'Lord Fangio' rules over 49ers' improved defense
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By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
AP Sports Writer
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Vic Fangio might be the only one at 49ers headquarters who doesn't mind hearing the piercing tone of his "maniacal" voice.
San Francisco's defensive coordinator will often leave messages on his voicemail at the office just before falling asleep or if he wakes up in the middle of the night with an idea. Then he'll come back in the morning, listen to the recording and decide whether to put the plan to work.
"It's easier to talk into a phone at night than turn the lights on and find a piece of paper," Fangio said Thursday.
Hard to question the method to his madness.
The coordinator has turned the 49ers (5-1) defense into one of the NFL's best in his first year, engineering the same kind of turnaround he did at Stanford under head coach Jim Harbaugh. With San Francisco going for its fifth straight victory Sunday when the Cleveland Browns (3-3) visit Candlestick, Fangio's legend is starting to resurface.
Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov nicknamed the assistant coach "Lord Fangio" for his reverberating voice and the "evil genius" behind his schemes during Fangio's one year on The Farm. The name stuck more with every successful week, and now the Niners are embracing Fangio's ways, too.
Even the myth around his nickname.
"His voice is definitely like somebody on `Lord of the Rings.' I could see why they called him that," defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois said.
A resurgent defense led by Fangio has carried the 49ers to the top of the NFC West.
San Francisco is allowing only 16.2 points per game, second in the NFL behind John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens (13.8). The Niners also are second in the league at stopping the run (giving up 74.7 yards per game) and have allowed only nine touchdowns in six games this year.
Fangio's formula is no fluke.
The straightforward, no-nonsense coach built Stanford into the Pac-10's top defense last season and already has put his stamp all over the 49ers unit.
"I think he's one of the all-time best defensive coordinators in the history of the league," Jim Harbaugh said. "I think that's who he is. I think that's what his legacy will be some day."
The architect behind San Francisco's blitz-happy defense brings a different persona to the staff.
While Harbaugh spends most of his time on the offensive side, riling up players -- and opposing coaches -- with handshakes and hugs, Fangio has molded the 49ers into a powerful defenses rather quietly. He sits upstairs in the booth on game days to avoid the emotions and stay focused on his task.
While he'll joke with players on occasion, he prefers to let his style do the talking.
"He's brought a lot of confidence, a lot of swagger and an aggressive approach to the defense," said cornerback Carlos Rogers, who has intercepted three passes this season. "With his 3-4 defense and his play calling, it allows a lot of guys to do so many different things that I don't think they were able to do in the past."
Fangio, all of 53 years old, is in his 25th season as an NFL coach. He spent 11 years as a defensive coordinator with Carolina, Indianapolis and Houston.
The defensive guru established his reputation as one of the premier linebacker coaches with the New Orleans Saints in the mid-1980s under Jim Mora. So it's no wonder making four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis the anchor of an experienced and talented 49ers defense has been at the root of Fangio's success.
Shortly after he joined Harbaugh with the 49ers in January, Fangio had the gall to tell Willis he needed to improve as a pass-rusher. The linebacker accepted the message and made himself an even more polished player.
"I think what he came in and asked is not anything I didn't already know. At the end of the day, I'm a football player. When someone says something to me, I don't take it as a bad thing. I take it as constructive criticism," Willis said.
If there's any flaw in Fangio, it's that he hasn't stuck around most places long.
Since working with the Saints from 1986-94, Fangio has bounced from defensive coordinator positions with Carolina, Indianapolis and Houston. He also was a special assistant and linebackers coach in Baltimore from 2006-09 before joining Harbaugh at Stanford last year, where the Cardinal finished a 12-1 season with an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech and a No. 4 ranking in the final AP poll.
Fangio hopes to stick around 49ers headquarters for a while, and players are eager to see how his defense will continue to evolve.
"It's a 3-4 scheme, but can move the defense around and make it any way he wants to," Jean-Francois said. "He's a great coach with a great scheme. It's fun to watch him work."
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Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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