Silverstein: Packers must move on from Dom Capers
GREEN BAY - Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy may not even wait past the final day of the season to decide on the future of defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
More than likely, his mind already is made up.
What he saw against the Carolina Panthers last Sunday in a must-win game against a good but not great offense had to sicken his stomach.
Receivers, tight ends and running backs running free, defensive linemen jumping offside, and maybe the worst of all, quarterback Cam Newton caught on television telling linebacker Clay Matthews before the snap, “You’ve been watching film, huh? Watch this.”
“This” turned out to be Newton throwing to halfback Christian McCaffrey running uncovered over the middle for an easy touchdown while the Packers bungled a coverage they had worked on during the week.
The die is cast and McCarthy has no choice but to fire Capers and begin searching for someone who can pull together the talent the Packers have on defense.
It was true early in the season when it was fighting through injuries and it remained true when many of those players returned: The Packers' defense features a bunch of individuals playing individually. The positions aren’t working in concert and it shows week after week.
The ultimate in team defense is zone coverage. The Packers are horrible at it and it’s not just because they’ve been mostly a man-to-man team under Capers.
It’s because the left hand never seems to know what the right hand is doing.
When safeties aren’t chasing decoy routes, inside linebackers are dropping improperly into coverage. When cornerbacks aren’t tipping coverage with their stances, pass rushers are losing their lane integrity. When Newton isn’t certain what coverage the Packers are in, his offensive line is picking up the blitz and letting him figure it out.
A perfect example of the lack of chemistry was McCaffrey’s 7-yard touchdown catch. Inside linebacker Blake Martinez and safety Josh Jones had tight end Greg Olsen and McCaffrey, who ran complementary routes. Both Martinez and Jones went with Olsen and McCaffrey was left wide open.
“We practice it through the week,” inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley lamented with pain in his voice. “It was a top concept in what we do and we didn’t get it executed between he and Josh in there.
“So, that’s something we need to get done between the staff and the players and get that executed.”
There are individual failures, too, things that this late in the season would seem inexcusable, even if they’re committed by rookies. Jones letting Olsen, arguably Carolina’s top receiving threat, run right past him for a wide-open 30-yard touchdown pass was egregious.
Jones has 663 snaps under his belt this season, so inexperience isn’t much of an excuse. He wound up chasing an underneath route that one of his teammates had covered in simple man-to-man coverage.
“That kind of exemplifies the consistency which we haven’t been able to play,” Capers said. “We haven’t played as consistent as we’d like to play.”
Capers described the blown coverage as something you see happening all over the NFL this time of year, which may be true. But it seems to happen on a regular basis with his defense, which has given up 26 passing touchdowns, tied for fifth most in the NFL.
As much as his lineup has been affected by injury, you only need to look across the ball to see how a unit kept it together under onerous circumstances. The offense lost its franchise quarterback, starting tight end and starting running back and was forced to play with nine different starting offensive-line combinations.
Granted, things haven’t gone great with Brett Hundley at quarterback (3-4 record), but the offensive line did not collapse, the running game thrived with a pair or rookies and the Carolina game might have been different if receiver Davante Adams hadn’t been lost early in the third quarter.
Perhaps the most damning evidence of how disjointed things are on defense is the improvement Martinez, cornerback Damarious Randall, nose tackle Kenny Clark and linebacker Kyler Fackrell made this season. That should have been transformational for a defense that ranked 22nd in yards allowed, 21st in points and 26th in opponent passer rating last season.
Add in the rapid ascension of rookie cornerback Kevin King before a shoulder injury ended his season and the surprisingly solid play of safety Jermaine Whitehead and you have some solid complementary parts to surround core players Matthews, Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett.
Instead, the Packers go into their Saturday night matchup with the Minnesota Vikings ranked 24th in yards allowed, 21st in points and 30th in opponent passer rating.
Clinton-Dix, Burnett, Perry and Daniels didn’t have as big of an impact as they should have, and in the case of the two safeties their play took a noticeable dive.
Yes, general manager Ted Thompson did very little in free agency to improve the defense and nothing to assist Capers when he desperately needed secondary help, forcing him to play safeties at both slot positions in the sub packages.
But the disconnect between individual performance and group failure is eye-popping.
Every two weeks, reporters get to interview the defensive assistant coaches and Wednesday was the final session of the year. The Packers already had been eliminated from the playoffs and most of the questions were about what went wrong on defense.
The most striking acknowledgement from several coaches was how they were unable to marry the positional groups into a functioning unit. None of them were pointing fingers, but whether talking about individual plays or overall performance, it always came back to the same thing: They couldn’t get the pieces to fit together.
“There’s no way that you want to be in this, be a part of this organization and not be in the playoffs,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “And part of not being in the playoffs is, we (cornerback) didn’t get it done defensively.
“But to be honest with you, I don’t think any position on the team got it done. We didn’t play good complementary football.”
Assistant head coach/linebackers Winston Moss had a similar take about playing as one. He said statistics don’t lie and the Packers' defense didn’t stack up against the league anywhere.
“Got to get guys to stay healthy, got to get them productive, got to get them playing on the same page,” Moss said. “Got to get this defense unified.”
Capers did not get stupid overnight. He was a good coach when the Packers ranked No. 5 during their Super Bowl XLV season and he’s a good coach now. In a scheme that values experience in the secondary, he has lost Al Harris, Nick Collins and Sam Shields to career-ending injuries, Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward to free agency and Charles Woodson to a salary-cap decision.
But when assistant coaches talk about needing unification and the play on the field backs them up, it’s time for a change. Maybe nine years together has made the staff stale or resulted in individuals losing faith in the system. Maybe individual goals have overtaken team goals.
Or maybe Capers, his defense and members of his defensive staff have run their course in Green Bay.
Whatever the case, McCarthy needs to fix the defense and it requires making a change.