Dougherty: Get rid of Capers? Not so fast

Pete Dougherty
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Mike McCarthy didn’t come right out and say Dom Capers will be back as his defensive coordinator. But he made clear Dom Capers will be back as his defensive coordinator.

That will upset plenty of Green Bay Packers fans. It’s also the way it is.

On Thursday at his season wrap-up news conference, the Packers coach talked about his five-hour meeting with Capers this week, their offseason plans to improve their 31st-ranked pass defense, and he offered this endorsement:

“This is no time for drama. Dom Capers is an outstanding football coach.”

So Capers will be back for his ninth season with McCarthy. And I get it.

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Honestly, I can’t say I have a strong opinion on the subject. From what I can tell, Capers is a good coordinator. He tried everything this season — heavy blitzing, playing coverage, and everything in-between. Nothing worked very well.

But how many defensive coaches in the NFL would have done better with the players he had? I suspect that’s a short list.

I’ve covered seven Packers defensive coordinators — Capers, Bob Sanders, Bob Slowik, Ed Donatell, Emmitt Thomas, Fritz Shurmur and Ray Rhodes. Capers and Shurmur are the best of the group. I don’t know enough to say which was better.

I do know plenty of fans and observers think McCarthy should fire Capers and try somebody new. And I’m not saying they’re crazy, or stupid, or unfair. The recent record, after all, isn’t good.

Capers had a top-10 defense in scoring and points his first two seasons with the Packers, 2009 and ’10. He hasn’t cracked the top 10 in either since. That’s six years and counting. And three times, he has finished No. 21 or worse in both categories, including this year.

As one league source said this week, “At some point, you have to look at Dom.”

Fair enough. But you have to look at personnel, too.

In 2009 and ’10, Capers had three bona fide difference makers: Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and Nick Collins. All made plays and took away the ball. The Packers won games because of them.

Then in ’11, Collins’ career ended in Week 2 (neck injury) and Woodson, while still a good player, started to decline.

Since that time, general manager Ted Thompson has hit big on only one defensive draft pick, Mike Daniels. He’s now the Packers’ best player on that side of the ball.

Matthews remains a talent, but injuries have cut into his playing time and effectiveness over the years. Now age (31 in May) is becoming a factor, too.

Thompson’s signing of Julius Peppers was a helpful Band-Aid, but he wasn’t the dominant player he’d been in Carolina and Chicago earlier in his career. And the Packers’ most physically talented player on that side of the ball, Sam Shields, saw his 2016 season (and likely career) end in Week 1 because of a concussion.

So, again, how many defensive coaches would have done better this year? Bill Belichick, sure. But he’s unavailable. Wade Phillips? His recent track record is great, but he signed with the Los Angeles Rams before the Packers’ season ended. Rex Ryan? Do you really want that chaos in your building?

So yeah, McCarthy could fire Capers, and nobody would blame him. But then are you confident he’d find somebody better? Sure, he might hit big on an up-and-comer. Chances are better he’d do worse. Just as likely, it wouldn’t make much difference either way.

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Look at another team that has won this season with a bad defense. The Atlanta Falcons just beat the Packers despite ranking No. 25 in yards allowed and No. 27 in points given up. The Packers, for the record, were Nos. 22 and 21.

The difference? Speed. That’s what Dan Quinn emphasized when the Falcons hired him as coach in 2015, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff has delivered.

Most obviously, it's right there in the middle of the field, with Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, their rookie inside linebackers who ran the 40 in 4.59 seconds and 4.58 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. According to Tony Villiotti of the National Football Post, that puts them in the top 10 percent of inside linebackers in the last 10 combines.

Now at the end of the season, that young, fast defense is more competitive than its rankings suggest. Don't take my word for it. Listen to New England's Belichick when asked this week what stands out about his Super Bowl opponent's defense.

“(The Falcons) are either as fast, or faster, than probably what the average speed of their position is in the league,” Belichick said. “They look like they're faster than almost every team they play.”

And the Packers? Shields was their one defender whose speed stood out — he reportedly ran under 4.3. Matthews always has played fast. And Damarious Randall (4.46) runs fairly well for a cornerback.

But speed isn’t one of the first things that come to mind when you think about the Packers’ defense.

And no, it’s not just as simple as draft fast guys. They have to be able to play football, too. But you get the point. You need explosive players to win in this league.

So I see why McCarthy stuck with Capers. He respects the work of his 66-year-old assistant. He doesn’t want to start over on that side of the ball.

Now it's on Thompson to find a couple of players and see whether McCarthy made the right call. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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