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Mike McCarthy discusses Packers’ defense & implies that Dom Capers will return

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In his season-ending presser, the Packers’ head coach called his defensive coordinator “an outstanding football coach.”

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re on the “Fire Dom Capers” bandwagon, it appears that you’ll be waiting for another football season before your wishes come true.

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy spoke to the media today in his final press conference, in which he spoke at length about several players on his defense. He was also asked about Capers, his embattled defensive coordinator, and although McCarthy did not say outright that Capers would return, that was the clear inference that can be drawn from his comments.

Here are a selection of comments that McCarthy provided about various topics on the Packers’ defense, which allowed 44 points in the NFC Championship Game and gave up more than 400 yards of offense in five of the team’s final six games. Still, he provided no indication whatsoever that there will be any significant changes to the defensive coaching staff during this offseason.

Dom Capers

Well first off, I’m not even into the evaluation process. I’d say overall I feel really good about the coaching job our staff did. I thought our staff did an excellent job ... we’ll go through the process like we always do. Coaches will be off next week, they’ll come back after the Super Bowl, they’ll go through evaluations.

Dom Capers is an outstanding football coach, that doesn’t change. He had a tough challenge in front of him this year. That coaching staff dealt with a lot.

You don’t have to dig very far to read between the lines there - McCarthy still has a very high opinion of Capers, regardless of this year’s results. The fact that he mentioned the evaluation process taking place in two weeks is a pretty good sign that he intends for Capers to return.

Furthermore, McCarthy followed these comments up immediately by noting that Associate Head Coach and former Offensive Coordinator Tom Clements would be leaving. It would be strange for McCarthy to bid one coach a fond farewell if he still intended to let another coach go shortly thereafter.

Second-Year Cornerbacks

One of the biggest sets challenges that the Packers faced in 2016 involved injuries at the cornerback position. The team’s top two draft picks from 2015, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, both missed significant amounts of time and had nagging injuries all season long. Here’s what McCarthy had to say there:

I think when you look at (Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, and LaDarius Gunter), they did a lot of good things in their first year. We have a long history the last 11 years with guys making a big jump in their second years ... both Randall and Q had multiple injuries to deal with this year ... I thought Joe Whitt did a tremendous job getting those guys ready. We just never ever had any consistency with who were were playing with in consecutive weeks.

I’m excited about their future, I think they’re going to be really good players for us ... both Q and Damarious will be working out together out there in California. They’ve got their workout plans set, they’ll start working in a week, week and a half. Those guys will learn and grow from their experience this year.

These statements echo some similar comments that McCarthy made a year ago about another young Packer who went through difficult injuries in his second year: wide receiver Davante Adams. Regardless of whether the Packers bring in additional cornerbacks, either through the draft or free agency, Randall and Rollins (as well as Gunter) will likely be counted on to have bounce-back seasons in their third years.

Sam Shields

One player on whom McCarthy is not counting is Sam Shields, who was concussed in week one. He was asked on whether he believed Shields would return to the Packers in 2017:

I can’t answer that question. That’s a medical situation, we’ll obviously go through the process on that. Obviously today he still hasn’t passed through the protocol ... he needs to get healthy for himself and his family, and that’s his primary focus.

With the team able to save $9 million by cutting Shields, he has a statistically insignificant chance of playing next season on his existing contract. If Shields is indeed able to clear the protocol, expect him to renegotiate his deal or to be released outright and

However, as McCarthy notes, that is a decision for another day. The first step for Shields is just working back to normalcy so he can continue his life outside of football; once that’s in place, then it will be appropriate to start worrying about the game again.

Veterans and Versatility

The Packers did have a couple of extraordinarily versatile players this season, none more so than safety Morgan Burnett, who also played extensively in the slot and at nickel and dime inside linebacker. McCarthy discussed his contributions on Thursday:

Morgan Burnett had his best year as a Packer ... we actually had the coaching rankings done as far as offense/D and Morgan came out very high ... he and Ha Ha came out right at the top. I think both of those guys are instrumental to our success on the field and in the locker room. Morgan’s versatility ... he’s a key communicator on the back end, he keeps everything going. I think he goes unnoticed as far as the credibility he has in the locker room.

Clay Matthews obviously was hampered by his injuries. He missed games with the hamstring, and he fought through the shoulder injury, which we know was a serious injury. This inside linebacker-outside linebacker deal, I don’t know why we have to put him in a place. If you watch the games, you’ll see we move him around ... if he didn’t have the injuries, you would have seen him move around a lot more this year. He plays both, he plays the rover position, he plays inside, he plays outside ... we need to move him around.

While McCarthy is accurate that there were games in which Matthews was moved around quite a bit, there was a series of contests in which he played essentially a pass-rush only role, and even then only on the left side due to his bad shoulder. The bet here is that Matthews splits his time closer to 50/50 inside and outside in 2017 if he gets through much of the season healthy.

Offseason Plans

One of the final things that McCarthy discussed was topics that he plans to emphasize and focus on throughout spring practices:

There’s not one answer to the question. We need to play better defense. We’ll break that down. If you throw a statistic at it, let’s say pass defense: we’ll spend more time in the pass defense in OTAs. We’ve made that decision already. We may not run the ball until July. That’s what this time of year is for.

He also went on to acknowledge that the run defense was greatly improved, but that the coaches cannot simply ignore a successful phase of the game and solely work on those that struggle.

As usual, McCarthy is taking a high-level and long-term view to this season and its final result (as most members of the Packers organization do in all situations). We’ll find out in September if that approach begins to pay off next season.