SANTA CLARA, Calif. - While a number of 49ers voiced their high regard of Jim Harbaugh on this Black Monday, a few defensive players also noted how they hope defensive coordinator Vic Fangio returns after guiding the NFL's fifth-ranked defense in 2014.
In what capacity remains to be seen.
"I would like to see Vic Fangio, whether that’s head coach or DC, I would like to see him here. That’s my answer to that," All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman said.
"We’ve just built so much. There’s a lot of chemistry there with the guy that’s been here the three or four years that’s with him. I just think that’s a great thing that we have and we don’t want to lose that."
Fangio's unit has finished no worse than seventh in total defense during his time as Harbaugh's defensive coordinator over the last four seasons. His work this year was especially impressive considering the team lost pass rusher Aldon Smith to a nine-game suspension to start the season, Bowman to an ACL tear and Patrick Willis to season-ending toe surgery after appearing in five and a half games.
He also incorporated two rookie nickel corners, Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson, while transitioning to a new strong safety Antoine Bethea, and plugging in Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver seamlessly to the starting lineup.
"Getting injured and everything, to be the fifth-best defense in the league I think is a huge accomplishment, and something that players and coaches should be proud," soon-to-be free agent outside linebacker Dan Skuta said. "Just kept on fighting all year like we said we would. Even in the last game. I’m really proud to be apart of that. Like you said, I think kind of the sky’s the limit with our defense and what we can do when everyone stays healthy. I’m excited to see that."
Fangio's no-nonsense attitude might not be an ideal fit with San Francisco as a head coach. He is often frank and honest, while Harbaugh was typically tight-lipped and always positive when talking about his players.
Running on the opposite side of that spectrum, Fangio this year went on the record saying he thought outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks came into training camp out shape, second-year defensive lineman Tank Carradine wasn't learning his assignments at the rate he would like and rookie linebacker Chris Borland struggled in certain coverages.
Skuta faces an uncertain offseason, while teams looking for a starting-caliber outside linebacker might be willing to pay more than the 49ers, who will have Aldon Smith and second-year player Aaron Lynch earmarked for prominent roles in 2015. Brooks, who enters the offseason with the team's third-highest cap number for next year, will likely have to take a significant pay cut from his $9.649 cap hit in order to stay in Santa Clara.
For Skuta, what happens with Fangio will have a big impact on his free agent decision come spring.
"That’s going to be a big deal to me. I like Vic a lot. I respect what he’s done and I like his defense. That’s going to mean a lot to me going forward," Skuta said.
Initial reports indicate the 49ers have targeted coordinators from both sides of the ball. Seattle's defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will reportedly get interviewed, as will Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Broncos O.C. Adam Gase.
Jim Tomsula remains the front runner for the job, who fits CEO Jed York's criteria.
"I want a teacher. I think what made Bill Walsh so successful is that he was a great teacher," York said Monday.
But any new coach coming to San Francisco will have one of the league's deepest and most talented rosters to work with, particularly with Bowman and Willis expected to return at full strength - on top of the team's talented 2014 draft class coming back with a year of experience.
"He’s going to have pretty much everything that Jim Harbaugh had," Vernon Davis said. "Because he was, he was really good. You look at who we were, our identity, in the beginning, before Harbaugh even got here. We were pretty much nothing. We were building, we were trying to climb, just trying to get somewhere."