Around 2011, one could be forgiven for believing Aaron Rodgers was capable of controlling space and time. Rodgers manipulated defenses with alacrity, pulverizing them to meet his will. What he never could master was manipulating his own defense toward those same ends. That task fell on Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, and too often, his unit wasn’t up to the task. That, above all else, before the lack of aggression from Ted Thompson or schematic stagnation from Mike McCarthy, will come to define the underachieving near decade with Rodgers at the peak of his powers.
No Packers fan doubts the case for the defense costing Green Bay the chance at a wider window with Rodgers. The team’s failures in big games as it relates to the team’s future Hall of Fame quarterback have been stated and restated ad nauseum. This case presents a slightly different, though related argument. Had the Packers had the foresight to move on from Dom Capers when it became clear such a move was necessary, much of that heartache could have been avoided.
The signs started in 2008, Rodgers’ first season under center as the franchise quarterback, a time before we even knew that’s what he was. It was also a season before Capers arrived. Green Bay’s defense blew six games that season in which Rodgers and the offense had either tied the game or taken the lead in the fourth quarter, including a late-season stretch with four blown games in a row.
Capers replaced Bob Sanders specifically to avoid these precise issues.
In 2009, Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews combined to provide a lethal combination and the defense finished second in total defense adjusted for schedule, according to Football Outsiders. Problem solved right? That unit, complete with the Defensive Player of the Year, gave up 45 points on the road to spoil perhaps the most auspicious playoff debut by a quarterback in league history at the time.
No doubt, a Super Bowl quelled concerns of Capers and 2010 produced an excellent defense to be sure. However, the following season brought chaos, particularly following Nick Collins tragic and untimely neck injury, cutting a sparkling career short. Green Bay finished with one of the worst defenses in modern history, setting a record for yards allowed. Eli Manning (!) hung 37 on that defense in the worst loss of the McCarthy/Rodgers era and what will likely go down as the ugliest blemish on Rodgers’ otherwise spectacular resume.
Another top-10 defense by DVOA in 2012 gave Green Bay hope. Clay Matthews looked to be on a Hall of Fame trajectory, Charles Woodson was still making plays and they finished 8th in total defense. But with the chance to secure a first-round bye in Minnesota against Christian Ponder, Capers’ defense gave up 37 points including the game-winning drive with under three minutes to go. In the immortal words of N’SYNC: bye bye bye.
Sure, Green Bay walloped Joe Webb’s version of the Vikings the next week, but Colin Kaepernick put together his own historic performance, tuning up that top-10 defense for nearly half a hundo. In two straight seasons, and now three out of four, the Packers defense cost them their season.
The death blow should have come following the 2013 season. Regardless of the collarbone injury that cost Rodgers have a season, the Packers finished 29th in DVOA and actually got worse as the season went on. When yet another season ends with the defense on the field, this time at home to Kaepernick and the 49ers, McCarthy needed to intervene. This should have been the end of the Capers administration.
And while the team numbers remained solid in 2014 and 2015, Capers made essential personnel mistakes that held the team back. Casey Hayward’s playmaking never flourished under Capers, who insisted on asking him to do things to which he wasn’t ideally suited. He failed to realize the best free safety they could have was already on the team (Micah Hyde) and a first-round pick on a player who wouldn’t earn a second contract at that position could have gone elsewhere.
Imagine how different the fortunes of the Packers may have been had Capers been replaced by a defensive coordinator who moved Hyde to free safety, pairing him with Morgan Burnett who ultimately became more of a box player eventually even without such a switch. That theoretical defensive coordinator may have also realized that in the right scheme Casey Hayward was an All-Pro cornerback. There wasn’t enough talent on this defense to insist he had to play a certain type of way. Sam Shields could have handled whatever was asked of him and Tramon Williams wasn’t long for the Packers world, so why insist on playing Hayward out of schematic position?
There’s no doubt the timeline alters if those moves are made at that time. Certainly, we can’t guarantee a new DC would have seen what we now know in hindsight, but given the contracts Hyde and Hayward signed in free agency and their immediate success on new defenses, there’s pretty good evidence it shouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist.
Ted Thompson often receives the lion’s share of blame for not re-signing Hyde or Hayward, but he made the best decision he could with the available information at the time, information that included Capers’ mismanagement of his personnel. It’s easy to forget now, but the Packers veterans had serious problems with Capers even when they were good, dating back to Woodson’s insistence they needed to play more aggressive and be allowed to play more man coverage.
Capers never allowed Damarious Randall to play his more natural safety position, as borne out by his recent success there in Cleveland. That makes twice he overlooked better potential safety options to play Ha ha Clinton-Dix, a mistake he never should have been given the opportunity to make.
Ultimately that blame falls at the feet of Mike McCarthy. Imagine how different the questions around MM might have been if they’d hired Wade Phillips following the 2013 season when he was fired by the Texans. Phillips isn’t the ideal fit to maximize a player like Hayward, but he is smart enough to understand how to play the strengths of his players. It was his call to hold onto Capers, and ultimately McCarthy’s reluctance to move on when he should have, cost McCarthy his job as well.
The Packers likely don’t fire McCarthy if not for second-half collapses in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, the ‘15 playoffs, or the annihilation by Matt Ryan in the ‘16 NFC Championship Game. What happened after that falls squarely on the shoulders of McCarthy, who failed to evolve his offense, couldn’t develop a reasonable backup to Rodgers, and eventually lost the locker room. Part of the reason players lost faith in the head coach stems from his faith in Capers when the players lost faith in him years ago.
It’s harder to blame Ted Thompson for not surrounding Aaron Rodgers with defensive talent when that defensive talent goes on to thrive elsewhere. That’s a coaching problem. Had McCarthy had the fortitude to move on from Capers when it was clear such a move was necessary, he may still be the head coach and the Packers might have more hardware in their trophy case.
Now, the burden falls on Matt LaFleur and Mike Pettine to make up for lost time. They may still find a way to restore the Packers place among Super Bowl contenders and bring the Lombardi trophy back to Lombardi avenue, but it won’t replace the time wasted in the interim.