Adapt or Die: Can Vic Fangio Evolve as the Broncos' Head Coach?
In 2019, Denver Broncos' GM John Elway was sold on veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s mantra of ‘death by inches.’ Having spent more than half of his life coaching defenses in the NFL, Fangio was more than qualified as a head coach with 19 seasons as a DC with five organizations.
But since the hiring of Fangio, there have been multiple admissions from the veteran coach about the difficulties of transitioning from defensive coordinator to head coach. First came the dramatic change of Fangio calling the defense from the sideline instead of the booth.
On multiple occasions, Fangio's explained that he’s more comfortable with his notes, view, and various resources in the coaching booth.
In his first season as head coach, Fangio and the Broncos totaled a record of (7-9) finishing second place in the AFC West. Naturally, the progression of experience from Year 1 to 2 is a realistic expectation for Fangio and the Broncos' defense.
However, during the season-opener this past Monday night against the Tennessee Titans, Fangio regressed as head coach. On the final drive of the game, Fangio received heavy criticism for not utilizing a timeout to give the Broncos' offense an opportunity to comeback and score.
“It was totally my fault there, I had too much thought there on what I was going to call on defense. I missed it,” Fangio said Tuesday.
The Titans orchestrated a back-breaking 13-play, 90-yard drive late in the fourth quarter. Running back Derrick Henry had a 13-yard run that put Tennessee in the Broncos' red zone with 1:28 left to play. QB Ryan Tannehill drained the clock which was followed by Henry running for another four yards before stepping of bounds.
The clock was stopped at 0:31. Two plays later, the heretofore slumping Stephen Gostkowski hit a 25-yard field goal that became the game-winner as Tennessee took the 16-14 lead.
While accountability from the head coach is admirable and demonstrates quality leadership, I can’t help but feel confused. It was simply bizarre to observe a veteran coach with the experience of Fangio seem to ignore critical time management.
Watching Fangio pace up and down the sideline by himself as the Titans marched down the field felt familiar and frustrating. The optics suggest that Fangio was wrapped up in defensive play calling, instead of managing the game.
I can certainly understand the moment getting away from Fangio, as the head-coaching job requires an overwhelming amount of responsibility and multi-tasking. But it seems like Fangio continues to prioritize the defense, more than managing the team.
The Broncos have blown the lead in the final 30 seconds in six out of 17 games he's been in Denver, resulting in four losses.
Earlier this year, the Broncos parted ways with Director of Football Analytics Mitch Tanney. Tanney had been responsible for assessing statistical and situational analytics in-game that would assist the head coach in making decisions.
Tanney was made available to Fangio via headset in 2019. But instead of replacing Tanney’s position, Fangio explained he prefers to lean on his coaching staff for critical in-game input.
“All the coaches help chip in on that — the offensive coaches when we’re on defense and vice versa," Fangio said. "It’s easier when we’re on offense because I’m not calling the plays. It was my miss on that one and nobody else’s.”
Clock Manangement by Committee?
Clock management by committee was the last thing I was expecting to hear from Fangio. The Broncos' coaching staff is comprised of veterans that include two former NFL head coaches in O-line coach Coach Mike Munchak and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, as well as tenured veteran assistants in QBs coach Mike Shula, and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.
That's some serious experience but to expect each coach to effectively communicate in-game decisions is unrealistic. Imagine being an assistant coach, walking up to Fangio (your boss) and telling him to call a timeout.
It’d be tantamount to interrupting a CEO in a corporate board meeting with a suggestion on how to improve the company. There must be a level of checks and balances. Without the appropriate level of organization, teams can lose games in the fourth quarter, as the Broncos did in Week 1.
Time to Delegate
Examining Fangio’s answer about in-game scenarios, I can’t help but wonder why Coach Donatell isn’t calling the defense. After all, Donatell has been Fangio’s right-hand man for a decade dating back to Chicago and San Francisco. This is now Donatell’s third stint in Denver, as he previously worked under Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels.
It can be presumed that Donatell is an expert in Fangio’s defense, and has earned the trust of his longtime friend throughout the years. So why not let Donatell call the defense? And if Fangio feels a play-call should be vetoed, he has the power and prerogative to do so as the boss.
Delegating defensive play-calling would allow Fangio to better grasp the game through the perspective of the entire team rather than strictly focusing on the defense.
Fangio was hired as for his defensive expertise, and there were bound to be some learning curves along the way. But in Year 2 as head coach, Fangio has still shown his preference towards defensive success.
In training camp, Fangio demonstrated frustration when the offense had a decent day against his defense. On other days where the defense dominated practice, he appeared much more upbeat.
At times it feels like Fangio is completely disconnected from the offense, deferring the entire scope of responsibilities to Shurmur.
Hopefully, Coach Fangio can evolve from being a coordinator to being the head man, because he has the NFL pedigree, experience, and respect. He’s long paid his dues to have the opportunity to lead the Broncos as the head coach.
Fangio consistently comments on the significance of trust and balance for players. Now the Broncos need him to embrace those same attributes and delegate tasks to his coaches while embracing assistance — not because he’s incompetent as a head coach, but because he has various resources at his disposal.
Time will tell whether time management and live-game decisions will persist as an organizational problem. Fangio has the chance to embrace being the captain of the ship, and not the map-maker plotting the course.
That's why his stubbornness to stick to his guns, as we learned on Wednesday, revealing to media that he has no plans to change his gameday M.O., should remain a concern.