations for a head-coaching job. Whether it will or not is another matter.

There is a longtime belief in the NFL that if you go with a defensive-minded head coach, you get the added benefit of good special teams. And having two of the three schemes as strengths creates a winning formula, but given the intense focus on offense, it will take a special insightful owner to hire a guy like the 60-year-old Fangio for his first head-coaching job.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is the best recent example of why Fangio is deserving of a shot. But Fangio will need a general manager and more importantly an owner smart enough to zig when everyone else is zagging.

You could argue the best thing about the 7-3 Bears as they prepare for Thursday’s meeting with the Lions at Ford Field is their defense and the thing that makes them such a dangerous team is the defense. The Bears defense is arguably the best in the NFL and why wouldn’t that be attractive? If you consider defense passe, look at what the Bears are doing in a season in which the league is on pace to shatter multiple scoring records.

The Bears rank fourth in points allowed, third in yards allowed, first against the run, first in takeaways, first in interceptions and tied for fifth in sacks. Fangio is the genius behind it. This is his 19th season as a defensive coordinator in the NFL and despite a sterling reputation as a high-level strategist, he has been considered for head-coaching positions only three times. The Bears interviewed him before hiring Nagy in January. In 2015, the 49ers passed over Fangio to hire defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, a mistake that immediately blew up on them. In 1997, Fangio lost out to Kevin Gilbride for the Chargers job.

Fangio has done good work for the Bears since arriving as part of John Fox’s staff in 2015, and with the Bears winning and finally in the NFL’s spotlight, he’s only going to gain more attention in the final weeks of the season as teams planning to make a change will be doing homework and preparing lists of potential head-coaching candidates.

“We’ll see in the next six weeks how well we do,” Fangio said. “It would be nice, but I am not going to burn the house down if it doesn’t happen or think anything less or be unhappy with my coaching career or whatever.”

The trend around the league is toward offense, and that was what the Bears had in mind when they brought in Nagy to work with quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Offensive coaches are en vogue and everyone is seeking the next Sean McVay, the 32-year-old wunderkind leading the explosive 10-1 Rams.

The Vikings hired Zimmer, then 58, in 2014, giving him his first head-coaching job after he toiled for 14 seasons as a coordinator and interviewed with five other teams with no luck. He’d been considered perhaps too brash before Vikings general manager Rick Spielman identified him as the right man to build a winning culture in Minnesota and direct an elite defense.

Fangio is a straight shooter like Zimmer, who once told an owner the 31 teams that didn’t hire him would regret passing over him, and he’s not going to tell prospective bosses what they want to hear but what he believes. The comparison to Fox, who was 59 when the Bears hired him, doesn’t work because that was his third head-coaching gig. The comparison to Bruce Arians, who was 60 when the Cardinals hired him in 2013, isn’t perfect either because Arians was an offensive mastermind and got his first shot as an interim replacement for Chuck Pagano with the Colts in 2012 when he was named Coach of the Year. As cruel as it sounds, had Pagano not been forced to take a leave of absence to battle cancer, Arians probably never would have gotten a chance.

It’s impossible to anticipate how many openings there will be in January and what those teams will be seeking. But teams generally seek a coach who can be a consensus builder. No matter what the opinion of Fangio is around the league, the fact that he was willing to return to the Bears and work with a 39-year-old in Nagy, whom he didn’t know, and things have gone as well as they have is impressive. Fangio gets along with people even if publicly he can come across as a crusty old coach.

Arians was popular in the locker room with the Cardinals, reaching younger players as an older coach, and from that angle Bears right tackle Bobby Massie, who began his career in Arizona, sees Fangio as a good fit for a top job.

“They’re going to tell it how it is and they ain’t going to play any games with you,” Massie said. “Similar in ways, I would say. Bruce thought he was the coolest coach in the league and on the team with us, we just had a swagger in Arizona and he was the reason for that. I wouldn’t say Vic is cool, but he’s got his own personality and that shows through the way the defense plays.”

Said cornerback Prince Amukamara, who played for an older coach with the Giants in Tom Coughlin: “Vic could easily be a head coach, just his demeanor, his poise, his experience. He has a great sense of humor that not a lot of guys get to see, but in the defensive room, we do.”

Fangio is working without an agent and maybe that more than anything is evidence he’s not worried about opportunities coming his way. In a political game, he never has wasted time worrying about climbing the ladder.

“Maybe I should have been more political, but it’s too late for that,” Fangio said.

If teams do call Fangio, their first question will be, “Vic, who is going to be your offensive coordinator?”

He will have to have an answer to that question if the time comes.

“It is what it is,” Fangio said. “You wouldn’t know what to do if you didn’t have me here.”

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Chicago Bearsdefensive coordinator Vic Fangio stands on the field before a game between the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017 in Minneapolis. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

Chicago Bearsdefensive coordinator Vic Fangio stands on the field before a game between the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017 in Minneapolis. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

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