A reason John Elway went vs. coaching trend with Vic Fangio: 'He’s the Sean McVay of the defense'

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The notebook that helped guide Vic Fangio through the biggest job interview of his career was precisely what his NFL peers have grown to expect from him. Blunt. Methodical. No frills. A vessel of information with large font, basic subheads and no b.s.

And it took all of a few hours last January – the night before his Denver Broncos interview – to piece it together. Because when you’ve coached in the NFL for 32 consecutive years with no breaks, you know what you want to say, you know how you want to say it and you don’t need anything else getting in the way of the delivery.

“If you’re going to go work for an organization that has to be blown away by some fancy interview book, then that organization is probably not very successful,” Fangio said.

Vic Fangio is the Broncos' fourth head coach since 2015. (Getty Images)
Vic Fangio is the Broncos' fourth head coach since 2015. (Getty Images)

He shrugged a little as those words came out. Partly because Fangio knows that there are some organizations that will line up quickly for aesthetics, reaching to recreate what they see rather than trusting what they know. It’s hard not to be aware of that as a defensive-minded, 60-year-old coach interviewing for a job in the middle of the league’s Sean McVay hiring fever. He isn’t young and isn’t an offensive wizard, so his hire swam against the current of the 2019 offseason.

“This is bucking the trend, but it wasn’t my choice,” Fangio said with a laugh. “This was John [Elway’s] choice. But there’s a lot of good defensive coaches out there, too. Take a look at Bill Belichick. He’s the most successful coach in the last 25 years. Pete Carroll is a defensive coach. Mike Tomlin is a defensive coach. John Harbaugh is basically a defensive guy. They’re out there. But things kind of run in fads in this league. As you well know, it’s a copycat league. When some owners or general managers – whoever is making those decisions – can’t come up with a picture in their mind of what they’re looking for, they sometimes go with the trends.”

That’s how three guys with relatively little high-level NFL coaching experience landed head jobs this offseason, including the Arizona Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Zac Taylor and the Green Bay Packers’ Matt LaFleur. In those situations, the organizations were either looking for someone to pair with a quarterback or recreate the McVay experience from the ground up.

The Broncos went in a difference direction. Elway was about to be on his fourth coach in nine seasons. He’d settle for someone great, no matter where that came from.

And that’s how Denver ended up with Fangio. The guy who lost a playoff game with the Chicago Bears and then a few hours later, cobbled together a notebook of his coaching and leadership concepts that ended up sweeping the Broncos off their feet. And in the face of skepticism, no less.

Seven months ago, one Broncos staffer told Yahoo Sports on the eve of Fangio’s interview last January that he wasn’t sure the candidate had “the juice” to be a head coach.


“I love the guy,” the staffer said recently. “I’m all in.”

When you talk to the Broncos, that’s a top-down message. Rooted in a roster that is apparently practicing harder and more focused than it has ever been. Fully believing that what Fangio pulled off in Chicago – with one of the nastiest, most aggressive units in the NFL – can be replicated in Denver, which already has the talent to work with. Sort of like McVay transplanting his offensive scheme from the Washington Redskins to the Los Angeles Rams, who had the pieces to make the transition quickly.

“McVay is a miracle on the offensive side with what he does,” Elway said. “That’s how I look at Vic on the defensive side. When we went into the search, I wanted somebody that was great on one side of the ball or the other. I just kept my mind open and didn’t have any pre-drawn conclusions. Vic fit that on the defensive side. He’s the Sean McVay of the defense.”

Von Miller had 14.5 sacks last season for the Broncos. (Getty Images)
Von Miller had 14.5 sacks last season for the Broncos. (Getty Images)

That’s high praise from Elway, who also scored a massive coup landing offensive line coach Mike Munchak from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Make no mistake, Elway knows what is riding on this Fangio hire. As much as we talk about Elway’s record with quarterbacks, it’s not lost on him that this is coach No. 4 in his tenure as general manager. In a best-case scenario, most GMs don’t get more than two head coaching hires. And while Gary Kubiak stepped away for health reasons, there’s no getting around the reality that the John Fox era ended badly and Vance Joseph didn’t fit what Elway wanted.

Fangio supposedly dovetails perfectly with what Elway is seeking. A guy he can communicate and relate with. Someone who reminds Elway of the coaches he had during his playing career. Someone who puts a premium on teaching and focus, and pushed growth. It’s why Elway was a big fan of cutting off the music after the stretch period of practices, and making assistants coach from the sideline rather than the middle of the field. Two changes that were made to force players into paying attention and focusing on the teaching aspects of practice rather than listening to music and waiting for a coach to tell them what they were supposed to be doing from one moment to the next.

Thus far, the results have been what Elway was looking for. He has seen players like linebacker Bradley Chubb respond by taking a bigger leadership role on the field. He has seen cornerback Chris Harris Jr. energized by a more diverse role in Fangio’s scheme, which will mix in more zone coverages in the secondary. And he’s seen Von Miller thrive on one of the first directives Fangio delivered to the superstar linebacker: “You can be a significantly better player and we’re going to show you how.”

“I just like being coached by him,” Miller said. “I like the coaches who put the extra effort into finding out what I can do better and what I don’t do as well. Even the things that I do well and how I can do them better. I appreciate that. They’re totally honest about everything and I appreciate that. I feel like I can be a better player. … I’ve bought in 100 percent twice over already. I’ve put all my chips in and bought in.”

It remains to be seen what kind of confidence and commitment that wager will buy. But thus far, there’s little question in the organization whether Fangio was the right guy for this roster. While other teams were trying to replicate Sean McVay in age and offensive ideology, the Broncos seem to care about replicating only one thing: McVay's results. If the two can manage that, nothing else will matter.

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