Capers seeks solutions
There are 32 of them now, neatly stored in his third-floor office at Lambeau Field. Those who’ve seen them are amazed by their meticulous nature, by the perfect penmanship, by how thoroughly the thoughts and events of Dom Capers’ life are organized and recorded.
His father gave him the first journal on Christmas Day, 1981, and it was the perfect gift for a son who’d always loved detail. As a kid growing up in Buffalo, Ohio, he would mow neighbors’ yards to earn extra money – and edge each lawn by hand. With a fork.
And so, when Eugene Capers died of a heart attack three months later at age 57, his son began filling the pages. He obsessed about his health, jotting down his body fat percentage, his cholesterol count, every run or workout. He detailed everyday activities – movies he’d seen, sermons he’d heard in church, conversations he’d had, trips he’d taken. Having studied psychology in college at Mount Union, he chronicled the various thoughts that crossed his mind, in good times and bad. He took notes at every coaching stop – from Ohio State, where he was a 31-year-old assistant when his dad gave him that first leatherbound journal, to the USFL's Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, to every one of his NFL jobs – about every team meeting, practice and game.
To this day, Capers orders a new edition of the same calendar book each year through the mail. While he keeps the previous years’ journals in his office, he takes the current one with him wherever he goes.
Oh, to read what the veteran defensive coordinator is writing these days about his Green Bay Packers defense.
We don’t get to, of course. And, truth be told, we don’t need to. Because Capers is so consistent, because those who know him best will tell you that his even-keeled personality never changes, we can safely believe that what he’d say about this year’s defense wouldn’t be vastly different than what he would have said five years ago, when he got the job.
‘Ups and downs’
In fact, here’s what Capers said on Jan. 19, 2009, the day Packers coach Mike McCarthy introduced him as the team’s new defensive coordinator:
“In this business there are a lot of ups and downs. So if you can develop an approach to handle the ups and downs and not get too high with the highs and not get too low with the lows, I think it is important when guys walk in every day that you aren't one way one day and another way the next day,” he said that day. “They know what to expect, that you are going to be consistent more than anything else. I think consistent but demanding. Try to define things as much as you can in terms of what is going to be expected.
“I think communication is a key because many times there is something lost in the communication in terms of, ‘This is what we expect.’ There are certain things you can't compromise (like) the type of effort you play with on defense and your preparation in terms of knowing your assignments. I think if you can do a couple of those things, it goes a long way to of giving you a chance in every game in terms of playing as hard as you can and knowing what to do. Because I think a lot of games are lost because teams will beat themselves. There is a difference in the effort and intensity that teams play with.”
That same day, Capers talked about his defensive philosophy. As the 2013 team’s run defense has imploded – plummeting from No. 3 in the league after six games to No. 26 in the league entering Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau Field – his words then explain what’s going wrong now, and why his game plans might not be as aggressive as he would like them to be.
“All defensive players like to play aggressively. (But) there's a lot of things that factor into that,” Capers said then. “I think if you can play aggressively and stop the run, that's the best of both worlds. I think that's where things have to start. The number of things you can do and how aggressive you can become is based on your ability to No. 1, not let people run the football on you so you can dictate the down-and-distance situations. And if you can get offenses into (defensively) advantageous down-and-distance situations, now it opens up a whole lot of things that you can do.
“But if they always keep you in second-and-5, second-and-4, that type of thing, then it takes a little bit of your aggressiveness away because you've got to find some way to get that run stopped, try to get people into predictable down-and-distance, and then I think you can give them a lot more problems.”
Asked Friday whether the team’s inability to stop the run lately has affected how he calls a game, Capers replied, “Yes. Believe me, the game situations always change how you call a game. … I’ve always felt that if you could discourage people from running the ball early, a lot of times they get away from it. Now, you can start doing a lot of those things and create problems.
“Hey, we have to get back, and this week we have to go out there and shut down their run game. If we can do that, then normally you can find ways to put pressure on the quarterback, and normally, that’s where the turnovers come from.”
