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The most fascinating thing about the Patrick Willis news is how little it seems to impact the 49ers’ realpolitik.
In other words, the defense hasn’t missed a beat, probably isn’t going to miss one in the short run, but may end up a potential disaster for the team anyway.
The logic seems daft from the start. Willis is, if not the heart of the San Francisco defense, at least the aorta. His absence, combined with the apparent season-long absence of running mate NaVorro Bowman and the suspension of Aldon Smith, should have already decimated the 49er defense.
So here’s where that defense sits as of now, compared to the first three seasons of the Harbaugh Dynastette:
Yards Per Game: 2nd. Fifth a year ago. Third two years ago. Fourth three years ago.
Yards Per Play: 6th. Eighth a year ago. Third two years ago. Sixth three years ago.
Rushing Yards Per Play: 12th. Fourth a year ago. Third two years ago. First three years ago.
Passing Yards Per Play: 4th. Ninth a year ago. First two years ago. Ninth three years ago.
First Downs Allowed: 8th. Seventh a year ago. Second two years ago. Second three years ago.
Turnovers: 6th. Fourth a year ago. Eighth two years ago. First three years ago.
In other words, the defense has not only survived these seeming devastating injuries but thrived anyway, and yes, one can then conclude that if the defense had been as materially affected as you might think it would, the 49ers would not be 5-4 at all, but 3-6.
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And the down side of all that? Someone is eventually going to conclude that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is head coaching material in the same way that Mike Pettine, the putative Coach Of The Year in Cleveland, was detected a year ago.
And that would be a loss the team would find truly catastrophic.
Fangio isn’t a play-nice media type. He gets in and gets out, and he doesn’t do warm and fuzzy; if he does anything at all, it’s clammy and scaly.
But he is the straightest of shooters, and with so little of that floating around the game, he would logically be a permanent fixture on coaching short lists this coming hiring season.
Of course, this is the kind of logic that should have been in play two years ago, and one year ago as well. Given all the Jim Harbaugh-On-The-Hot-Squat stories over the past 11 months, it is stupefying to think that Fangio’s name has almost never come up as an alternative.
And yet it does not, which suggests that technical uber-competence isn’t the be-all and end-all of coaching attractiveness -- certainly not when owners are doing the hiring more and more.
Before this gets too out of hand, it must be said yet again that players make coaches more than the other way around, so the credit should start not with Fangio but with Justin Smith and Antoine Bethea and Aaron Lynch and Perrish Cox and Chris Borland, just to name some names.
But none of them are in line for a head coaching job this coming year, and Fangio would like to be. He said so before the Super Bowl, and there is no reason to think his ambitions have dimmed with time.
If there is a problem, it’s that he doesn’t seem the type to convince people to buy season tickets in the offseason, or make them buy team gear at exorbitant prices. He isn’t a marketer or a salesman. He makes defenses work, and that isn’t the only skill the modern coach has to have.
That is, until a team gets desperate enough to remember that its principal role is still to do football correctly, and forget all the other things that allegedly make a coach attractive in the modern era. Cleveland was that desperate a year ago, and half-lucked into Pettine. Somebody must surely be that desperate next season.
And if the 49er defense remains the 49er defense, desperation will bring someone to Vic Fangio’s door. It almost surely will be worth the trip.