Unswayed, Dom Capers' discipline stays course
Every year, twice a year, Dom Capers stands before his defense and gives the same speech. It is an elementary lecture, nothing to do with advanced defensive schematics. His zone-blitz system may be complex, but Capers starts with the basics.
On a projector, defensive tackle B.J. Raji said, his coordinator highlights the goals for that season. Their order never changes. The first slide references a Super Bowl championship. The second, Raji said, urges the group to become the best defense in the NFL.
Raji, the 2009 first-round pick, has heard the same speech 14 times. He marvels at what comes next, after the goals have been discussed. Twice a year, before the start of organized team activities and training camp, Capers begins building his defense again from the ground up.
In a room full of veterans, Raji said, the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator doesn’t skip ahead. Capers takes the playbook, and he flips to the first page.
“Literally every offseason,” Raji said, “we start from the front of the playbook. He installs it as if we’ve never gone over it. I think that type of detail isn’t easy to do because a lot of times – there’s some rookies – but for the most part the team has been intact.
“It has to be tough to just keep going over everything, the same thing over and over again, but he pays that much attention to detail.”
Capers chuckles when describing himself as a creature of habit. He wonders how he might function in the “real world,” where there is less structure. Through four decades of coaching, he has always followed a routine. Always punctual. Always consistent.
It’s how Capers has navigated 29 seasons in the NFL.
“If a meeting is supposed to start at 10 o’clock,” Capers said, “it doesn’t start at 10:01. You’re there ahead of time, because people get fined for being late. This is an extremely disciplined game. It takes discipline to play it, to be efficient enough to be successful.”
Sometimes, that discipline doesn’t come easy. As much as coaches throw around the C-word – “consistency,” they like to say – little about the league actually is. There are highs. There are lows. The swings between the two can be extreme.
This season, for this defense, has been no different.
The Packers could do no wrong through the season’s first month. They were the NFL’s stingiest unit, leading the league in points allowed. Their pass rush ranked second. They beat Russell Wilson, dominated Colin Kaepernick, intercepted Nick Foles four times. For Capers, everything was good.
Not so much recently. The Packers have allowed 1,475 yards in their past three games. They’ve slipped to 12th in points allowed. Philip Rivers outgunned them, Peyton Manning outsmarted them, Cam Newton overpowered them. Capers? There’s a social media hashtag calling for his job, the same used every year.
Capers remains unswayed. There is no panic in this 65-year-old who started his career as a graduate assistant at Kent State in 1972 and worked his way to the top. Capers has seen every high, every low in the past four decades. He’s won a Super Bowl. He’s been fired. Nothing fazes him.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said that “discipline in his approach” is Capers’ best attribute as a coordinator.
“I think it says a lot about the man,” McCarthy said. “He believes. He believes in the system. He believes in the players. He believes in the program. We’re very fortunate to have him here, and he’s been an excellent – not only defensive coordinator – but he’s been very good from a head-coaching perspective to bounce things off of.”
If “detailed” is the first word to describe Capers, calm may be the second. Some coaches scream and curse, drop an F bomb every third word. That’s not Capers’ style.
“I’ve honestly never heard him at-the-top-of-his-lungs yell,” defensive back Micah Hyde said.
Hyde isn’t alone. Raji, too, said he’s never heard Capers yell. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers uses one word to describe his coordinator’s demeanor.
“Smooth,” Peppers said.
Darren Perry, the Packers’ safeties coach, laughs when asked if his boss is capable of yelling. He knows better. Perry, a former Pittsburgh Steelers safety, played for Capers in his first three NFL seasons. Back then, he doesn’t recall Capers raising his voice.
Now, he gets a different perspective.
“Yeah,” Perry giggled. “Game day. He’s intense.”
Perry is on the sideline during games. He doesn’t see Capers, who’s perched high in the coach’s box. He can hear him just fine.
On the headset, Perry said, Capers’ voice can become animated. His blood is pumping, adrenaline flowing. No coach is immune to the stress and exhilaration of Sundays in the NFL.
