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Life without Fangio: Defensive coordinator options for the Bears

The Bears’ defense is stacked with talent. But they need a new leader with Vic Fangio gone to Denver.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

You knew this day would eventually come. Vic Fangio, a football coaching lifer, has been working for an NFL head coaching job for decades. From his early days as a high school coach in Pennsylvania, to the peaks of his career with the 49ers and Bears over the past eight years, it’s come to this moment. After building Chicago into one of pro football’s best defenses, Fangio’s finally gotten his head coaching wish with the Broncos.

The 2018 Bears had one of the five best passing defenses ever. They led the NFL in takeaways with 36, and had more interceptions (27) than in the past three years combined (24). It was a defense that acted as the primary catalyst for a 12-4 season and NFC North title. With that kind of success across the board, the people in charge are going to come in at a high demand. Fangio’s new opportunity that he had sought out for years then felt inevitable. It’s a well-deserved promotion for one of the league’s premier defensive minds.

In the aftermath of Fangio’s departure, the Bears face the challenge of finding a man to coach their defense and maintain a similar level of play. Continuity, especially with a great coordinator, is admittedly always preferred. That’s especially so for a team in the middle of a proposed Super Bowl window. There will be adjustments to be made for players like Hicks and Fuller that have been coached by Fangio for years. Provided the Bears pick the right replacement, the drop off without him shouldn’t be too dramatic given the tremendous talent level they possess. It’s easy to forget in hindsight, but the 2015 Broncos and 2013 Seahawks - two defenses that galvanized Super Bowl runs - changed their defensive coordinators from the year before in Wade Phillips and Dan Quinn, respectively.

If the Bears can strike gold in a similar fashion without Fangio - and it isn’t impossible - no one will complain.

Chicago’s pitch to whoever should take up their defensive mantel is essentially, “Hey, you get to coach Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson, and Roquan Smith, among others, how does that sound?” It’s good work if you can get it, whoever shall be so fortunate.

As the Bears enter the crux of their off-season this January, let’s examine the best possible coordinator options to replace the surly Fangio as he moves onto greener pastures.

Todd Bowles

New York Jets v New England Patriots
A friendly reunion on the way?
Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

EDIT: It is now being widely reported that Bowles decided to keep the commitment he gave Bruce Arians and become the defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay.

Bowles is the man that will be most linked to the Bears’ defensive coordinator opening because he has a past with head coach Matt Nagy. That familiarity serves Nagy well. Reports were that the former Jets head coach was on his way to Tampa Bay with one of his mentors in Bruce Arians. That was before the Bears’ job cleared up. Now it’s reportedly between the Buccaneers and Bears when it comes to a decision for Bowles.

Like with anyone that takes this Bears job, Bowles will likely be looking to eventually be a head coach again after his failure in New York. That’s what makes the Bears defense so attractive. If he wants that resume springboard, the more talented Bears would act as his theoretical best bet on paper.

Let the bidding war begin.

The 55-year-old Bowles comes from the same Andy Reid coaching tree as Nagy does, even having coached with Nagy on the same staff under Reid in 2012 with the Eagles. Nagy would eventually follow Reid to the Chiefs, while Bowles moved on to the Cardinals under Arians to be their defensive coordinator. There, he helped turn Arizona into of the NFL’s best defenses, as the Cardinals finished No. 2 overall in defensive DVOA in 2013, and No. 7 overall in 2014.

Arizona won 21 games during Bowles’ two-year tenure as defensive coordinator thanks to Arians’ high-flying offense and Bowles’ defense that was consistently on the prowl. He’s known for his aggressiveness as a coordinator, and would assuredly bring a different style of coaching to the Bears, albeit with a similar 3-4 scheme to Fangio’s. Of every possible option, the transition with Bowles would be the most seamless and serve guys like Mack, Hicks, and Jackson well. It’s no surprise the Bears have made him their top priority.

Kris Richard, Cowboys

Richard is an up and comer that will be coveted by many.
New York Jets

One of the youngest risers in the current NFL, the Cowboys defensive backs coach in Richard has been discussed a lot as a defensive coordinator and head coaching candidate in recent years. That’s for good reason.

With a pedigree of having been one of the main instruments behind the “Legion of Boom” secondary in Seattle from 2010—2017, Richard has seen firsthand what it means to be a thriving, attacking defense in a pass-happy league. After starting as an assistant defensive backs coach in 2010, the 39-year-old Richard steadily worked his way up to be the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator for the three years prior to the 2018 season. He’s mostly credited for the hard-hitting style of those legendary Seahawks. Under Richard, Seattle had the No. 4 overall defense in DVOA in 2015, the No. 5 overall in 2016, and No. 13 overall in 2017 as the Legion saw it’s collective end due to age and injuries.

Richard then ended up moving to Dallas this year, and is a big part of the Cowboys having the No. 9 overall defense in DVOA. It’s an underrated Dallas defense that shut down the high-powered Super Bowl favorite Saints and limited them to 10 points in late November. Under Richard, guys like 26-year-old Byron Jones and 2017 draft pick Chidobe Awuzie have morphed into Pro Bowl caliber players on the boundary thanks to his coaching efforts. Like any young coach, Richard is more than likely only using Dallas as a stepping stone.

While Richard does run a base 4-3 defense, it’s not as if the Bears’ base scheme is always in it’s traditional 3-4. In fact, Chicago’s unit is almost exclusively lined up in a base nickel to accommodate slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, and has been for some time. That means there’s tons of room for player flexibility and movement in the event that Richard would come to Chicago.

If the Bears were to pursue Richard as their new defensive coordinator, they’d need to schedule and hold an interview before Dallas’ Divisional Round playoff game against the Rams this Saturday night, in accordance with NFL hiring rules. Should other options fall through, the patience to hold off for Richard might be worth it. He’s going to find his way up the coaching ladder sooner rather than later, perhaps with the Dolphins.

Ed Donatell

Another man just waiting for a promotional opportunity
NBC Sports

The prime in-house defensive coordinator option, the 61-year-old Donatell has been a loyal Fangio foot soldier for the last eight years with the 49ers and Bears. The defensive backs in Chicago for the last four years, who is now out of contract, has helped turn players like Fuller, Callahan, and Jackson into Pro Bowl and All-Pro caliber talents. That Bears defense that led the NFL in interceptions this year is largely due to Donatell’s steady hands behind the scenes. He’s well-respected for his patient approach to coaching, and has an NFL reputation dating all the way back to 1990 with the Jets.

Donatell, like Fangio, is in a similar spot of finally moving up the professional ranks. There’s always the possibility he follows Fangio to Denver and acts as his defensive coordinator in a promotion. That should give the Bears pause if they elect to pursue Donatell, because there’s no telling if his services are truly available. But if Chicago were to offer him the same job with the promise of stability and players he’s been involved with for years now, it’d be difficult to turn down.

The last time Donatell was a defensive coordinator was in 2006 with the Falcons with a far less star-studded defense. A Bears opening where he gets to lead Mack, Hicks, Jackson, and company is far more attractive 12 years later, along with the promise of relative continuity for everyone involved.

Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network, managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and writes for a host of fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.