Capers pays the price for Packers’ dismal defense
Green Bay — The fallout from a disappointing 7-9 season unfolded quickly for the Green Bay Packers, who wasted little time relieving defensive coordinator Dom Capers of his duties after a nine-year run.
A league source confirmed that Capers, defensive line coach Mike Trgovac and inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley all were fired amid a significant overhaul of the team’s most glaring weakness. Additional changes to the defensive staff are likely to follow in the next few days.
The decision to rework the defensive staff came in the wake of a lackluster season in which the broken collarbone of quarterback Aaron Rodgers pulled back the curtain on issues across the board.
When Capers’ unit exhibited the same flaws as 2016 — namely the lack of pass rush, poor secondary play and a lack of cohesion from front to back — the Packers and coach Mike McCarthy felt it was time for a change.
Possible candidates to succeed Capers include defensive coordinators Vic Fangio of the Chicago Bears, Gregg Williams of the Cleveland Browns and Steve Spagnuolo of the New York Giants, among others.
Capers’ undoing was the result of a statistical nosedive in recent years compounded by widespread disorganization this season. The Packers had fielded a steady defense as recently as 2015, when the team ranked sixth against the pass, seventh in opposing quarterback passer rating, ninth in interceptions and tied for 12th in points allowed.
But massive slippage over the last two years hinted at larger systemic issues, especially given the recent influx of high draft picks on that side of the ball: two first-round picks in cornerback Damarious Randall and nose tackle Kenny Clark; three second-round picks in cornerback Quinten Rollins, cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones; two third-round picks in outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell and defensive tackle Montravius Adams.
Year over year, the Packers have found it increasingly difficult to defend against the pass, regardless of the opposing quarterback. A secondary that ranked in the top 10 in most statistical categories a handful of times under Capers — 2009, ’10, ’12, ’14 and ’15 — plummeted to the bottom of the league in astounding fashion as turnovers vanished.
The likes of Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston, DeShone Kizer, Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota, Kirk Cousins, Brock Osweiler and Sam Bradford have combined to throw 22 touchdown passes against only three interceptions in the last two seasons, all mediocre quarterbacks.
Perhaps most concerning for McCarthy was the dissolution of Capers’ defensive formula, which the team’s media guide describes as “pressuring the quarterback and creating turnovers.” Capers has survived multiple seasons of leaky defense by generating takeaways at extremely high rates, thus creating more possessions for the offense.
The Packers led the league in interceptions twice in Capers’ nine seasons (2009, ’11) and finished in the top 10 another five times (2010, ’12, ’14, ’15, ’16) to shroud several mediocre defenses in the seven years since their last Super Bowl appearance.
This year, though, the interceptions (T-20th) and sacks (T-17th) were harder to find. Randall and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix were the only players with multiple interceptions; outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry were the only consistent threats to rush the passer.
Week after week, opposing quarterbacks took a hatchet to porous coverage on the back end, and the Packers finished the regular season ranked 31st in opposing quarterback passer rating (102.0) and 30th in completion percentage allowed (67.8).
Equally worrisome was the pattern of logistical dysfunction that straddled the line between comedic and embarrassing. No defense, it seemed, had as many communication breakdowns as the Packers, who shuffled their on-field headset between a minimum of three different players in an attempt to combat the problem.
There were times when the Packers had too many men on the field and others when they didn’t have enough. There were blown coverages in which receivers ran free and others when two defenders followed the same target. Veterans had to redirect rookies before the ball was snapped. Coaches disagreed with one another over whose players were at fault for certain touchdowns.
The operation as a whole felt broken.
Still, there were several factors that went beyond Capers’ control, shifting at least a portion of the blame to general manager Ted Thompson, who is stepping down and will take an advisory role with the organization.
The Packers’ cornerback position was decimated by injuries in each of the last two seasons, beginning with the careerending concussion for Sam Shields in the 2016 season opener at Jacksonville. Capers has been without a true No. 1 corner ever since, a virtual death sentence in today’s pass-happy league.
There were groin problems for Randall and Rollins, both of whom needed surgery last season, and a devastating knee injury to Demetri Goodson that cost him all of 2017. Rollins tore his Achilles tendon in October. King, this year’s top draft pick, was in an out of the lineup with a shoulder problem that ultimately landed him on injured reserve. Davon House, the lone veteran Thompson signed, battled problems with his quadricep, shoulder and multiple transverse process fractures in his back.
It meant that in each of the last two years, as the Packers reached the NFC Championship Game in 2016 and fought to remain in the playoff race this season, Capers reached a point where undrafted rookies were the only healthy bodies at one of the game’s most important positions. The chances of Makinton Dorleant, Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins and Donatello Brown guiding the Packers to glory was slim, so Capers turned his backup safeties into slot cornerbacks instead.
At some point, Thompson should have reinforced his roster with veterans to give Capers a legitimate chance.
If Capers decides to call it a career, he will leave the sport with a tremendous résumé. He entered coaching as a graduate assistant with Kent State in 1972 and has been on the sideline ever since, sitting out just a single year in the last five decades. He broke into the National Football League as the defensive backs coach for the New Orleans Saints in 1986 and has been here ever since.
Dom Capers’ defense did not produce enough takeaways this season to make up for its weaknesses.