Here is a link to my Sunday column. The full text runs below:
Lots of talk around here about Jim Harbaugh. Not as Michigan’s coach. As the 49ers’ non-coach.
Was Jed York right to get rid of him? Would the 49ers be 1-4 with Harbaugh? Etc. Etc.
Let’s take a brief holiday from that topic, with the stipulation we’ll come back to it again and again as needed. Instead, let’s talk Vic Fangio. He is the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, but he’s still relevant to the Niners.
As you know, Fangio left the 49ers in the general coaching purge after last season. It’s possible he could have remained in Santa Clara as defensive coordinator of the present head coach, the man I call The Butcher. Jim Tomsula. Fangio almost certainly gagged at the prospect of working for Tomsula considering Tomsula had been his underling and now he would be Tomsula’s underling. So Fangio went to the Chicago Bears.
This is where the story gets interesting.
The Bears are not a very good team, although their 2-3 record is better than the 49ers’ record. One thing about the Bears, though. Last season, they ranked 30th on defense. This season, with Fangio running the show, they rank fourth on defense in the entire NFL. That’s a lofty ranking, even more lofty when you consider the Bears don’t have much talent on defense. One Chicago writer told me the Bears’ defensive talent is “dreadful.”
So, Fangio is doing something right.
You may wonder where the 49ers rank on defense. Their defense is No. 31 in a 32-team league. As in next to last. Niners apologists — they abound — point out all the players the 49ers lost on defense. Patrick Willis and Justin Smith and others. The apologists use the declining talent level as an excuse for playing bad defense. And maybe it’s a good excuse. But remember Fangio is working with similar limitations in Chicago and his defense is admirable.
It comes down to coaching.
I’ll tell you how much it comes down to coaching. Last season, the 49ers defense, led by Fangio, ranked fifth in the league. That was a defense without NaVorro Bowman. Without Willis for much of the season — he played in only six games. Without their best cornerback Tramaine Brock — he played only three games. Fangio didn’t let any of that bother him. He still produced.
It comes down to coaching.
The current 49ers defensive coordinator is Eric Mangini. This is not a get-Mangini column. When the Giants drove down the field for the winning touchdown against the 49ers last Sunday, Mangini did nothing wrong. One expert told me Mangini forced the Giants to throw short passes and medium-range passes. Mangini kept the game in front of the 49ers’ defenders. Made the Giants embark on a drive with many plays — eight to be precise — and that increased the chance the Giants would make a mistake and the drive would fail.
The Giants scored anyway. But Mangini played it right. He is no dope, although you wonder about other coaches on the Niners. When I grade Mangini, I give him a “Not Bad.” You can assign any letter or number you want to Not Bad.
One thing is clear. Not Bad does not equal Very Good or Excellent or One Hell of Coach. Those superlatives go to Fangio. He is the gold standard and he still should be with the 49ers. He did great work last season under hard conditions.
I want to make this clear. If Fangio were running the 49ers defense, it might be a top-five defense right now. He is the best defensive coordinator in the league, although head coaches Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll are his equals as defensive thinkers. That’s some heady company.
How could the 49ers still have Fangio designing their defense?
They could have made him head coach. That’s how. They should have made him head coach.
He sure earned the job. Harbaugh may have been a problem, but Fangio gets along with everyone. He is a reasonable man, a good soldier and a good guy.
And he knows more about football than Tomsula. Around the league, he gets more respect than Tomsula. Can you imagine any team in the NFL appointing Tomsula defensive coordinator? Hey, can you imagine any team in the league appointing Tomsula head coach? Oh, yeah, the 49ers did that one.
Why didn’t the Niners make Fangio head coach?
He might have been tainted in management’s eyes by his association with Harbaugh.
He was seen as too old. He’s 57. Tomsula is 47.
Kind of ridiculous. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin is 69. Tom Moore is assistant head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. He’s 76. Compared to those guys, Fangio is a pup.
What’s sad — agonizing — is the 49ers did not promote Fangio, who deserved a promotion, but promoted two coaches who did not deserve promotions.
Geep Chryst was quarterbacks coach last season. Under his tutelage, Colin Kaepernick regressed. So what happened? The Niners made Chryst offensive coordinator.
Mangini was tight ends coach. Under his tutelage Vernon Davis became invisible on the field. So what happened? The Niners made Mangini defensive coordinator.
If Jed York and Trent Baalke actually knew their business, they would have made Fangio head coach. Would have made any deal necessary to keep Fangio. If they were going to promote a defensive guy to head coach, Fangio deserved the promotion over Tomsula — who deserved no promotion.
And if the Niners brain trust, such as it is, considered Fangio too old, they could have bought him a rocking chair for game days.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.