The 2012 regular-season opener was still a few days away as Dom Capers tried to predict the future.
As he stood in the hallway outside the Green Bay Packers locker room – a place he would hold court with reporters twice a week all season long – he knew what he would have to work with. The defense had added six rookie draft picks (plus two undrafted rookie free agents), had what he believed were two field-tilting stars (outside linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback-turned-safety Charles Woodson), a shutdown corner he believed was regaining his pre-injury form (Tramon Williams), six defensive linemen with varying skill sets and some young cover men (third-year man Sam Shields, second-year man Davon House and rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward) who would potentially give him options in his sub packages.
But the 62-year-old defensive coordinator knew there’d be growing pains.
“We’re going to have a lot of young guys out there playing,” Capers said on Sept. 7, two days before what would be a 30-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field. “I know our first two years that I was here, our defense got heck of a lot better the second half of the season. I think we played with anybody defensively in the league those first two years. Your team changes as you go through it.
“The one thing I feel good about stating is I think we will get better. As long as we stay healthy, and we can keep these young guys coming along, we’ll get better as a defense just because of game experience. When you take young guys and if you feel they have good ability, what they have to do is they have to gain that experience and start to play with more confidence and you start to see them making more plays maybe they weren’t making when you started out.
“You’d obviously love to get off to a good start. But I’ve felt all along that this defense will improve as the season goes on, as long as we can stay healthy.”
It’s been 130 days since Capers said that. In the interim, the defense did improve. What it did not do was stay healthy. And, in the end, it did not get the job done when it mattered most.
“It’s important you play your best (at the end of the year). That’s what we look for traditionally around here,” Capers said on Dec. 28. “The first year I was here in 2009, we played good – we didn’t play good in the playoffs – but we played good down the stretch and won seven of out of our last eight. Our Super Bowl year, we played outstanding down the stretch. There was a lot of confidence. Last year was the year that we didn’t. We kind of limped into things last year on defense. … (This year), I think we’ve gradually improved.”
On Tuesday, Capers will speak with reporters again, in that same hallway, in the wake of a historically bad defensive performance in Saturday night’s 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to those 49ers at Candlestick Park. He’ll do so amid speculation – or at least fan fury – about his job security.
Head coach Mike McCarthy will speak too, at his customary podium, although he may not shed any light on what the future holds for Capers, who four years ago brought his 3-4 scheme to Green Bay after McCarthy fired his predecessor, Bob Sanders. In the past, McCarthy has avoided painting himself into an on-the-record corner by saying anything about possible staff changes, so it’s hard to predict if he’ll say anything definitive Tuesday.
If McCarthy is mulling a change – and there are no telltale indications that he is – he must weigh a variety of factors, not the least of which would be the abominable defensive performance against the 49ers, as quarterback Colin Kaepernick rolled up an NFL single-game quarterback rushing record (181 yards, including a pair of touchdowns) and the 49ers finished with the fourth-most total yards ever gained in an NFL postseason game in history (579).
As has been well documented, the loss marked the third time in four years that the Packers exited the postseason with a poor defensive performance.
In 2009, the Arizona Cardinals scored 51 points (the final six on an overtime touchdown return of an Aaron Rodgers fumble) and rolled up 531 yards (mostly by quarterback Kurt Warner, who threw only four incompletions) in an NFC Wild Card Playoff victory over the Packers at University of Phoenix Stadium’
Last year, the defense gave up 420 yards – including a backbreaking Hail Mary touchdown at the end of the first half – as the New York Giants scored 37 points in an NFC Divisional Playoff victory at Lambeau Field.
And then came Saturday night, when the Packers were so inept at defending the read-option that according to ESPN Stats & Information, Kaepernick gained 178 of his 181 yards before contact – meaning the Packers never laid a finger on him most of the time – while running back Frank Gore ran for another 119 yards on 23 carries. Kaepernick also threw for 263 yards and two more touchdowns, more than making up for his pick-six interception to Shields on the opening series.
Afterward, Woodson said the Packers defensve “didn’t make any adjustments” after Kaepernick began having success, suggested the Packers weren’t prepared for the read-option (“Could we have done something differently as far as our gameplan was concerned?”) and made sure he said the 3-4 was the proper scheme for the team without saying anything about Capers.
“I think it's the right defense. I just think when the game is going the way it is, you've got to try something different,” Woodson said. “It's hard to just continue to do the same thing over and over again and continue to get burned. That's what I was talking about going forward.”
Woodson also suggested that personnel was an issue, especially compared to the 49ers’ bigger, faster, more physical defenders.
“I look at this team we just played and they're a big, fast team. I think as far as our team is concerned, and I don't know what happens here going forward, but we've got to get bigger and faster,” Woodson said.
