‘Exactly what we need': At each stop, Vic Fangio lays groundwork for chapter with Dolphins

The Dolphins are making Vic Fangio the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the NFL, pulling in a reported $4.5 million per season.

What are Ross and the Dolphins getting for their money? A 64-year-old with NFL experience stretching back 36 years. A man who has coached some of the league's most-feared defensive units and defensive players.

An analysis of each of his stops as an NFL defensive coordinator or head coach reveals what makes Fangio tick and what we can expect from the Dolphins moving forward.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio chooses Dolphins, again, report says

Dolphins defensive coordinator search: 5 things to know about Vic Fangio

Fangio my goodness! Look at these Dolphins Vic Fangio contract numbers

Vic Fangio as Bears defensive coordinator in 2017.
Vic Fangio as Bears defensive coordinator in 2017.

1995-98: Lightning-fast start with the Panthers

Records: 7-9 (expansion year), 12-4 (lost NFC Championship Game), 7-9, 4-12

Rankings as scoring defense: eighth, second, 13th, 27th

Rankings in total defense: 26th, 23rd, 26th, 20th

Top players: LB Sam Mills, LB Lamar Lathon, CB Eric Davis, LB Kevin Greene

Noteworthy: Dolphins fans wondering how long it might take for Fangio's impact to be felt will be encouraged by the first chapter in his career as an NFL defensive coordinator.

Expansion teams aren’t supposed to be as competitive as the Carolina Panthers. Yet for an opposing coach, watching the Panthers’ defense on tape was “like watching a horror movie,” Eagles coach Ray Rhodes once said.

Almost immediately, Pro Football Weekly began trumpeting Fangio as a possible head-coaching candidate.

Then things really got interesting. In Year 2, the Panthers allowed just 218 points, second-fewest in the league. They were led by Mills, who piled up triple-digit tackle totals for the second consecutive season. And they added a linebacker head coach Dom Capers knew well from Pittsburgh, Greene, who fit right in, recording 14.5 sacks.

After a loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game, things began to unravel. Greene left to spend one year with the 49ers amid a contract dispute, Mills retired after the 1997 season and the overall record and defensive rankings badly slumped.

The Panthers moved on. So did Capers and Fangio.

It was a stark contrast to how things began in Carolina. You could say Fangio’s NFL career began taking off on a Florida beach.

Fangio was vacationing in the Florida Panhandle with Capers when Capers, then defensive coordinator of the Steelers, thought he might be in line for a head-coaching job the next hiring cycle.

Would his pal Vic be interested in running the defense if it happened? Sure, they agreed before soaking up more sun.

“In our minds, it was basically a done deal,” Fangio later told The Charlotte Observer.

1999—2001: Colts are stacked — offensively

Records: 13-3, 10-6, 6-10

Rankings as scoring defense: 17th, 15th, 31st

Rankings in total defense: Eighth, ninth, 10th

Top players: Not a single defensive Pro Bowl selection any of these years.

Noteworthy: Jim Mora survived a three-win season in 1998 but defensive coordinator Rusty Tillman did not. To fill that opening, Mora brought in Fangio. Together they promptly flipped the record from 3-13 to 13-3, making the playoffs but losing in the divisional round.

Although it would make for a good tale to say Fangio created a defensive juggernaut overnight, the fact is this team was all about offense. Namely, Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James.

Still, there are details from this point in Fangio’s career that offer hints of what’s to come with the Dolphins.

Fangio said he watched only a small fraction of the Colts’ tape when he arrived.

“I felt since I was the new guy on the staff, I really didn’t have to evaluate the players,” he told The Associated Press. “I prefer to form my own opinion off the stuff we’re going to ask them to do rather than what they had to do last year.”

About a month into the season, following a 34-31 loss to the Dolphins, Mora and GM Bill Polian proved correct when they predicted improvement in the defense. Six of the final 12 opponents failed to score 20 points.

Three years in, though, the defense gave up a league-worst 30.4 points per game. Polian demanded that Mora fire Fangio. When Mora refused, Polian fired Mora. So Capers wasted little time hiring Fangio to run his defense in Houston.

