Why the Packers Should Fire Dom Capers
Though the Packers still have two games remaining, the offseason is, in effect, already here. With that comes a lot of questions about what the Packers need to do to get back to the playoffs next year. Dom Capers’ future as defensive coordinator will surely be part of that discussion.
Fortunately, The Power Sweep has already outlined our position on Capers. On a previous episode of Blue 58, we outlined our case against Capers. Below is that case, transcribed with light edits for clarity. You can listen to the full episode here.
As far as I can remember, we have never flat out called for anybody's firing before or even after a season. I've been doing this in some way shape or form every season since 2012, and writing about the Packers online before that.
As you'll know if you spend any amount of time on the internet related to the Packers, the “Fire Capers” movement has been going on for a long time. I would say at least since 2012 for sure, perhaps since 2011.
If you noticed the title of this episode, you've probably guessed what my conclusion is going to be. But, I think we need to approach this issue in the right way.
Why should the Packers fire Dom Capers?
You can’t just fire him because you don't like an outcome, or you don't like how people are performing. It may not be his fault. If you're going to fire a coach, you have to make sure you're firing him for outcomes that are within the control of a coach.
We're going to try to come to this conclusion based on what we consider to be the “right numbers.”
Total Defense is a bad stat. Whenever you hear somebody on ESPN say, “The Packers are ranked X in defense,” what they're referring to is a stat called Total Defense. It’s simply the amount of yards the defense gives up. It’s bad because it does not give a good representation of what a defense is actually doing.
Instead, we're going to look at three areas that I consider representative of how a defense is really doing:
- The Football Outsiders’ stat Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA.
DVOA is a defensive efficiency number. There's a lot more that goes into it, but I think it's indicative stat of how a defense is performing. I think it's going to be helpful to our discussion here.
Third, I would like to remind you that I have defended Dom Capers at length in the past. Saying he should be fired now should not be considered me changing my mind about those previous situations. I'm very much into making the best call you can given the information you have at the time, and it's pointless to second-guess those decisions once they've been made.
You could re-evaluate in the future, but don't find things I've written or said before about supporting Dom Capers. I don't want to see or hear it – I don't care. We're talking about right now. Those takes, such as they may be, stand on their own. This is something entirely new.
Before we get to why I think Dom Capers should be fired, I think we need to look at his tenure here in Green Bay. This is going to comprise the bulk of our discussion here.
2009 and 2010 – Everything is great!
Scoring defense: 7th
Scoring defense: 2nd
Let's start at the very beginning. We're not going to spend a lot of time on the first two years of Dom Capers as defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers. These defenses were incredible and Super Bowl-caliber defenses.
In 2009, had they gotten past the Cardinals in the Wild Card round, that team was good enough to win a Super Bowl based on their defense alone. They had the defensive player of the year in the entire league that season, Charles Woodson, and in 2010 Clay Matthews was the defensive player the year runner-up.
In 2010, the Packers win a Super Bowl in large part because their defense is very reliable, with tons and tons of takeaways.
2011 – Fine until it mattered most
Scoring defense: 19th
I think you could really argue the “Fire Capers” movement begins this year. They lose safety Nick Collins in Week 2, but aside from that the defense remains largely healthy throughout the balance of the season.
The 2011 season ends with the 15-1 Green Bay Packers losing at home in the Divisional round against the New York Giants 37-20. Utter destruction of the Packers in this one. This was a year where health did not play a big factor. They should have been rested and ready to go to take on the Giants at home. This team was just bad on defense, and it's hard to say exactly why. They had a lot of good players on defense – Charles Woodson was still very good, Tramon Williams was still there, the safeties were respectable, if not spectacular.
It's hard to say why things didn't really work out on defense. I do remember their pass rush was not very good against the Giants that year in the playoffs, and the Giants were tailor-made to beat the Packers. Their pass rush was terrific. They could get plenty of pressure with just four defenders.
The Packers defense should have been able to do better against Eli Manning, and they just didn't. If you want to get mad at Dom Capers for this one, I think that is a defensible position. That's not going to be the case as we review the following years.
2012 – Mostly solid, spectacular failure
Scoring defense: 11th
In 2012, we find one of those situations. Based on a study I did of Super Bowl contenders a couple months back, this is a defense that you could consider Super Bowl caliber.
The Packers were good enough to win a Super Bowl with this defense. This year, the Packers held opponents to 24 points or fewer in 12 of the 18 times they played.
The season ended, however, in spectacular fashion against Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers on the road in San Francisco. If you think about this game now, it's probably more or less reduced to a highlight reel of Kaepernick running away from the Packers defense.
