ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — More than 30 years before accepting the Broncos' head coaching job, Vic Fangio got his NFL start as a linebackers coach in New Orleans.
Beginning in 1986, Fangio helped lead a fearsome linebacking corps that featured Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Vaughan Johnson and Sam Mills. The "Dome Patrol," as they were known, helped lead the Saints to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons from 1990-92, and the players totaled a combined 18 Pro Bowl appearances with the Saints. The 1992 Pro Bowl remains the only time that four linebackers from one team were all selected to the league's all-star game.
Fangio remained in New Orleans for nine years until he was named defensive coordinator for the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995.
As Fangio prepares to face the Saints for the first time as a head coach, he looks back on those memories fondly.
"It was very special for me," Fangio said Wednesday. "That was my first stop in my NFL career — I had nine great years there. Obviously, as you mentioned, coaching good players always makes it much more enjoyable. I'm still in touch with some of those players; they text me regularly, which is very nice. New Orleans is the place I've been the longest in my NFL journey. So, every time I go back there — even though we're not going back there this time — it kind of feels like my second home."
Fangio didn't overlap in New Orleans with Saints head coach Sean Payton, but the two share a mutual respect from a series of matchups over the last two decades. They also happen to share Pennsylvania roots, as Payton's parents are from Scranton, which is close to Fangio's hometown of Dunmore. Payton spent several years during his childhood living in Pennsylvania.
"We've gone against Vic's defenses for quite a while," Payton said. "I know Vic well, I think. His family and my family are from the same hometown. I've got a cousin, I think, [who] taught him sixth-grade math. He's done a great job. He always presents challenges with base defensive package[s] and his sub-defensive package[s]. They can match you or play you in either, which really can create some problems. In other words, if you're going into the game with a sub-run and you get his base defense, a lot of times that doesn't block up well vs. that. They've always been extremely well-coached — San Francisco, Chicago and I think this defense is playing awfully well, as well."
The two's highest profile matchup likely came in the 2011 postseason as Fangio's 49ers earned a 36-32 win over the Saints en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
In this week's game, Fangio will have to plan for Taysom Hill rather than Drew Brees, but he'll still have to combat Payton's creative play-calling and offensive system.
"I'd rather go against somebody less capable than he is," said Fangio when asked if he likes going up against a play-caller like Payton. "Sean is an excellent play-caller and he always has been and has continued to be. He's actually getting better — that's hard to believe — but I've always felt he's one of the best play-callers in the league."
With Hill, an undrafted quarterback who starred at BYU, the Saints' offense didn't change much from the one they operated with Brees at the helm. Hill carried the ball 10 times for 51 yards and two touchdowns against Atlanta, but he also completed 18-of-23 passes for 233 yards, no interceptions and a 108.9 quarterback rating.
"They ran their normal offense," Fangio said. "I was turning on the tape maybe to see something different, but it's the Saints offense they've been running ever since Sean's been there and they've evolved, too, with the addition of his ability to have the quarterback designed runs. But other than the quarterback designed runs which are unique to him, they ran their offense."
Against an offense that also features All-Pros Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas and former Pro Bowl wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, containing Hill will be a challenge.
"He went out there and performed his duties as a quarterback," Fangio said. "He ran their offense. I don't think the Saints changed their offense at all because he was the quarterback; they still ran plays and concepts, formations and personnel groups that they ran with Drew Brees, but he has the added dimensions of the quarterback designed runs. So, I think he acquitted himself very, very well. He's a good quarterback. If he keeps it up the way he played last week he'll be considered the third best quarterback in Saints history behind Drew Brees and Archie Manning."
KNOWN FOR A WHILE
Peyton Manning was officially named a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2021 on Tuesday, and Fangio said he knew earlier than most people that Manning was destined for greatness.
"I figured out Peyton was going to be pretty special when he was about 14 or 15 years old and he would come over to the Saints facility and throw pass skelly with us some days with our team in the offseason," Fangio said. "So, he [was] long-time destined to achieve the greatness that he did achieve."
Manning's father, Archie, quarterbacked the Saints in the 1970s and worked as a Saints radio broadcaster after his playing career.
UP IN THE BOX
Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur has called the last several games in the coaching box after starting the season on the sideline, and Fangio said he expects Shurmur to remain in the box as the season progresses.
"I was surprised none of you had really noticed that, because you're right, it did happen starting with the New England game," Fangio said. "I've always mentioned it to Pat — I didn't make it a mandate that he go up there — but there's no doubt that's the best place to call a game from. You just see more, you're more relaxed when you're sitting down, you have your sheets in front of you, you don't have to rely on other people to give you information. I think it's the best place for a play-caller to be for the most part, and I think he's going to stay up there and I think it's the right place for him to be at this time."
Drew Lock said Quarterbacks Coach Mike Shula remains on the sideline to provide coaching points during games.
CONNECTING WITH JERRY
In the last four weeks, Lock has targeted wide receiver Jerry Jeudy on 40 of his pass attempts, but the talented rookie has hauled in just 18 of those passes.
Asked Wednesday how he would assess his chemistry with Jeudy on the field, Lock took responsibility for some of the near-misses during games.
"It's a week-by-week thing," Lock said. "One week we're molded together on how good chemistry we have, and then the next week you miss two or three and it's, 'Oh, you guys are falling apart.' That's just — it is what it is. We work hard in practice. We come to practice every day. We get the extra throws when we miss them. It's just about hitting them in the game.
"It really has nothing to do with us not being in sync or chemistry or whatnot. It just has everything to do with me putting the ball where it needs to be."