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Ghosts of Mile High: Bears must overcome past with Fangio to correct present

By Robert Zeglinski

During his eventful four-year tenure in Chicago, former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was known to have a way with words. No, Fangio was not quoted for his profound monologues. Speaking purely to hear himself speak was not the aim. Fangio’s approach to being a silver-tongued football defensive devil was to only open his mouth and get on his soapbox when absolutely necessary. A wasted breath is a wasted, empty effort that could have been used to teach, to improve, to mature. Where most other coaches turn their focus to the positives, or listless coach-speak platitudes, Fangio instead offered a brutal, if refreshing honesty as the Bears slowly developed into a contender. A football lifer of over three decades, Fangio refused to mince words. He didn’t offer praise for the sake of praise. Finding the silver lining, no matter the case, was not his aim. Silver linings have to be earned, legitimate, and full of promise. They can’t be born out of pity or moral victory in surrender. Old-school types such as Fangio view the world differently; it’s black and white, where you’re either successful and did your job, or you didn’t and failed wholeheartedly.

Fangio made certain the Bears would never settle. Under his stead, they clawed, crawled, and somersaulted their way back into the NFL pantheon. He wouldn’t accept anything less than their best, and in turn eventually received even better when the Bears became pro footballs premier defense. The mark of a surly no-nonsense defensive mind seeing his attention to detail rub off on his pupils.

As the Bears make their way over to the heightened, elevated conditions of Denver this week, they’ll have to do more than struggle adjusting to the punishment that increased altitude has on human lungs. They’ll have to confront the ghosts of their past in Fangio—a man who taught them everything they know, and who might understand them better than they understand themselves. And with the Bears’ season potentially already hanging in the balance with another loss taking them to 0-2—since 2007, only roughly 10 percent of NFL teams who started 0-2 ended up making the postseason—the student will have to become the teacher.

There’s been a sizable divide as to discerning how responsible Fangio was for the Bears’ long-awaited success of last season. While Chicago was No. 1 overall in most relevant defensive categories in 2018, they were middling to slightly above average in the initial years of his tenure. It’s no coincidence that the Bears made the jump to intimidating and stifling as soon as they traded for Khalil Mack: one of football’s last true defensive arbiters. But would Mack, and the Bears’ defense by extension, have been as successful or thrived much without Fangio’s steady hand at the helm?

Like chickens and eggs, it’s an age-old question. What came first, the awe-inspiring special talent, or the coach? And as with the poultry, it has a similar answer: there is no right or wrong as long as neither manifest out of thin air.

No coach will make it in the NFL without special talent at his disposal. They can be a genius of epic proportions, who manages to rewrite the rulebook week by week. They can meticulously study for years under every great mind to ever slap on a headset and rip a play sheet to shreds out of frustration. None of it has any consequence if the players they lead are not up to the task. Legends are made by the legends sowed beneath them.

Fangio has such a vaunted and respected reputation mainly thanks to the efforts of Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson, and in his previous walks of life, the 49ers’ Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and Aldon Smith. For all of his tight-wired efforts, they mean nothing without the transcendence of someone who can execute the challenges on his to-do list.

The same sentiment applies to great players never reaching their potential without someone prodding them, responsibly, in their egos. A special mold of a man can only get by on sheer natural ability to a select stage. At some point, normally when they hit their physical peak in their mid-20s, a good player does not become a great player without a great coach.

Good coaching sans talent, or good talent sans coaching takes a team to competence, a baseline of respectability. Combine the two and you have the recipe for the controlled chaos Fangio was able to manage with the Bears. Separate the ideals, and a stark realization sets in. One where the Bears have to progress by surpassing their teacher.

Franchise cornerstones such as Mack, Hicks and Jackson, among others, would likely amount to field-tilting stars no matter where they featured during their playing career. It took the patient guidance of someone such as Fangio to mold them to this level of acceptance and moderate quality. Raw ability necessitates that only an expert exert enough pressure to create diamonds out of the deep rock. In diagramming the running list of everything the Bears’ faces were capable of, Fangio became such a conduit. He was the well of knowledge the once young and impressionable Bears needed. They became masters of the trench-crunching, left-tackle one-arming, ball-hawking discipline because of Fangio. The students became the master and won’t soon forget their original master for it, even after surpassing him.

The Broncos haven’t lost at home in September since 2012. Denver has been on a precipitous downturn over the last three seasons and it still retains an early autumn vice grip on its stadium situated in the sky. Mile High Stadium is undoubtedly the most difficult place to play for a road team this early season—a fact the Bears will have drilled into their subconscious by Sunday.

But it’s not the altitude and thin air alone of which presents such a hill to climb for the opposition. Winning in Denver is as much a mental battle as it is anything related to physical shortcomings. Once a visiting squad begins to think with a mind running on a shortness of breath, the rest of the body succumbs to a prevalent weakness. The moment they let their guard down is when the siege on their presence collapses.

Where the Bears stand presents three sets of challenges in this unique circumstance. Not only do they have to contend with Denver’s altitude after acclimating to the flat plains of swampy Chicago, they also cannot let any doubt creep into their minds. The altitude means nothing. The ramifications of a potential 0-2 start and an uphill climb stuck in the muck are afterthought. They have to do this while grappling with their mentor, the man who taught them how to ride a bike and change a spare tire. A man who will gleefully take advantage of them in a vulnerable position if it benefits his new outfit: Vic Fangio.

It’s not often life gets to play out in the manner of an action film. Rarely does the student have a climactic head-to-head confrontation with their teacher where the tension is consistently, if cartoonishly palpable. Life away from the silver screen merely means the student has enough of a mastery of the material leading to their respective mentorship of apprentices. A calm passing of the torch that keeps the world turning and gives it meaning.

The Bears are about to follow the script of an action film. They’re receiving a chance to apply all they learned on the man, Fangio, who taught it to them. The only difference in their script is that they likely won’t standing tall, triumphantly stomping over Fangio’s dignity. There’s too much respect between both parties to suffice such a visceral reaction.

Ever one needing to be impressed and moved, Fangio might still possess skepticism that the Bears are better off without his tutelage. The only way for them to prove they’ve moved on is by succeeding at all costs, and leaving nothing to chance. You either succeed or you fail, there’s no in-between. A hands-on lesson the students need to give to their old teacher.

Robert is an editor and writer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. 

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