That’s really not the whole story. This game was tied 24-24 with 8:25 left in the third quarter. Those 24 points for the San Francisco 49ers included a gift-wrapped touchdown courtesy of one Jeremy Ross, who muffed a punt inside the Packers’ 10 yard-line.
The 49ers were more than happy to punch it in from there. I think you could make a case that Capers and the Packers had very little reason to expect this level of read-option play from the 49ers.
To this point in the season Kaepernick had never run more than nine times in a single game. If you want to blame Capers for this game, I think it's fine. You do have to consider that for the bulk of the season, they were a very, very good defense.
I think this loss to Kaepernick was about as much about timing as anything else. Had they played Kaepernick and the 49ers in the regular season and lost a game like this, you probably wouldn’t have thought about it twice. Had they not ended up playing Kaepernick and the 49ers in the playoffs, they probably would have likely played in at least the NFC Championship Game.
I like the Packers against anybody else that was in the in the playoffs that year. I think this was just a bad matchup for the Packers. It was a bummer of an ending. If you want to blame Capers for just this one game, that's fine. But they had a good defense that year. You cannot argue that.
2013 – A step in the wrong direction
Scoring defense: 24th
2013 was a step backwards. Not a good defense, but I think Capers gets unfair blame for what happened at the end of the season.
The Packers lost at home in the Wild Card round again to Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. But, this was not a defensive meltdown for the Packers. You cannot blame the defense for this game. Casey Hayward was on injured reserve for this game. Clay Matthews was out of the lineup for this game. Andy Mulumba was playing meaningful defensive snaps in the playoffs for the Packers in this game – 89 percent of the defensive snaps, to be exact.
Nevertheless, the Packers held Colin Kaepernick’s read option and the 49ers to 23 points at Lambeau Field. Absolutely, seven days a week, this should be enough to win a football game when you have Aaron Rodgers under center for your team.
Do not forget that Micah Hyde dropped what could have been a game-winning interception on the 49ers’ final drive. Also, do not forget that Aaron Rodgers had one of those games that made people question exactly how good he could be in the playoffs. His stat line: 17-26, 177 yards, and a touchdown.
Two times the Packers kicked field goals from inside the 20 yard-line, including a 24-yard field goal with just over five minutes left. A 24-yard field goal means the line of scrimmage was the 7-yard line.
It's very difficult considering all of these things for me to blame this one on Capers and the defense. They may not have been spectacular throughout the balance of the 2013 season, but they sure as heck were not the reason that the Packers lost in the playoffs that year.
2014 – The Super Bowl that wasn’t
Scoring defense: 13th
In 2014, the Packers were very good on defense again. This is borderline of what we would consider a Super Bowl caliber defense.
To me, this is a “should have had it” season. This is the year they should have gone to the Super Bowl, and it all comes down to the 2014 NFC Championship Game. Yes, the ending was bad. Taken as a whole, I think it's again difficult to blame Dom Capers and the defense for this one. The offense ran six plays from inside the Seahawks’ 10-yard line in the first half and only managed two field goals.
Aaron Rodgers threw for 178 yards on 34 attempts, including two interceptions. One of those should have come back. Michael Bennett was offsides, and Aaron Rodgers threw up a ball in the end zone because he thought he was getting a flag because Michael Bennett was offsides.
Sure, in the end this result looks bad for the defense. If the offense does its job in this game, this looks like an all-time great defensive performance and one that we should be singing the praises of Dom Capers to this day while celebrating another Super Bowl win for the Packers after they went on and took care of the Patriots.
Do not forget the four interceptions for the defense in this game. Do not forget the putrid offensive performance in the first half of this game. This one does not go on the defense. It looks like that in the end, but it should never have come to that point.
2015 – Don’t blame Dom
Scoring defense: 12th
This is a pretty good defense again, but this is the Aaron Rodgers swoon season. He was very bad for most of this year, but the Packers defense actually kept them in games that they shouldn't have been in. The defense allowed 23 points or less in 13 of 18 games this year. The Packers managed to lose three times in games when the defense allowed 20 points or less.
Of course, the ending. The Packers lost 26-20 to the Cardinals in a game they had no business competing in. They somehow held the Cardinals to just 20 points despite getting annihilated by them only about a month earlier.
Aaron Rodgers was tremendous down the stretch, playing with these receivers on the final play the game: Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis, James Jones and Richard Rodgers. Not ideal.
Unfortunately, the Packers never had a chance on offense in overtime. A coin flip kept Rodgers from getting the ball. An honest-to-goodness defensive meltdown allowed that 75-yard catch and run by Larry Fitzgerald. The meltdown gifted the Cardinals that game.
If you want to blame Capers for that one, I guess. Don't forget that the Packers wouldn’t even be at that point had it not been for a terrific defensive season from Green Bay.
