August 3, 2012; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers looks on prior to the Family Night scrimmage at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
Whenever an organization is faced with disappointment there is often a fall man who takes the blame. Sometimes the head that the masses call for is the right one. This person is the stem of so many problems and his removal is the first step in going in the right direction. Often though, the person a majority of the fans want fired is a guy who is only a symptom of the problem and parting ways is not as positive a move as many think. A rash firing, or cutting, may even be worse for an organization and cause a set back or start a rebuilding phase for the team. The moral of the story is that if you really want to see a guy fired it's best to be sure that it's the right firing rather than just a knee jerk move to keep people happy.
There is a minority of Packer fans starting to lose patience with Dom Capers. This movement began last year and the group started making waves after the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. It got much louder after the loss to the New York Giants. This year they made their presence known after the week one match up against the San Francisco 49ers. The argument to remove Capers gains momentum when you consider that the Packers defense was historically awful last year, giving up a record amount of yards through the air and in total. Worse though, the pass defense often played soft coverage and relied too much on the blitz in order to bring pressure. The conclusion is that it's a scheme problem and maybe the rest of the league has figured out Capers zone blitz scheme.
The problem is that Dom Capers probably isn't the root of the problem. Sure there is some scheme and play calling problems in the mix with all of these games, but the scheme and play calling is a symptom of the deeper issue going on with the Packer defense. It is and has been a lack of talent and execution happening with the players. Yes, the coaches are the ones who need to get those players into position, but if the talent just is not there then coaching staff isn't totally to blame. This may be hard to believe, but it's a lesson we Packer fans should of learned from an unlikely source...namely, Shawn Slocum.
FIRE SLOCUM!!!! This is not a new chant go around this and other Packer blogs and websites. It's been a healthy mantra since 2009 when Slocum came into the position after Mike McCarthy cleaned house on the defensive and special teams units. During this time special teams have been notably bad, often registering in the bottom of the league. We have seen victories snatched out of our hands due to stupid special teams penalties, or just awful plays. Case in point....in 2010 the Packers went down to Atlanta and played a close game. Aaron Rodgers (who had been dogged for not leading any come from behind victories) had just lead the Packers on epic drive culminating in a Jordy Nelson touchdown. All the Packers had to do was kick it deep and have the defense hold off a two minute drill. Sounds easy right? Wrong. Eric Weems had a huge return giving the Falcons great field position. Matt Ryan and company didn't have far to get into the field goal range. They were able to push the twenty yards or so, kick the FG and win the game. Situations like this weren't rare and each time something like this happened you could count on a plethora of "FIRE SLOCUM!!!" screams to arise in game threads and throughout the week.
It wasn't just in game performance either. It seemed that Slocum couldn't develop talent either. Mason Crosby was maddeningly inaccurate, failing to hit the 80% field goal accuracy mark often considered the bottom line for a competent NFL kicker. The Packers couldn't seem to find a good punter to save their soul after cutting Jon Ryan at the end of the 2008 training camp. The return game as well was awful with Nelson, Brandon Jackson, and Tramon Williams all taking turns at the job and each putting their own disappointing spin on it. Needless to say it wasn't a surprise to see the Packers special teams units consistently ranked near the bottom of the league year in and year out during that time.
A funny thing happened as 2010 continued, namely, the special teams units quietly started to improve. As that season wore on the Packers were able to win games not only by their defense playing well, but also by their special teams performing and winning the battle of field position. The main player to help with this was Tim Masthay. Masthay, a young punter who won the job in the preseason that year, started slow but put together some clutch performances as the year went on. Perhaps the most dramatic example of Masthay's, and Slocum's, contribution was in the last game of 2010 in a win over the Bears. The Bears have had a strong tradition of special teams over the past few years. In this do or die match up with our rival, the Packers were able to out play the Bears special teams unit and edge out the Bears in a close win that opened the door to the postseason. The rest is history.
From there Slocum helped in the development of Crosby. Over the course of 2011 Crosby became a much more accurate kicker, going from a 75-78% accuracy rate (his numbers in 2009 and 2010) to an 85% accuracy rate. The return game also improved dramatically with the addition of Randall Cobb. Cobb was able to give the Packers the first kick return for a touchdown in 12 years and was a significant upgrade in punt return duties as well. Suddenly the Packers were in the middle of the pack for special teams units, a major improvement from where things were just a year prior.
This year Slocum is thought in even higher regard. Once again his units have outperformed the vaunted Bears special teams units. Masthay once again helped neutralize Devin Hester and be a critical component in the Packers winning a defensive struggle against their oldest rival. Mason Crosby once again put together a strong performance hitting all three field goals for the night, and making all five field goals attempted by him this year. The biggest highlight of special teams play though was the gutsy fake field goal play on 4th and 26 against the Bears. Some are even saying that Slocum out coached Dave Toub, one of the most respected special teams coaches in the league.
So was Slocum really that bad? Probably not. His units were pretty bad, but that was probably due to a lack of talent and lack of development on the part of the players rather than a lack of ability of the coach. Once Slocum got an NFL caliber punter and returner things improved dramatically. Sometimes kickers take a little bit of time to develop the right amount of accuracy in the NFL. Once Crosby got his feet under him and got more confidence he developed into one of the better kickers in the league. His development is largely due to the ability of Slocum to bring him along.
So what can the story of Shawn Slocum teach us as the voices calling for Dom Capers' head grow louder? The biggest is probably patience. If this past offseason taught us anything, it's that there was a massive talent problem facing the Packers last year in the front seven. When we consider large holes left with the departure of Nick Collins and the loss of Desmond Bishop for the season, it is clear that the Packers are and were facing significant issues at each level of the defense. To help overcome this problem the Packers have turned primarily to rookies, not out of the norm but also not a short term solution. This means that it's going to take time for the rookies to get up to speed of the NFL and learn the ins and outs of the defense. The schemes and play calls are going to have to match that unevenness in the player ability.
It may be a rough year, and the defense is probably going to have its ups and downs, but I am hesitant to throw it all on the doorstep of Capers. I was one of those who routinely called for Slocum's head. Now as I look back I don't believe he was the problem, but an easy scapegoat. If we can learn from this lesson maybe we can see that struggles on defense are probably more the result of growing pains for a young defense rather than a problem in the scheme or play calling.
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