You could tell from his first few minutes as a head coach that Vic Fangio loves familiarity.
That’s why he would have much rather conducted his opening news conference with the Denver Broncos in gray sweats than in a suit and orange tie. If you remember, he had to borrow that tie from Chicago Bears chairman George McCaskey.
What’s also clear is that on top of familiarity, Fangio loves comfort. Perhaps the two are connected. But we see his preferences in what could determine the fate and success of his football team with how he’s shaped his defensive coaching staff.
“That’s important,” Fangio said after a recent practice. “Any time there is any sort of familiarity and continuity, it’s always important because we speak the same language, know the evolution of things and why we do it. So yeah, it’s important. It’s very important.”
There are only two members of the defensive staff without a connection to Fangio or the Broncos — defensive quality coaches Mike Hiestand and Nathaniel Willingham. Every other member of the staff either has familiarity with Fangio or the organization. He was worked with defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley and linebackers coach Reggie Herring. Defensive line coach Bill Kollar, defensive assistant Chris Beake and defensive backs coach Renaldo Hill have connections to the Broncos. For Donatell and Herring, they have both.
When a staff has that kind of familiarity, there’s no second guessing or infighting. Everyone knows what to do and how to do it. It forces each individual coach to remain on top of their game. It also adds comfort. For those who have worked with Fangio in the past, they’ve done this and had success. They know the expectations are high, but the rewards make it worth it.
On the MHR Radio Podcast (ApplePodcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher), Adam Malnati added a great point: There’s also the familiarity that cornerback Bryce Callahan brings. Since he’s been in this system and played for both Fangio and Donatell in Chicago, Callahan is another way to get everyone on the same wavelength.
“There’s so much non-verbal communication,” Donatell told me after a recent practice. “Everything is direct. We know what path to take when we get together and we can get it out to the other coaches and players quickly. Three guys can get the message out a lot quicker than one.”
Broncos legend and should-be-Hall-of-Famer Steve Atwater put all of this in great context when we chatted after a recent practice.
“I think that’s extremely important — really in any environment,” he told me. “Even when you do your job, you want a bunch of people who you know can work well together and have a history of doing that. When you have people who haven’t worked together, it’s a lot of trial and error to see if you’re going to be on the same page, see their work ethic. But I would imagine all of the guys have come highly recommended or otherwise they wouldn’t be here. He knows the guys are diligent workers and great teachers. I think it’s extremely important, and we’re fortunate to have so many guys who have worked together and have a feel for how the other guys work.”
The other crucial element that comes from knowing each member of the staff, the system and the franchise so well is trust. From fellow coaches, but also the players.
“There’s no question,” Donatell told me. “I trust those guys. They’re partners. I just trust them. I know we can do great work together. But it’s the law of the NFL: You have to go out and prove it every year that you can coach. And that’s what we’re intending to do.
“Every time we look at a group, we look at them and we say ‘how far can we take this group?’ It’s a challenge. No group is the same. The most important thing to us, and we started it last week, is we want to tackle well. We want to be a team that, when you look at us, you say that they tackle well. So that’s the No. 1 goal for this defense.”
Fangio’s, and even the staff’s, idea behind all of this is simple: If your players take care of the little things, then the big things will take care of themselves. As Fangio said in January when he was hired, no longer will “death by inches” beat Denver.
“I think that’s it,” Donatell told me. “He’s got it really broken down to simple. Be in position. Know your assignment. Be good at your technique. And finish as a team.”
Added defensive end Derek Wolfe: “He doesn’t let the little things slide. No fighting, stuff like that. He doesn’t want us fighting each other, he doesn’t want us jumping offsides and he doesn’t want us holding. He’s always bringing that to attention in team meetings. What’s a penalty. What’s not a penalty, What he thinks was a bad call. What he thinks was a good call, and those kinds of things.
“The last couple years, we’ve been getting beat on penalties, a lot of penalties on all sides of the ball in all phases of the game. It’s really important we play really tight, clean football because that’s how you beat yourself. That’s the first step. I think we’re going to be the best conditioned team for sure. We’ve got a week-early start, a week earlier than anybody else. We’ve been in full pads every single day. We’re just, as a team, trying to embrace the grind and knowing in the long run when that Week 16 comes in the fourth quarter, we’re going to make that play and outlast your opponent.”
When Bradley Chubb says in the middle of May that Fangio’s system is already becoming second-nature for the defense, the familiarity and trust is a huge reason why.
“Everybody is on the same page,” Wolfe said. “That’s what is most important, to keep everyone on the same page so we’re not getting taught different things from different coaches. Everybody’s getting taught the same thing. Everybody is doing the same thing. That’s going to turn out really well for us I think.”
That’s also why some people think the Broncos defense is set for a huge year. The mix of Fangio, his staff, players, and system is a blend that could produce incredible results. If Denver’s defense does well, that increases the odds the team wins more games.
“There’s no ceiling for us as a defense,” Wolfe said. “We’re going to be as good as we want to be.”
We knew from his opening news conference Fangio loves comfort and familiarity. The Broncos and Broncos Country will love both as well if the man who prefers gray sweats to a suit and tie gets the organization back on the Pat Bowlen Path.