2016 – The beginning of the end
Scoring defense: 21st
This is when it starts to unravel. The Packers were 21st in scoring, 11th in takeaways and 20th in DVOA, despite a lot of injuries. Aaron Rodgers really dragged this team down the stretch.
That’s always been the narrative – the Packers defense just cannot support Aaron Rodgers, and he's just dragging this team to the playoffs year after year after year. Other than 2011, this year might have been the only season that this was true.
He might not have had to drag them to the playoffs, had he actually played well in the first half of the season. (That's a discussion for a different day.)
The 2016 NFC Championship Game was inexcusable. It was a complete meltdown on the biggest stage of the season, aided in large part by an injury-ravaged team. But to me, this was the first time in the playoffs that the opposing team’s offense seemed completely prepared for Dom Capers.
The Falcons were an ultra-high powered offense, but they knew exactly what the Packers were going to be doing.
2017 – Time for a change
Scoring defense: 21st
That sense seems to have carried over to 2017.
Simple mistakes have just become all too common. Players getting mixed up in the secondary. People forgetting to come out onto the field. Playing the wrong personnel scheme. Not communicating well. Making difficult – and perhaps bad – decisions about who is making the defensive calls on game day, including giving that responsibility to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix after Morgan Burnett was injured.
These are Week 1 fixes.
I can understand that in the in the first week of the regular season, when you're still working out some of the kinks and getting ready for a new year. At this point in the season, you just cannot be having those issues. There is no defense for that.
Does Dom Capers belong in the 2017 NFL?
I wonder if schematically Dom Capers really doesn’t make sense in the NFL anymore.
One of my Acme Packing Company colleagues Paul Noonan wrote a great piece about Capers’ scheme:
Dom Capers had a sound philosophy based on sound mathematical principles. Capers’ defenses focus on preventing big chunk plays. The goal is to make an offense execute a high number of plays to move down the field. As the offense is forced to run more plays, the odds of them committing errors or turnovers increases, and if you create enough turnovers, sacks, bad penalties, etc, you will have a great defense.
This is the defense that we saw in 2009 and 2010. The Packers got sacks, forced turnovers, and so on. They prevented those big plays, and they forced opposing teams in the big mistakes.
The NFL has changed. Every team runs these quick, fast, short passes to receivers like Detroit’s Golden Tate or running backs like the Packers do with Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones.
You don't see these deep, five- or seven-step drops anymore. Teams aren’t really going vertical. They don’t try to get down the field with big, long passes. You don't have those opportunities anymore. Teams aren’t banking on those big chunk plays, so building a defense around taking them away doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Going conservative with regard to picks does have a cost for offenses in that passes tend to be shorter, drives tend to be longer, and big plays tend to be fewer, but most offenses are still as efficient as they were in more carefree days. Teams are counting on the ability to hit a higher percentage of short passes to repeatedly move the sticks, something the Capers’ defense actively tries to encourage. If your defensive philosophy is encouraging an already existing offensive trend, you may have some difficulties.
I think that's what we're seeing from the Packers, and Capers has so far been resistant to change.
The Packers are spending a lot for very little return
There is plenty of talent on this defense. Even if you're not hitting on absolutely every pick on defense, you should be able to make something out of the group that the Packers have, a group in which they have invested this much draft capital.
The current defensive roster boasts:
- 6 first round picks
- 2 second round picks
- 3 third round picks
- 5 fourth round picks
You should be able to make something out of that group, even if not everyone of those players is great. Say you only hit on half of those six first round picks. That’s still three first rounders on your defense. You should be able to make something out of that.
The conclusion: Dom Capers has to go
Consider all of these problems:
- Simple, correctable errors.
- A scheme that doesn't seem to be entirely with the times.
- A defense with talent, but little results.
These problems should have been corrected by now. My ultimate thesis is that the “Fire Capers” era spans from 2016 to the present. Capers really wasn't the problem for most of the time from 2012 through 2015, a solid four seasons. You could probably throw 2011 in there. That was a weird, oddball sort of season.
But in 2016, they struggled with a lot of these things. He couldn't fix it, and hasn't fixed it, and they haven't made any significant fixes this year.
Are the Packers a failed franchise, screwing up literally every draft pick and all of their free agent decisions? They are not. Categorically, they are not. I know it's fashionable to point out guys were playing well in other places, or picks that should have gone differently, but they are not a failed franchise.
It seems like the results should be better than this on defense. Maybe it's time, and I think it is time, for someone else to get a shot. I think the Packers should fire Dom Capers now, see if one of their coaches already in the building can do any better, and if not, bring in an external candidate this offseason.
That's my case, and I'm sticking to it.