Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers shouts instructions to his players before a recent game against the Buffalo Bills at Lambeau Field on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010. / File/Press-Gazette
Jim Mora has known Dom Capers since the two were assistant coaches at the University of Washington in 1975.
They become close friends, and Mora promised that whenever he got a head coaching job, he would take Capers with him. The first stop was in the United States Football League, where Mora was the head coach of the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and Capers the defensive backs coach. Together, they ran the “Doghouse Defense” — a precursor to the Blitzburgh version of the 3-4 that Capers helped develop with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They won two USFL titles, and when Mora became the head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 1986, Capers was in tow as the defensive backs coach. Capers spent six seasons with Mora in New Orleans as the Saints ‘defensive backs coach before he got the chance to run his own defense in 1992 as the Steelers’ coordinator.
While the basic philosophy of the defense they coached remains the backbone of Capers’ philosophy today as the Green Bay Packers’ coordinator, Mora says Capers surprises him just about every time he tunes in to watch the Packers play.
“The things he comes up with,” Mora said with a hint of amazement in his voice, “I mean, very innovative.”
Mora, the longtime coach of the Saints and Indianapolis Colts, recently retired from his job as a radio and TV NFL analyst but still follows the game, especially when his coaching friends are involved. It’s a sure bet he’ll be tuned in to Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game between the Packers and Atlanta Falcons. But no matter what Mora sees, he already knows the kind of job Capers did this season. In his second year in Green Bay, where he overhauled the defense and oversaw the change from the 4-3 to the 3-4, Capers has done one of his finest coaching jobs.
A unit that has been beset by injuries has persevered and been one of the reasons the Packers have reached the final four in the NFC. A dominating performance against the NFC North champs, the Chicago Bears, in Week 17 clinched a playoff berth. A week later, Capers’ game plan, which was executed to near perfection, helped the Packers win at Philadelphia in a wild-card game for their first playoff win since 2007.
“He’s done an outstanding job,” Mora said from his home in Palm Desert, Calif. “I think about it all the time as I watch these guys play. With all the injuries, he’s done a superb job. I don’t know if any defensive coordinator in the National Football League has done any better job than Dom has under the circumstances.”
What has most impressed Mora has been Capers’ ability to adapt to his ever-changing personnel.
“When I watch him, I’m impressed by the things he comes up with,” Mora said. “It’s not like your standard stuff, and I see other people kind of copying him. With all the linemen standing up — sometimes two linemen, one lineman — I see other teams doing that stuff now. You can tell he’s well respected, there’s no question.”
Yet the more new things Capers draws up, the more his old colleagues recognize things they discussed in meeting rooms and film rooms over the years. Even things Capers never used in games, he filed away.
“You know what it is, he’s a real attention-to-detail guy,” said Steve Sidwell, who was the defensive coordinator under Mora with the Saints. “He’s able to do enough of the changing from X’s and O’s that he can give people problems.”
Capers wasn’t even Mike McCarthy’s first choice when he went looking for a defensive coordinator after he fired Bob Sanders in January 2009. He offered the job to Gregg Williams, who instead decided to take the same position with the New Orleans Saints. At the time, it was reported that McCarthy interviewed former San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan, former Saints coach Jim Haslett and Packers assistant coach Winston Moss. A source this week said McCarthy also interviewed former 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
The source said that as McCarthy went through the interview process, he became convinced that switching to a 3-4 was the way to go. Though Capers was fired from both of his head coaching jobs — as the first coach for expansion franchises in Carolina and Houston — McCarthy liked the idea that he could let Capers essentially be the head coach of the defense.
“He’s been doing it so long, very detailed, knows exactly what he’s looking for, and I think that’s truly the mark of an excellent coach,” McCarthy said Friday. “You have the vision and staying true to that vision and make sure you do not get off the path to accomplish what you want. I just think the success we’ve had in the two years is a big credit to Dom.”
There are those who believe Capers deserves another shot at an NFL head coaching job. Capers was mentioned in connection with the Denver Broncos job, but that went to former Panthers coach John Fox on Thursday. At age 60, his time may have come and gone.
“When owners decide to hire a guy, they might say Dom’s been fired twice, so he’s not a good head coach,” Mora said. “Well that’s a bunch of malarkey. It all depends on the situation you’re in, and he was with two expansion teams, but perception in the league is so important. Because of that, I think it hurts him a little bit, but I think that it’s wrong that it does.”
Capers has at least one more year on his contract with the Packers, according to a source, and with a salary of more than $1 million he’s well paid.
“I’ve enjoyed this,” Capers said. “It’s been a lot of fun. This year has been especially rewarding because of the new guys we’ve had step in and have done it the right way.”