“You can feel the intensity through the headsets,” Perry said. “It’s just the high-intensity environment that we’re in, particularly on game day, because it’s just high pressure. You’re trying to win. So I’d say, yeah, yeah, maybe the tone just goes up a little higher, but not in a disrespectful manner at all.
“Then during the week, he’s about as calm as they come in terms of going about his business and putting a game plan together.”
Capers manages to get his point across to players, even if he’s not a screamer. In film sessions, he doesn’t just expect players to pay attention. There is constant interaction. If a receiver goes in motion, Raji said, Capers expects defensive backs to audibly call out the coverage adjustments. Same for the defensive line and linebackers.
Sitting in silence isn’t an option.
“Sometimes, guys might be focusing on the film,” Raji said, “and they might not call it. You’ll hear Dom say, ‘OK, guys, make a call.’ He’ll always remind you.”
Peppers said Capers reminds him of former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, whom he spent three seasons with before signing with the Packers. Schematically, the comparison doesn’t compute. Smith is a disciple of the Cover-2, while Capers runs a base 3-4 defense. Their personalities mirror each other, Peppers said.
Capers doesn’t rely on a booming voice, but his message gets through to players. Peppers calls his defensive coordinator a “grinder.” Expectations are unrelenting, always high.
“Just because he’s not yelling,” Peppers said, “doesn’t mean he’s not stern with what he’s saying. You can always tell when somebody means business and is trying to get a point across. He knows how to switch the tone up and get people’s attention.”
The highlighters and whiteout are running jokes among the Packers’ coaching staff. McCarthy calls Capers “old school,” and that term covers more than football philosophy. In a league that’s always up to date with the most recent technology, Capers sticks with what feels comfortable.
In the “old days,” he would leave the office with whiteout covering his face. It looked like Capers was wearing face paint, he said. Three decades later, Capers still hand-writes out his weekly game plans “from scratch.” His notes eventually will be punched into a computer, but not until they receive a heavy dose of whiteout.
“We are what we are,” Capers said. “We all have certain habits and things you develop over 30 years in the league, and even before that. Probably, if you talked to somebody who worked with me back 30 years ago, they’d probably bring up those same things.”
There’s a difference between consistency and rigidity. Football is always changing, Capers said. Three yards and a cloud of dust is replaced by spread offenses. Quarterbacks morph from pocket passers to dual-threat runners. Fads like the Wildcat formation are always popping up.
Capers adjusts to it all. His core principles never change, but Perry said his boss isn’t too stubborn, either. Capers’ defense is equal parts flexible and resourceful, maximizing players’ versatility.
Hyde plays safety, but also cornerback. Peppers is an outside linebacker, but also a defensive end. Raji hasn’t always played defensive tackle.
“He’s going to plan,” Perry said, “and he’s going to give some thought to everything he’s doing. Not only on a football field, but whether it’s something at home, investments, making a decision on a purchase – anything of that sort. He’s not going to just jump in and make a decision without giving it some thought. He’s going to have a plan.
“It’s going to take a lot to get him off of that because the time that he’s put into it, he believes in it. He think that’s the best way to go, and not too rigid where he won’t make a change if need be.”
Fans, Capers knows, do not follow a coach’s discipline. Each week, the reactions over social media are extreme. He’s either the best defensive coordinator in the league or back on the hot seat. Sometimes, he's both. Opinions rarely have nuance.
It’s why Capers stays the course. Love him, hate him, he just keeps following his same routine.
“You love the passion of the fans,” Capers said, “but you can’t get influenced by that. I mean, you really can’t. You’ve got to be disciplined enough that, I put the blinders on. Whether it’s a win or a loss, I’m going to have pretty much a routine I’m going to go through. The biggest mistake you can make is if you start responding to the peripheral things, you’re going to be like a ship without a rudder.
“Those guys you’re talking to see that in you. Because this is a business of credibility, and you’ve got to be consistent with the guys you’re dealing with. If not, you’re going to lose your credibility with them.”