For 17 minutes Friday, Capers stood outside the Packers’ locker room, talking with reporters. It is a weekly ritual, one that tends to follow the same script each time. He is always forthright with his answers, willing to explain aspects of scheme, deliver a scouting report on the upcoming opponent, dole out praise for his guys who are playing well. But do all the Googling, Binging and Lexis-Nexising as you can stand, and you are unlikely to find a single instance of Capers publicly ripping a player. He is more likely to take the blame himself than hang one of his players out to dry.
That was the case again on this day, too. He couldn’t even bring himself to criticize departed safety Jerron McMillian, whom the team released earlier in the week after two disappointing seasons.
“I’ve been in this league long enough that many times I’ve seen guys released and they catch on with someone else and it’s the right situation and their careers take off,” he said optimistically.
But there were also a host of questions about Capers job security, about how a segment of the team’s famously passionate – and, sometimes, overzealous – fan base is calling for his ouster, about whether his players are still buying into his system.
And true to his personality, Capers’ tone of voice never changed; he even smiled as he answered a question that essentially asked him if he’d gotten too old for the job.
“If you’ve known me for my whole career, I don’t get caught up in a lot of those things because I know you’re going to go through periods like that,” Capers said. “I’ll just tell you: If I didn’t think I could do it as well know as I did 20 years ago, I wouldn’t do it. That’s just me. I’ve got to feel as though I’ve got something to give, and I feel that way. I don’t feel that’s changed one bit.”
No retirement plan
As a result, at 63 years old, Capers said Friday he has no plans to retire. When the Packers were winning Super Bowl XLV after the 2010 season – when Green Bay ranked fifth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed and second in the league in fewest points allowed – some wondered if Capers might be hired away and get one last shot at being a head coach after building the expansion Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans. Now, while McCarthy has publicly backed him at every turn, social media and sports-talk radio are abuzz with fans’ frustration with him.
Capers wouldn’t say Friday how many years he has remaining on his contract with the Packers, but it’s thought that he may be in the final year of his deal. A league source said last year that Capers had one year remaining on his contract, and it’s unclear whether McCarthy added a year after last year’s ignominious playoff exit. If not, and this is the final year of his deal, it would make it easier for McCarthy to make a change if he were so inclined.
“I don’t give it any thought because I know what Dom is, I know his system and how it works,” said safeties coach Darren Perry, who played for Capers in Pittsburgh. “Have we played up to our level expectations this year? No. We’ve had our moments where we’ve looked good, but we haven’t been consistent enough. But that’s not a reflection on coach Dom. I’ve got nothing but the utmost respect for him.
“You don’t become a bad coach because of a not-so-good season and when things don’t go the way it’s planned. We’re always subject to criticism when things don’t go well in this profession. That comes with it, and all of us know that and understand that. That’s part of our profession.”
That’s not to say the Packers’ defensive performances haven’t merited criticism under Capers, especially their recent playoff exits.
During Capers’ first three seasons in Green Bay, the Packers finished seventh in scoring defense in 2009 (18.6 points per game), second in 2010 (15.0) and 19th in 2011 (22.4); finished second in yardage allowed in 2009 (284.4 yards per game), fifth in 2010 (309.1) and 32nd (dead last) in 2011 (411.6); were tied for 11th in sacks in 2009 (37), tied for second in 2010 (47) and tied for 27th in 2011 (29); and led the NFL in takeaways in 2009 (40), were sixth in 2010 (32) and tied for first in 2011 (38).
Last season, they finished a respectable 11th in scoring defense (21.0 points per game), 11th in total defense (336.8 yards per game), fourth in sacks (47) and tied for 19th in takeaways (23).
