Broncos Name Vic Fangio As Head Coach But Will It Work?

Vic Fangio
John Elway has hired Vic Fangio to be the next head coach of the Denver Broncos. Photo Credit: Michael Li via Creative Commons License.

The decision has finally been made in Denver. Former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is officially the new Broncos head coach with Gary Kubiak expected to be the new offensive coordinator.

At the press conference that introduced Fangio, General Manager John Elway said that “[Vic] is exactly what we need.” While there is cause for optimism, there is equal cause for pessimism. Could Denver actually win with this new duo?

The Pros Of Fangio

The Broncos were thinking about getting someone with a large amount of coaching experience because they did not want to hire another wild card like Vance Joseph. However, they didn’t want to hire someone that was a complete retread. Fangio has 19 years of experience as a defensive coordinator but none as a head coach, putting him in a great position to fill those desires.

The team is already optimized for winning with defense, even though it has slowly regressed over the last two years. In hiring Fangio, Elway is trying to return to a dominant defense in the same vein as the one that won the Super Bowl in 2015.

Fangio has a great resume that shows that he is one of the best people to do that. In 2014, pre-Fangio, the Chicago Bears had one of the worst defenses in the NFL, ranking 30th in both points and yards allowed for the season. Since the addition of Fangio, the Bears now rank third in yards and first in points allowed.

This was not the first time that Fangio helped create a dominant defense. In his 19 years as a defensive coordinator, he spent eight of them with a top-ten defense in points or yards allowed. Taken at face value, this means that Denver now has about a 50 percent chance to have a top ten defense in 2019. Looking at players like Bradley Chubb, Von Miller, and Chris Harris Jr. on the defensive side of the ball, it seems to all but be a guarantee that Fangio’s addition will elevate this group to a top ten defense in 2019.

The Cons Of Fangio

While there is plenty of upside with Fangio, there are also plenty of downsides. The biggest red flag is the fact that, at 60 years old,  Fangio has never been a head coach in the NFL. If he is so good, why has no one taken a chance on him until now?

Additionally, it is worth noting that out of eight teams looking for coaches, Fangio was only pined after by the Broncos and Miami Dolphins and even the Dolphins had withdrawn their consideration by the time Denver was ready to hire Fangio.

Also, as a rookie head coach, Fangio will likely make rookie stumbles that could cost games early in the season. While some may think that he will not because of his long tenure in the league, it should be expected because there is a big difference between watching the head coach and being one. Of course, his experience will likely help him avoid stubbing his toe in some spots but it won’t allow him to completely avoid rookie mistakes.

Another cause for concern is the fact that, while Fangio has led some top-tier defenses, he has also led plenty of duds. Of his 19 years in the NFL as a defensive coordinator, ten of them produced defenses that ranked in the bottom half of the league in either points or yards allowed. Fangio’s hire is not a guarantee of great defense, even though many signs may point to that.

Finally, Fangio appears to be an upgrade over his predecessor Joseph in almost every way but at 60 years old, there is a lower ceiling in terms of the longevity of his tenure with the Broncos. Assuming that Joseph had worked out, Denver could have kept him around for the foreseeable future but with Fangio, the Broncos are likely limited.

Fangio In A Nutshell

In hiring Fangio, Elway is electing to walk the line between hiring a complete wild card and hiring an experienced retread like Chuck Pagano, who the Broncos interviewed before Fangio.

Also, by choosing to go with a defensive-minded head coach, Elway is doubling down on the idea that defenses win championships, the same philosophy that won the Super Bowl in 2015. However, with the addition of new offensive schemes and rule changes that benefit offenses, is that still true? With many pieces already in place to return the Broncos’ defense back to championship levels, the hiring of Fangio could create the best way to find out. 

Offensive Coordinator Kubiak: The Good

In unison with his decision to hire Fangio as head coach, Elway is expected to also move ex-Broncos Head Coach Kubiak into the position of offensive coordinator, although Fangio didn’t want to solidify that fact at his first press conference. However, assuming that Kubiak becomes the offensive coordinator, it is important to look at the possibilities of the duo.

Kubiak served as the Broncos head coach in 2015 and 2016. In that time, Kubiak won a Super Bowl and finished the following year at 9-7 with a 7th-round quarterback. Kubiak ended up stepping down after his second year because of health issues and has made it clear that he has no aspirations to become a head coach in the NFL because of them.

How would Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl as the head coach of this same team before Fangio, work under him? Well, for the most part, that would not be the expectation. Contrary to the common dynamic between head coach and coordinator, Kubiak would likely be expected to be the “head coach” of the offense while Fangio will be the “head coach” of the defense.

Fangio made this clear when he said in his press conference that he will be calling the shots while the defense is on the field during the games. This likely means that Kubiak would call the shots while the offense is on the field. This would not be the only team in the league that works this way. The head coach and coordinator of the 13-3 Los Angeles Rams reportedly divide responsibilities in a very similar fashion, with the young, offensive-minded head coach Sean McVay taking turns with veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

However, while that system seems to be working well with the Rams, there are more factors at play in Denver that could make this dynamic dysfunctional. No matter how hard one tries to split the team for two different head coaches, there will inevitably be times when the actual head coach will need to override the coordinator.

For instance, there could be a disagreement as to when to call a timeout or another when it comes to choosing the starters for a game. But as long as the team is winning, there should be minimal friction. On the other hand, if the season starts to go off of the rails, this power struggle could become a central issue for the team. 

Offensive Coordinator Kubiak: The Bad

Kubiak thinks highly of quarterback Case Keenum, who Fangio affirmed was the starting quarterback “right now” at his inaugural press conference but has yet to prove that they are a good match. Despite coaching him in eight games when they were both with the Houston Texans in 2013, the duo failed to win a single game.

During that eight-game stretch, Keenum threw for nine touchdowns, six interceptions, and 1,760 yards. Of course, this was only Keenum’s second season in the NFL and first time playing in the regular season. Additionally, the reason he was inserted into the lineup was because of an injury to starting quarterback Matt Schaub midseason so Kubiak didn’t have time to prepare an offense for Keenum.

Perhaps this time around, Kubiak would be able to create an offense that “will get the best out of him” — as Fangio put it — and allow him to prosper but there are no guarantees of this happening.

Speaking of Kubiak’s offense, it appeared to be declining before he stepped down as head coach, finishing in 16th in 2015 and 27th in 2016 in total offense. Even during the Super Bowl run of 2015, one of the main complaints centered on Kubiak’s style of offense that most called uninspired, anemic, and outdated. If that decline were to pick up where it left off, the Broncos could be in a world of hurt in 2019.

Fangio And Kubiak: Will It Work?

In the end, the Fangio/Kubiak combo could create cause for concern but also reasons for cautious optimism. The Fangio hire is a win-now, double down on Elway’s existing philosophy that top-tier defense and (assuming that Kubiak becomes the offensive coordinator) methodical offense is the key to a Super Bowl.

While all signs point to Fangio being an upgrade over his predecessor Joseph, the Kubiak/Fangio power struggle could become an issue as time moves along. However, if Kubiak were to update his playbook in a way that fits Keenum’s strengths in addition to avoiding challenging Fangio’s defensive decisions while defending his own offensive ones, the Broncos would have a chance to bring back the glory days.