Mike McCarthy never openly admitted he waited too long to fire Dom Capers, a notion much of Packer Nation believes to be true. But on Tuesday he made a glaring admission, namely that Damarious Randall wanted to be a safety, his position at Arizona State. And in doing so, McCarthy lifted Capers up over his head, swung him back and forth, and tossed him straight toward the bus rolling down Lombardi Avenue.
McCarthy said had Randall not be traded, he’d have played a hybrid safety/slot corner role in the defense under Mike Pettine.
“I think that’s his natural position. I think we all recognize that,” McCarthy said in Orlando at the NFL’s spring meeting. “Him playing as much corner for us was the best thing for our defense at the time ... Obviously, we’ve had issues outside with corners staying healthy the last two years and that’s a product of him playing out there, and he played it well when he was healthy, when he stays in the game.”
In essence, Randall was playing cornerback because he had to, not because it was his best position. That Randall was the team’s best cornerback last year serves to indict Ted Thompson’s stewardship of the defense. It seems apparent the team knew even back in 2015 the best place for Randall was safety, but having just drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett fresh off an extension, the defense would be better served by Randall playing cornerback.
Plenty of safeties make similar transitions, including the two best Packers safeties of the pre-Thompson era, LeRoy Butler and Darren Sharper.
Randall’s strong play as a rookie moved Casey Hayward into the slot and ultimately led to Thompson allowing Hayward to walk for pennies on the dollar given what Hayward became for the Chargers.
In February, I suggested the post-Packers success of Hayward and Micah Hyde (and even Davon House to a lesser extent) suggest Capers simply didn’t have an idea of how to best use his players.
That clearly seems true. Thompson let Hayward walk because he wasn’t an ideal fit and he thrived with the Chargers in a system congruent with his talent. Hyde moved to free safety and shined for the Bills. The talent was clearly for each—a point in Thompson’s favor—but their roles didn’t reflect that—a clear knock on Capers.
But given what we know now, Thompson belongs squarely in the crosshairs here, dating back to the original Randall selection. Micah Hyde, already on the roster, was playing the sort of safety/slot hybrid the Packers ultimately decided was the best place for Randall. And even as a first-round pick Randall wasn’t going to unseat Clinton-Dix or Burnett.
So why make the pick in the first place?
But Randall played well enough to justify the first-round pick. He really did outplay Hayward for much of the 2015 season and at his size, with his athletic traits, the gamble was working. He could always be moved.
Rather than fortify the cornerback position heading into 2016, Thompson did nothing and Randall had to stay put given Hayward’s departure and Hyde’s continued presence on the team.
Hyde played the position Randall could and probably should have been playing. That’s certainly on Capers. But failing to bring in more cornerback talent so Randall could have the chance to earn a spot playing his natural position falls squarely at the feet of Thompson.
Last offseason, with the secondary in even further disarray, Thompson recognized the need to infuse the defense with talent on the back end, drafting Kevin King and Josh Jones. This time, it was Capers turn to once again ruin Thompson’s best laid plans.
In training camp, Randall wasn’t even playing with the starters at cornerback, but even with the Packers looking to play Morgan Burnett as a de facto linebacker in their Nitro package, Randall at safety never seemed to cross the minds of anyone on the defensive staff.
If he’s not good enough to start ahead of Quentin Rollins at cornerback, why not let him play the position everyone, including and especially Randall, agrees is his best? Why play Kentrell Brice when they had a former first-round pick with clear playmaking talent sitting on the bench?
Injuries removed the Packers’ options as Rollins and House went down. King and Randall were thrust into duty and Randall played his best since his rookie season covering in the slot ... you remember, the place he should have been playing all along.
And now, the Packers dealt him right before he was set to play where he should have been playing to begin with after allowing Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde—the players preventing Randall from playing in the right spot—walk. The player who kept Hyde, and potentially Randall, from playing in position (Clinton-Dix) is coming off his worst season as a Packer and could be gone next offseason.
Blame Dom Capers for failing to see the schematic problems, but blame Ted Thompson for not alleviating the structural ones.
Whether or not the Randall trade ultimately looks like a mistake will reflect on Thompson’s successor. Luckily for the Packers and Brian Gutekunst, Gregg Williams — the Browns’ defensive coordinator — has a Capers-esque problem of putting his defensive backs in a position to fail over and over. Either way, McCarthy’s candor serves as a reminder of why neither Thompson nor Capers remain in their roles from previous seasons. The Packers have a troubling trend with their defensive backs.
If Gutekunst can turn it around, it could end up being the difference between the success and ultimate failure of his tenure as GM because the right moves could slingshot the Packers back to the Super Bowl.