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Vic Fangio is the right man to fix Eagles defense, even if it’s one year too late

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Nick Sirianni knew it wouldn’t be easy to replace defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon after Super Bowl LVII. He just never imagined it would turn into such a disaster. The Philadelphia Eagles defense became one of the NFL’s worst. Gannon’s replacement even got demoted in December.

Now, as Sirianni tries to clean up that wreckage, he’s turning to the man he probably should have hired all along.

Vic Fangio, one of the most respected defensive minds in the NFL, is expected to become the Eagles new defensive coordinator, according to a report — and it would be a home-run hire for Sirianni and the Eagles. The 65-year-old defensive whiz has coached a string of top-10 defenses in a career that has spanned five decades. And he’s the architect of the two-high safety scheme that the Eagles tried (and failed) to play last year under defensive coordinator Sean Desai.

Desai is a Fangio disciple, having coached with him in Chicago, so his hiring made sense at the time. But the truth is that if the Eagles had their way, he never would have been their defensive coordinator this season. Fangio quietly spent much of last season as a consultant with the Eagles, working with both the offense and defense during their Super Bowl run. He was even viewed as a likely replacement if Gannon got a head coaching job after the season.

But as the coaching carousel spun, it looked like Gannon would return to the Eagles. It wasn’t until Super Bowl week that word got out that the Arizona Cardinals had him as their top target, and they didn’t make it official until Feb. 14. By then, Fangio had grown tired of waiting and had already agreed to become the Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator instead.

Fangio, a native of Dunmore, Pennsylvania — about a two-hour drive from Philly — got out of his deal with the Dolphins on Wednesday, after taking their middling unit and turning it into the 10th-ranked defense in the league. So now both sides have a chance to put right what once went wrong.

And if Fangio’s history is any indication, he will make things right with a defense that absolutely cratered in 2023. The Eagles were the No. 2 defense in the NFL in 2022, powered by one of the league’s best secondaries and a pass rush that produced an incredible 70 sacks. But last season they plummeted to 26th in the rankings. They had only 43 sacks. They were the second-worst pass defense in the NFL. And only two teams — the 4-13 Arizona Cardinals and 4-13 Washington Commanders — gave up more than the 25.2 points per game the Eagles gave up. 

It got so bad that on Dec. 30, Sirianni demoted Desai and turned the play-calling over to defensive assistant Matt Patricia, who somehow made the defense worse. That was all a huge part of the Eagles’ season-ending, and season-killing, 1-6 slide that included a 32-9 loss in Tampa in the first round of the playoffs.

Injuries and free-agent defections didn’t help, but it’s not like the Eagles defense wasn’t still loaded with talent. Fangio will inherit a front line that includes two first-round picks in the middle (Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter), one of the league’s best pass rushers off the edge (Haason Reddick), an all-pro safety (Kevin Byard) and a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback (Darius Slay).

Why did the Eagles collapse?

They’ll need to get help at linebacker and in other parts of the secondary through free agency and the draft, but for the right coach, that’s a pretty good place to start.

And Fangio is definitely the right coach.

His resume speaks for itself. He had four top-5 defenses as the coordinator in San Francisco from 2011-14. He had four top-15 defenses as the coordinator in Chicago from 2015-18, including two in the top 10 and one — his last — that ranked third. That earned him his lone head coaching job, in Denver from 2019-21. And while that was mostly forgettable (19-30) they did have a top-10 defense in his final season.

And not only that, back in 2019, Kyle Shanahan, Matt LaFleur and Sean McVay — three of the best and brightest offensive minds in the game — were asked by ESPN which coach’s defense was the toughest to “read and attack”.

All three of them chose Vic Fangio. In fact, Shanahan and LaFleur even compared Fangio to Bill Belichick, one of the greatest defensive coaches and minds in the history of the NFL.

“He does so many things with his personnel groupings that he puts you in a bind with protections,” Shanahan said. “He ties a lot of stuff together. Belichick is very similar. They do it in a different style. You know they don’t just run their defenses. They figure out what you’re doing and then they think about how to stop what you’re doing.”

Roseman believes the defense is filled with “a lot of good young players” and he might be right. They have promising players like Carter, edge rusher Nolan Smith, linebacker Nakobe Dean, safety Sydney Brown and corners Eli Ricks and Kelee Ringo. All of them figure to see a big increase in the importance of their roles next year.

What they need is the right man to guide them. They didn’t have that this year. Desai is a good young coach, but seemed a bad fit in Philadelphia from the beginning. He couldn’t get his players in position to make tackles. Too many of them — like veteran corner James Bradberry — badly regressed in his scheme. And it only got worse under Patricia, whom Sirianni admitted was in a “tough spot” because “he was trying to make some things happen with, quite frankly, things that weren’t his defense.”

Or, as Slay put it after the season: “Trying to find two identities is tough. It’s like having two marriages. You know how hard two marriages would be? One might want her feet rubbed. One might want her shoulders rubbed. That’s crazy.”

Fangio will put an end to that craziness. He’ll command instant respect, too, based on his resume. And he should be embraced by a group of players who should be pretty eager to fix whatever went wrong this year.

He’s the right guy to get the Eagles defense back up to a championship level, and Sirianni is lucky he’s even available. It’s just a shame the Eagles couldn’t make it happen a year ago. If they had, maybe this season wouldn’t have turned out to be such a waste.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.


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