Thanks to the ‘Dome Patrol,’ Vic Fangio’s New Orleans roots run deep with great defense

NEW ORLEANS -- It would be tough to find anyone in the Superdome today with more connections to Super Bowl XLVII than San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The 54-year-old defensive mastermind, who came over from Stanford to San Francisco with head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman before the 2011 season, coached the New Orleans Saints' linebackers from 1986 through 1994. That's when the "Dome Patrol" group, considered by many to be the greatest linebacker foursome in NFL history, came to prominence.

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Outside linebackers Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, and inside linebackers Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson, comprised a squad no offense wanted to face. All four of them were voted to the Pro Bowl in 1992, the last season of a seven-year span in which they were all together. From 1987 through 1992, the formerly moribund Saints never had a losing season, and won 10 or more games four different times.

After stops with the Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts, and Houston Texans,. Fangio found himself in Baltimore from 2006 through 2010, as a special assistant to two head coaches (Brian Billick and John Harbaugh). It was there that he both learned and taught more aspects of the hybrid defenses he'd cultivated for decades. Then, the one year at Stanford in 2010,

“It feels good to be back here," Fangio said on Tuesday. "It’s where it all started for me in the NFL. I was here a good nine years. Still, it’s overriding that it’s the Super Bowl, but it’s nice to be back here.”

Jackson, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010 due in part to Fangio's defensive acumen, has nothing but good things to say about his former coach.

"I just don't understand how people keep overlooking him as a head coach," Jackson told me on Sunday morning from the NFLPA Legends Brunch at New Orleans' World War II Museum. "I mean, anytime a guy can take a defense and do what he's been doing with them in college and the pros, it's hard to see how people keep leaving him out. Sooner or later, he'll get his shot. I think he's the best defensive mind coaching in the game."

"He was smart, and he knew what [offenses] were going to do before they did it. That was the whole thing about what he brought to the table for us -- knowing what the other team was going to do. He had us ready for that, and it made a big difference."

Ravens safety Ed Reed echoed Jackson's comments about Fangio when he was asked about his former coach this week.

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“I have a lot of respect for those guys and what they do," Reed said. "I know Vic. We ran some of the similar things that they ran, if not the same. Those guys are doing a great job over there. Patrick Willis and those safeties, (Dashon) Goldson and those guys making plays, the linebacking corps, everybody. Justin Smith, the D-line, they make plays. They’re a great defense, and that’s the reason they’ve had the success that they’ve had and gotten to the place they’ve gotten to.”

Nobody, however, has more kind things to say about Fangio than the men who work with him now.

"Coached with Vic at Stanford, and our lives have gone nothing but straight up since [he] joined our program," Harbaugh said this week. "Had a chance to meet Vic when I would visit the Ravens when Vic was coaching for Baltimore. From the earliest conversations I had with them, I just had the most tremendous amount of respect you could have for a coach and his knowledge. When Vic became available, I’m sure I was the first phone call. I knew about it right away, as soon as it happened, and tried to convince him to come be the defensive coordinator at Stanford and he came. He left an indelible mark on the Stanford football program as he is doing with the San Francisco 49ers.”

And it's the new potential "Dome Patrol" -- outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, and inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman -- who are trying to live up to the legacies Fangio has seen before. As both Fangio and Jackson said, that quartet is off to a very good start.

“The ‘Dome Patrol’ was a great group," Fangio said on Media Day. "I think the one thing that was great about them was those guys started together for seven straight seasons and these guys have only started together one season. Aldon wasn’t a starter last season, [although] he played a lot. They’re into their second year as a group. I keep telling them they have to get to the point where they’re together for six or seven years, so I can compare them to those guys. Hopefully we can keep them that long together. I think we can and there are great players in both groups. I’ve told our linebackers here that. I’ve been asked that question already a lot this year and I knew it would get asked here. I knew at some point I’d be able to give a favorable comparison.”

Jackson is okay with doing that already -- he sees Willis as the new version of Sam Mills, while Jackson himself might be more of the evolutionary version of Bowman, who has progressed to a status that has him as one of the best linebackers in the game.

"Just like Sam, but might be a little faster," Jackson said of Willis. "Bowman's like me, though I thought my instincts were a little better as far as making plays and getting to the quarterback. He's got to get a little more instincts and 'grind,' but he's built like I was, he's just as fast as I was, and he's good at making plays. He's going to be special.

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"I think they're right up there with us. Especially the first year [under Fangio] -- our first year and their first year, it's now the second year starting to roll together. But I think they're right there where we were at."

Jackson was also kind enough to give me a scouting report of himself and his battery mates at their best, for those who never saw them play.

"My thing, I was the leader of the group. Then you had Pat Swilling, who was a raw guy who had great ability and talent, coming off the end and rushing the quarterback. Sam Mills was a student of the game. He was smarter, so he always knew where he was supposed to be at. Vaughan was just a vicious hitter -- he would change the whole game around by knocking somebody out, or knocking the ball loose, or something like that. Everybody did different things at different times."

How, I asked Jackson, would the "Dome Patrol" 'backers fare in the new NFL, where there's so much more emphasis on avoiding contact? I seemed to remember that Saints defense as one that would not hesitate to put a lick on any unfortunate offensive player in its general area.

"It would have gone over well, because we were pretty clean -- I was really the only headhunter," Jackson said. "Vaughan would have to not hit guys in the head so much because of the fines and stuff they get, but we could have made adjustments. All of us were smart guys."

No doubt about that, and Fangio's new linebackers are benefitting just as much -- or more -- from what he brings to the franchise.

“Vic’s in his own world up there," Bowman said. "We’re out there doing what our commander says. Not really going to talk about the scheme or anything, but Vic does a great job with calling the game in a way that we feel comfortable and that he feels comfortable. It’s working out for us.”

Willis, the star of the group just like Jackson once was, best explained what makes Fangio so special.

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“Coach Vic, he’s a great guy. I’ll never forget the first time I met him. He got hired, and he texted me and said, ‘If you’re in town, I want you to come by the office.’ I’ll never forget coming by the office and for the first time I didn’t imagine him looking like an Italian guy. I just remember shaking his hand when I left after talking to him. He just told me some things that he was expecting a little bit. Coach Vic, he’s as super quiet guy, but he’s very smart. He’s a guy that -- he won’t toot his own horn. He won’t, but he is unbelievably smart.

"I can honestly say that he is a guy that when he puts that game plan in front of us, there is no doubt that he didn’t go through it and thought about every single thing that he’s put down. He’s thinking. Another thing I love most about him is he doesn’t – every now and then he gets heated – but for the most part he doesn’t. He trusts us out there on the field. He trusts in his players. Sometimes you might not have a good series of tackles, but he’s always going to stand behind you. He’s constantly always showing us that believes in us. He’s the kind of guy you want.”

And he's the guy they've got. The Saints, Ravens, and 49ers have all had Vic Fangio, and what makes Fangio's appearance in this year's Super Bowl is that it's his first as a coach, through every NFL team he's been with, except for the Texans, has at least been to the big game.

So, the great coach was asked, does that make this game even more special to him? Typically, he was all business.

“It’s special. There are only two teams that make it this far each year. We happen to be one of them. It makes it special. This group of players and team makes it even more special. It’s been a good group. We’ve had a good two-year run here, and to culminate it with a chance to win it all is special.”

And a great way to put an exclamation point on a career of great coaching, with connections at every angle.

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