If you recall, earlier this season we started the "Dom Capers Hot Seat Watch" after the first four games of the 2014 regular season. Capers, the defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers, was much maligned among the team's über-passionate fan base.
After watching the defense self-destruct in the playoffs after the 2011 and 2012 seasons (and 2013, to a lesser extent), fans had just about had it with Capers and were borderline angry when Packers head coach Mike McCarthy brought back Capers for the 2014 season.
That meant Capers had little-to-no margin of error. He was already the devil in the eyes of many Packers fans, but Capers' boss was little more forgiving. That said, the unit had to get better and fast.
McCarthy can be loyal to a fault, but after general manager Ted Thompson spent yet another offseason upgrading the defense via the draft and (gasp!) free agency, 2014 definitely was looking like a do-or-die year for Capers and his defense. McCarthy even went so far as to claim the defense would be better and to the reporters to notate that in "big letters." You could almost hear the "gulp" from Capers and his staff, even though they weren't even present in the same room.
After the first quarter of the 2014 season, we declared that Capers' seat was comfortably warm. The unit had indeed shown some improvement, but the rest of the season and any potential playoff games would tell the tale about whether or not Green Bay's defense truly had turned the corner.
You'll notice we didn't publish another "hot seat watch" for Capers the rest of the regular season. Why is that?
The answer is simple. Capers earned his way off the hot seat, as the defense finally came to life and put in its best effort since the Packers won Super Bowl XLV in 2010. Oddly enough, the Packers are back in the NFC Championship Game for the first time since that season.
Coincidence? Not at all.
So how did Capers get off the hot seat and (for now) back in the good graces of Packer Nation? It comes down to four reasons. Here they are, in no particular order:
1: The arrival of competent safety help
Throughout the winter and spring, fans shuddered at the thought of M.D. Jennings returning as a starting safety for the Packers. Luckily the Green Bay front office saw the putrid play and proceeded to draft Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Clinton-Dix went on to have a good rookie season, showing he can play at the line of scrimmage as well as being the "center fielder" safety Green Bay has so desperately needed. He has also elevated the play of Morgan Burnett, who needs at least a competent safety next to him so he can thrive.
2: The signing of Julius Peppers
Many fans nearly had a coronary when the news broke that the Packers had signed the free agent superstar. While there was some concern about Peppers' age and his sometimes (seemingly) lack of effort while with the Bears, excitement permeated about Green Bay's first big free agent signing since Charles Woodson came to town in 2006.
It turns out that excitement was warranted. Peppers had a solid year and did exactly what he was supposed to: take some pressure off of Clay Matthews. Peppers finished the year with 44 tackles, seven sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions, both of which went for touchdowns.
More importantly, Peppers made a crucial strip of DeMarco Murray in Green Bay's divisional win over the Dallas Cowboys. As far as the Packers are concerned, the investment in Peppers paid off on that play alone.
3: Moving Clay Matthews inside
When the Packers were on their bye week, McCarthy and Capers hatched a plan to move Clay Matthews, perhaps the best player on the Green Bay defense, to the inside linebacker position from his natural outside position. The Packers were struggling badly in run defense (ranked 32nd at the time) and needed a spark.
The move worked and the defense has been on the upswing ever since. In Matthews' first game playing inside, Green Bay mutilated the Chicago Bears 55-14. It was an unscouted look for the Packers at the time, but the defense has improved since the move was made and finished the regular season ranked 23rd in rushing defense. It's not great overall, but the unit was visibly improved in the second half of the regular season.
No one benefited more from Green Bay finally avoiding the injury bug more than Capers. After a couple years of having to shuffle people around and plugging in so many different players, Capers finally kept his unit intact sans the loss of B.J. Raji during the preseason.
Matthews in particular gained the most, playing in all 16 games for the first time since his rookie season of 2009. Green Bay is a different defense when he is on the field and that helped in the unit's improvement.
It's quite remarkable how Capers has gone from despised to tolerated to almost embraced in the span of a season. In the event the Packers get their socks blown off by the Seahawks on Sunday, some of that old anger may return but it would be misguided. All in all, Capers and the defensive coaching staff did a very good job this year.
Should the Packers advance to and win Super Bowl XLIX, then Capers is a Packer for life, previous meltdowns and all. Two Super Bowl titles in five years tend to have that effect on teams, especially in Titletown USA.
After all, that's how greatness is measured in Green Bay. It's about titles, not statistics. After all, "Stats are for losers," as McCarthy once said.
He's right, they are. Championships, however, are for winners.