But the Packers’ three postseason exits have been ugly under Capers. In the 2009 playoffs, the Arizona Cardinals scored 51 points (the final six on an overtime touchdown return of an Aaron Rodgers fumble) and rolled up 531 yards in an NFC Wild Card victory over the Packers at University of Phoenix Stadium. In the 2011 playoffs, the top-seeded Packers gave up 420 yards – including a backbreaking Hail Mary touchdown at the end of the first half – as the New York Giants scored 37 points in an NFC Divisional round victory at Lambeau Field. And last January, in a 45-31 NFC Divisional loss at San Francisco, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushed for an NFL single-game quarterback record 181 yards, including a pair of touchdowns, and the 49ers finished with the fourth-most total yards ever gained in an NFL postseason game in league history (579).
This season, the defense showed promise during the first third of the season but has bottomed out since. Through seven games, the Packers were 11th in yards allowed per game, fourth in rushing yards allowed per game and 16th in scoring defense. But entering Sunday’s game, they’re 24th in total defense (376.4 yards per game), 26th in rushing defense (125.9 yards per game) and 23rd in scoring defense (25.4 points per game).
“(The criticism) definitely bothers me because I do love him and I care for him,” said outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, who played for Capers in both Pittsburgh and Carolina. “He’s going to be consistent. He’s not going to point fingers. He’s going to take the heat like a man. Just a few weeks ago, I thought we had a top-10 defense, or at least close to it, and top five against the run. It’s not like Coach Dom came in and changed the game plan and put a whole new system in. We’re doing the same things here. It’s not like he’s putting us in just a horrible position that we’re going to fail. Our defense just needs to play together as a unit. When they have the opportunity, they just need to make that play. You need to fit together.”
During the defensive free-fall, star quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been on the sideline, recovering from a broken collarbone suffered Nov. 4 against Chicago – the game that began the defensive tailspin. Since Rodgers went down, the Packers have gone from being plus-26 minutes 24 seconds in time of possession in the seven games Rodgers started and finished to minus-34 minutes 56 seconds in the five games since. The Packers, of course, are 0-4-1 in those games, but Capers wouldn’t use Rodgers’ absence as an excuse for his group’s play.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with us. We’ve got to look at ourselves and we’ve got to take care of our business on defense,” Capers said. “The one thing you can’t do in this business is ever concern yourself about areas you have no control over, and you’ve got to have total focus on what can I do to get better to get my job done the best of my ability.”
At this point, it doesn’t appear Capers has lost the faith of his players, either. While their endorsements may not have been as resolute as those of McCarthy, who pinned much of the blame on the players themselves for defense’s poor play in their 40-10 shellacking at the hands of the Detroit Lions, there was no sense of a mutiny afoot.
"We absolutely believe in (Capers’ scheme). So we're going to keep doing what we're doing,” veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “We know it's worked in the past. We just have to get back to it.
“It’s the NFL. It happens. You have to get back to the basics. That’s all we can do. Atlanta is coming in here licking their chops. They’re not feeling bad for us. They’re pretty happy with what they’re seeing on tape. We just have to do what we can to get back to where we were as being the dominant run team, run-stopping defense. We have all the guys. The same players in the room, so there’s no reason we can’t do it. We just have to do it. The time is now.”
Whether the clock is ticking on Capers, only McCarthy truly knows. Asked if he thought the players still believed in him, Capers responded, “I would hope so. I can’t speak for them. But I think we’ve got a number of guys there that have seen us go win a Super Bowl with this defense. We’ve won a lot of games here and played pretty good defense.”
Told of Pickett’s comments, Capers seemed genuinely touched. But he also made it clear that he understands that it’s his responsibility to turn things around.
“It means a lot. To me, as long as you stay strong from within, then you’ve got a chance to pull yourself through the thing,” he said. “Every team in the league is going to go through tough stretches. But if you don’t, if you come apart from inside, you really don’t have any chance. So you’ve got to stay confident in what you’re doing. You’ve got to make sure that you point out to guys where we have to get better.
“Everybody has to accept responsibility. My responsibility is to get this defense better, to get us where we want to be. You never feel good after when you’ve had a couple of performances like we’ve had.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.