CHICAGO – For any of you who’ve followed my work over the years you probably know that after my wife, children, grandchildren and the rest of the Arkush and Novota clans, there are few things in the world as important to me or that I’d rather talk about than the Chicago Cubs.
It is also one of the many reasons I admire Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
He seems to enjoy the Cubs in many of the same ways I do, and on Thursday during his press conference he took time to anoint Joe Maddon as the best manager in baseball.
But what I admire most about Fangio is his well-earned status as one of the best defensive coordinators in football, and he may just be on the precipice of his finest work to date.
As the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator from 2011-14, Fangio oversaw one of the NFL’s best defenses of the 21st century. The 49ers played in three straight NFC title games from 2011-13 and won the NFC title in 2012.
Fangio’s Super Bowl XLVII defense was built around All-Pros at all three levels and anchored by one of the best interior defensive lineman in the game, Justin Smith, and one of the greatest LB corps of all time with All-Pros Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman inside and Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks on the outside.
The current Bears group is one that general manager Ryan Pace and company have been building for four seasons. It’s hard to imagine — since Fangio’s been here all four years — that it’s coincidence how strikingly similar it is to his 49ers group.
There is only one All-Pro right now, the recently acquired Khalil Mack, but this is a much younger group than those 49ers, and like Willis, Mack is a former Defensive Player of the Year.
Up front, Smith was as strong and powerful as any player in the game and could play anywhere in a '30' or '40' front.
Akiem Hicks is a bigger, stronger version of Smith who should have gone to the Pro Bowl last year. Hicks will even be better now with all the double and triple teams he was eating moving to Mack.
Like Mack, we know who Danny Trevathan is, very similar in body type and style to Bowman and limited mostly to this point in his career by injury rather than lack of talent or production.
We don’t know yet how good Leonard Floyd and Roquan Smith can be, but Floyd is an Aldon Smith clone, and Roquan Smith is another Bowman-style ‘backer for whom scouts are pretty much unanimous, the sky is the limit.
Consider this, in Mack, Smith and Floyd the Bears now have the fifth, eighth and ninth players selected in their respective draft classes.
I haven’t exactly studied it, but off the top of my head I can’t think of another position group on any team with that many thoroughbreds playing next to each other.
It is quite possible one of the great treats of this or any season is going to be watching that group develop.
Among Fangio’s 49er DBs, cornerback Carlos Rodgers and safety Dashon Goldson became All-Pros. Right now, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson appear to be every bit as talented.
The deeper you dig, the more intriguing these Bears become in comparison.
One can argue that Eddie Goldman, Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris may be flashing even more promise than 2012 49ers' Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-François. Corner Tarell Brown had nothing on Prince Amukamara, while only Adrian Amos currently lags behind Donte Whitner.
Those three 49er title teams did not win a Super Bowl, and they only got to one.
But between 2011 and 2013, Fangio’s units ranked fourth, third and fifth, respectively, in total defense and second, second and third in points allowed.
This Bears defense is not there yet, but it has the raw talent and ability now with the addition of Mack to be as good or better than those teams were, and there doesn’t appear to be much question Pace and Fangio have built it in that image.