Asked what he meant, Woodson replied, “I don't think we have a problem toughness-wise. Watching them defensively, they were everywhere. It seemed like we didn't have a lot of holes there to make things happen. I know we're a team that prides ourselves in yards after the catch (on offense). There wasn't many of those. Then with the offense, what they were able to do with the plays they were running for the quarterback, him getting out of the pocket, him making plays with his feet and then making some throws. Like I said during the course of the game, it was hard to be a part of."
At the same time, given how McCarthy stood by struggling kicker Mason Crosby and how the organization stuck with players who struggled with inconsistent play (wide receiver James Jones, tight end Jermichael Finley) or injuries (defensive end Mike Neal) and reaped benefits this season, it’s hard to picture McCarthy not taking the big picture into account.
During Capers’ four regular seasons in Green Bay, the Packers have finished seventh in scoring defense in 2009 (18.6 points per game), second in 2010 (15.0), 19th in 2011 (22.4) and 11th this season (21.0). They’ve finished second in yardage allowed in 2009 (284.4 yards per game), fifth in 2010 (309.1), 32nd (dead last) in 2011 (411.6) and 11th this season (336.8). They were tied for 11th in sacks in 2009 (37), tied for second in 2010 (47), tied for 27th in 2011 (29) and fourth this season (47). They led the NFL in takeaways in 2009 (40), sixth in 2010 (32), tied for first in 2011 (38) and tied for 19th this season (23).
“One of the things that 27 years teaches you is you kind of focus on the things that you control and move on because there’s normally a lot more said than is actually done, basically,” Capers said the week of the Packers’ Dec. 16 victory at Chicago, after Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall had called him the Packers’ MVP.
“I didn’t know where we’d be or whatever. But you guys know with the number of rookies we’ve been playing and that type of thing, you kind of have that you hope as you through the season, these guys can gain experience. And you think about it now, most of these guys have never played this many games. … The exciting thing is I’ve seen growth and I’ve seen improvement in all those guys. They’ve really factored into our defense. So I’m hoping, and I think they understand the sense of urgency with which we have to play with now because it’s all about momentum and making positive things happen. I think the experience they’ve gained is going to benefit us as we head into the playoffs.”
Meanwhile, of the Packers’ defensive starters or key reserves, starting inside linebacker Desmond Bishop missed all 16 games and landed on season-ending injured reserve with a ruptured hamstring tendon suffered in the preseason opener; Matthews missed four games with a pulled hamstring; Woodson missed nine games with a fractured collarbone; first-round draft pick Nick Perry missed 10 games and wound up on IR with a wrist injury; B.J. Raji missed two games with an ankle injury; Shields missed six games with an ankle injury; D.J. Smith, Bishop’s replacement, missed 10 games and landed on IR with an Oct. 14 season-ending knee injury; run-stuffing defensive end C.J. Wilson missed four games with a knee injury; Neal missed five games with a four-game PED suspension and one game with a shoulder injury; House missed seven games with shoulder and hip injuries; and rookie defensive end Jerel Worthy missed two regular-season games before a season-ending knee injury in the regular-season finale.
“You know, once those (injuries) happen, you don’t even think about them because you know if you don’t have them, you’ve got to focus in on the guys you have to go out there,” Capers said in early December. “As we’ve talked about many times, we talk in that defensive meeting room, you’ve got to be ready to step up and I think you’ve seen it all season. To me, that’s the benefit of having that mentality. You can’t sit around and invest a lot of time in guys that you’re not going to have out there. You’ve got to focus all your attention on the guys you do have.
“That’s what you have to have to be a good football team, and fortunately we’ve been able to do those things to win the games. The one game we haven’t been able to do it on defense was the Giants game (on Nov. 25). Other than that, I think we’ve been able to make some impact plays to change course (of games).
“They know there’s an expectation level with that, that they’ve got to be not only accountable to themselves but accountable to everybody in that room. So if their number’s called, then they owe it to the guy sitting next to them to be ready to go out and do their job.”
That’s true of the coordinator, too. The biggest area of frustration last year was tackling, as the Packers had 109 missed tackles in 17 games, among the worst in the NFL. This year, they had 80 missed tackles in 18 games, and 27 of them came in their three games against Minnesota and NFL MVP-favorite Adrian Peterson.
“I think that, obviously, it was a glaring need a year ago. You can’t play defensive football if you can’t tackle. That’s where everything has to start,” Capers said on Nov. 23. “We weren’t very good a year ago. In our offseason study, we talked about, ‘What are we going to do to improve it?’ It influences the kind of guys you take, too. Some people are termed just ‘cover guys’ or whatever, but in this day and age, good offenses are going to make everybody on that field tackle and they’re going to try to go at your weakest link tackling. You’ve got to put guys out there that they all can tackle. I think we’ve made good strides. We’re not where we want to be yet but we’re a lot better than we were a year ago, I know that.
“I’ve always believed this: As a coach, if you believe there’s a deficiency, then you need to emphasize it in any way that you can because my experience tells me that you normally get what you emphasize.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.