I like Dom Capers. You would, too, if you knew the Green Bay Packers' veteran defensive coordinator. He's an incredibly humble, intelligent and patient man. (And he's a man who pays a bet, which he did a couple times after my UW-Whitewater Warhawks beat his Mount Union Purple Raiders in a few Division III football championship games. I don't like Coke but those were pretty refreshing.)
There are plenty of coaches and athletes who treat reporters as, at best, a nuisance. Not Dom. The team's public-relations staff sometimes has to pull the plug on his media sessions because he might not do his job, otherwise. Got a question for him? He'll answer it. Free of cliches. Full of information. He might be the smartest man in the room — which might not be saying much when it's Capers and a bunch of reporters — but he never, ever talks down at you. Time after time, I've got done talking to him and felt like I learned something.
Because I like Capers, does it mean I'm giving him too much of a free pass based on the lousy play of his defenses in 2011, parts of 2012 and the second half of 2013? Perhaps. My profession is like your profession. If you like someone, you're apt to defend him. It's human nature.
But I'm also coming at it from this angle: Coaches get far too much credit and far too much blame. Players win games. Did Bill Belichick, who went 36-44 in five seasons with the Browns, chug-a-lug from the Fountain of Coaching Brilliance when he set foot in New England? Or did he become a Hall of Fame-worthy coach because he got a Hall of Fame-worthy quarterback?
Capers was named the NFL's Coordinator of the Year by The Sporting News in 2009. In 2010, the Packers were 4-3 but wound up winning the Super Bowl. It was Capers' defense, as much as Aaron Rodgers, that was the catalyst. In the final nine regular-season games, the Packers held their opponents to seven points or less five times. His defense made every key play in the playoffs.
As Falcons coach Mike Smith put it — unsolicited — during a Wednesday conference call: "Dom Capers, to me, is one of the best defensive coordinators in the history of the NFL."
Did Capers suddenly forget how to coach? Or are the mediocre results the byproduct of mediocre talent? Charles Woodson and Nick Collins were irreplaceable, of course. In a game where speed kills, his inside linebackers aren't nearly athletic enough. M.D. Jennings isn't good enough. Davon House isn't Casey Hayward.
Typical of Capers, he didn't want to talk about talent on Friday.
"I've been in this league a long time, and I learned a long time ago that in this game you can't get involved with all the periphery," Capers said. "So, I focus on what I can do to try to help this defense get better. I tell the players all the time that any energy you spend on something you don't have control over is wasted energy. If they see something different in me, then my words will ring hollow in their ears. You've got to go back to work. You've got to fix the things that you know, that you know work. I've seen them work for 28 years, and there's going to be tough stretches, and what you've got to do is you've got to get things taken care of that you aren't doing."
The problem is, the defense hasn't taken care of the things that it's not doing. In 2011, the Packers couldn't figure out how to stop opposing passing attacks from the moment the season kicked off. In 2013, the Packers haven't figured out how to stop opposing running attacks for four of the past five weeks.
Whether it was after the loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving or in the locker room this week, Packers players have had Capers' back. Whether they're saying the same thing in private, of course, is the great unknown.
"No one person takes the blame. Coaches coach and players play," Clay Matthews said after the game. "Ultimately, we're the ones out there and didn't do enough to get it done. We all had opportunities. On paper they all fit up. It's about making it work and we haven't been doing that. It's tough. I don't have a definite answer and that's what's most difficult."
"Every week it's a chess match," Ryan Pickett said this week. "We do enough things to where we switch it up enough. Look, I know what Detroit is going to do. We know what they're going to do. It just becomes familiar, but I don't think that's part of the problem. Part of our problem is fundamentals and tackling and things like that. Every team runs the same plays so you're not going to be surprised. It's just more about fundamentals."
On Friday, two of his former players-turned-colleagues defended Capers.
"It definitely bothers me because I do love him and I care for him," said outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, who played for Capers in Pittsburgh and Carolina and took his first coaching position in part due to Capers' presence on the staff. "He's going to be consistent. He's not going to point fingers, you know? He's going to take the heat like a man. Just a few weeks ago, I thought we had a top-10 defense, or at least close to it, and top five against the run. It's not like Coach Dom came in and changed the game plan and put a whole new system in, you know what I mean? We're doing the same things here. It's not like he's putting us in just a horrible position that we're going to fail. Our defense just needs to play together as a unit. When they have the opportunity, they just need to make that play."
Added safeties coach Darren Perry, who played for Capers in Pittsburgh: "You don't become a bad coach because of one season. I think Dom's body of work speaks for itself. Anybody who wants to criticize, hey, that's on them. That's why we don't really pay a whole lot of attention to what's being said on the outside."
Capers isn't looking for votes of confidence or pats on the back. He's looking for answers for a season that could come off life support if the Packers can beat the Falcons and the Lions lose at Philadelphia.
"I think we've got a number of guys there that have seen us go win a Super Bowl with this defense," Capers said. "We've won a lot of games here and played pretty good defense."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.