Polian’s beef was that he thought Fangio’s scheme was too complicated.

"That absolutely holds no validity," Fangio told The Houston Chronicle.

Who was right? More evidence would come in his next stop.

2002-05: Starting from scratch, this time in Houston  

Records: 4-12 (expansion year), 5-11, 7-9, 2-14

Rankings as scoring defense: 20th, 27th, 15th, 32nd

Rankings in total defense: 32nd, 32nd, 22nd, 31st

Top players: CB Aaron Glenn

Noteworthy: Why were the Texans bringing in the coordinator of the most porous defense in the league?

"That's a very legitimate question," Fangio told The Houston Chronicle. "Anyone who has been in the league as long as I have, you're going to have a season or two that you're not very proud of when things didn't work out for whatever reason. That just happened to be the case. Over the long haul, I think people will feel very comfortable with the selection."

But what about the players? If Fangio’s system was too complicated for the Colts, how could it work with an expansion team?

"I heard those same excuses, and I don't really know what to make it of it," said Texans center Steve McKinney, formerly of the Colts. "I don't think it was so complicated that they couldn't understand it.”

Texans end Gary Walker added, “Anything is complicated if you don’t put the study time into it.”

Fangio also came with an endorsement from Manning.

“Vic Fangio, in my opinion, is one of the top defensive coordinators in the league. He really studies what you do and tries to expose your weaknesses," Manning said. "I’ve always had a lot of respect for Vic and I was sorry to see him go.”

Three seasons in with the Texans, Capers and Fangio had not won more than seven games in a year. Fangio had come up through the ranks with pass-rushing demons such as Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling and Greene but had no one close to that in Houston. Unable to put pressure on the quarterback, the Texans won only two games in 2005 and conceded more points than any other team.

This chapter was ending.

Vic Fangio speaks to 49ers beat reporters.
Vic Fangio speaks to 49ers beat reporters.

2011-14: Embarrassment of riches on the 49ers

Records: 13-3 (lost NFC Championship Game), 11-4-1 (lost Super Bowl to Ravens), 12-4 (lost NFC Championship Game), 8-8

Rankings as scoring defense: second, second, third, 10th

Rankings in total defense: 14th, third, 14th, 15th

Top players: LB NaVorro Bowman, LB Patrick Willis, S Dashon Goldson, DE Justin Smith, CB Carlos Rogers, SS Donte Whitner, LB Aldon Smith, LB Ahmad Brooks, FS Eric Reid, SS Antoine Bethea

Noteworthy: After a handful of seasons in various roles with the Ravens and as defensive coordinator at Stanford, Fangio was back on the NFL level as a coordinator, proving that if given a massive amount of talent, he could produce something special.

His time with the 49ers didn't produce a ring, but it did bring just about everything else. It didn’t hurt that in that four-year span, Fangio coached 17 Pro Bowl selections and eight All-Pro performers.

By this point, his style and personality was clear. Fangio said even coach Jim Harbaugh had figured out that it isn’t wise to ask Fangio a question if he isn’t ready for a candid response. Dolphins players have often said they appreciate coach Mike McDaniel being honest with them.

"Being blunt and being honest has gotten me in trouble some over the years," Fangio told The San Jose Mercury-News. “But I do think in the long run it's the best way to be. I don't view my job as a cheerleader. I don't view my job as a best friend, chest-bumping buddy.”

Coming off a 6-10 season in 2010, the 49ers looked to Stanford, hiring Harbaugh as head coach and Fangio as defensive coordinator. Immediately, they won 13 games and reached the NFC Championship Game. The defense wasn’t just along for the ride. The Niners allowed only 14.3 points per game after giving up 21.6 the year before.

Working with this much talent, Fangio knew where to draw the line between giving players enough instruction but not too much.

"When I'm on the practice field, I like to see what the players know and don't know," he told The San Francisco Chronicle. "I don't like coaching them every second of the day, because I'm not going to be out there with them on game day, and neither are the other coaches.

"If you're telling them what to do each and every moment, then you're really not finding out anything."

The Bears knew Vic Fangio was emerging as a head-coaching candidate.
The Bears knew Vic Fangio was emerging as a head-coaching candidate.

2015-18: Bears' ‘mastermind' builds league's best defense

Records: 6-10, 3-13, 5-11, 12-4

Rankings as scoring defense: 20th, 24th, ninth, first

Rankings in total defense: 16th, 12th, 26th, fifth

Top players: CB Kyle Fuller, DE Akiem Hicks, SS Eddie Jackson, LB Khalil Mack

Noteworthy: Fangio interviewed for the 49ers’ head-coaching job to succeed Harbaugh for 2015. He was convinced that a veteran group like the 49ers needed a veteran coaching them. Among the candidates the 49ers considered was Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, whose first head-coaching role would come with the Dolphins the next year.

When San Fran went with Jim Tomsula, it was time for Fangio to move on.

Less than a week after leaving the Bay Area, Fangio was hired to patch up an un-Bears-like defense that ranked 30th the previous two years. Fangio helped the Bears make a steady climb, and it didn’t hurt in 2018 when All-Pro Mack arrived and immediately contributed 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles.

Cornerback Prince Amukamara credited Fangio, telling the Chicago Daily Herald, "He's a mastermind, one of the smartest DCs, most-detailed DCs I've been around. Guys love him."

Problem was, Fangio had done such a good job that his turn to be a head coach had arrived. The Dolphins were interested but ended up hiring Brian Flores.

“If he aspires to be a head coach I would say that his time is now, and he's worked hard to put himself in a position to be sought after, as he is,” Amukamara told Pro Football Weekly. "Of course as a defensive group and I'm sure everyone in this organization would love for him to stay.”

The 2018 season is Fangio’s most recent as a coordinator. His unit led the NFL in takeaways, lowest passer rating, run defense and fewest points per game (17.7).

Rarified air. Sort of like what they have in Denver.

Broncos coach Vic Fangio during a 2019 game vs. the Raiders.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio during a 2019 game vs. the Raiders.

2019-21: Broncos tell Fangio he can run show as head coach

Records: 7-9, 5-11, 7-10

Rankings as scoring defense: 10th, 25th, third

Rankings in total defense: 25th, 26th, 17th

Top players: LB Bradley Chubb, LB Von Miller, FS Justin Simmons

Noteworthy: When GM John Elway replaced Vance Joseph, he bypassed Flores and Zac Taylor to go with Fangio. All four of those coaches now have Dolphins ties on their resumes.

Elway called Fangio “exactly what we need,” citing his commitment to discipline, accountability and fundamentals.

“I’m a fundamentals coach,” Fangio said, according to the Providence Journal. “I think the game of the NFL, everybody thinks has changed and it’s a high-scoring league, etc. But fundamentals are still what wins in this league. I’m going to stress those. We’re not going to cut any corners. There will be no death by inches.”

Fangio’s defense included Chubb and Miller, who led the NFL with a combined 26.5 sacks the previous year.

“We’re going to try to take them both to bigger and better levels,” Fangio said. “I think Von Miller can play even better than he’s played in his career.”

The pass-rushing combo fit perfectly into Fangio's goals as a play-caller.

"He makes it hard on the quarterback," Broncos GM George Paton told The Denver Post. "He disguises (his looks) so well and they're so sound. His teams rarely give up a big play."

As Fangio told The Washington Post, "It's really muddy, so when you drop back, you don't know quite what you're getting."

Although Miller continued playing at a Pro Bowl level, the duo combined for only nine sacks the next year, when Chubb’s season ended after four games because of an ACL. Injuries hit the Broncos so badly that they used 15 linebackers in 2021.

Although Fangio had a year left on his contract, he ended the 2021 season on a four-game losing streak, capped by Denver’s 13th consecutive loss to the Chiefs.

Hours later, he was fired, eventually deciding to take a season off.

Now, it's time to roll up his sleeves again.

Dolphins reporter Hal Habib can be reached at hhabib@pbpost.com and followed on Twitter @gunnerhal.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Trail of success often follows Dolphins' ‘mastermind' Vic Fangio