Capers still on top among peers
Coaches sing his praise at Senior Bowl
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 6:00 PM
MOBILE, Ala. - Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau is hunched over a fence studying prospects. At 76, he's still sharp. Revered. Colleagues, players, aspiring coaches, they're all magnetically pulled to LeBeau during this midweek Senior Bowl practice.
Every five, 10 minutes, someone extends a handshake.
LeBeau's attention turns back to practice and he's asked about Dom Capers. Practice can wait.
"We're in the business of concurrency," LeBeau said. "People have a tendency to remember what's happening today. That's life. But I know that wherever he goes, they're going to receive excellent preparation, coaching.
"There's none better than Coach Capers. There is none better."
Yet the Green Bay Packers' Capers-led defense is clearly lagging behind rugged San Francisco, Seattle and Carolina in the NFC.
Injuries mounted. The run defense dissolved. New playmakers never emerged. At safety, it got ugly. Statistically, this was one of the defensive coordinator's worst seasons - 25th in total defense, 25th in opposing passer rating, 26th in interceptions, 30 passing touchdowns allowed that rank third all-time in team history and, yes, a second straight January of eating Colin Kaepernick's dust.
But league insiders never, ever waver. They insist Capers is still one of the brightest defensive minds in the game. Period. The coordinator isn't the problem. In Mobile, that was the overwhelming consensus.
LeBeau. Gus Bradley. Romeo Crennel. They all beat the same drum.
In Capers, they repeat, the Packers are led by one of the best in the game.
"He's as good a football coach as anybody," LeBeau said. "I don't care who you're talking about. He is in my opinion."
To refresh, the seeds of Capers' 3-4 defense were planted in Pittsburgh, where he worked with LeBeau through the 1992, 1993 and 1994 seasons. LeBeau was the defensive backs coach, Capers the coordinator. The scheme willed a Neil O'Donnell-led offense to an AFC championship (1994) and a Super Bowl (1995). In Carolina as head coach, Capers took a team in its infancy to the NFC championship.
Capers' second expansion stint, in Houston, faltered. In Green Bay, as a coordinator, he won a Super Bowl.
At its best, this 3-4 defense is a quarterback-harassing, turnover-creating machine. Pressure strikes from all tangents.
"Any scheme, you have to have execution," LeBeau said. "People have to make it come to life."
People did not bring the Packers' defense to life the last half of 2013. Capers admitted he couldn't ask raw first- and second-year players to do too much. There would was no B.J. Raji dropping into coverage for a pick-six, no cat-and-mouse games with Charles Woodson in the slot.
Per Journal Sentinel statistics, Green Bay missed 7.5 tackles per game. The last two first-round picks were reduced to spot duty by season's end. The Packers were the NFL's only team without an interception from a safety.
Scheme or personnel?
LeBeau can sense this unrest in Wisconsin. This business is "pressure-related" by nature, he said.
"It doesn't matter how many times you've done well," LeBeau said. "But when you have a couple years that don't go quite as well as you want them to, there's going to be plenty of people who tell you it's wrong. That's our business. We're in front of the public.
"Any veteran coach has been through it and coach Capers can handle it both ways. He can handle the acclaim and I'm sure he'll do fine if he has a little bit of criticism."
True, Capers hardly reacted when asked about his job security. There wasn't a bead of sweat, a split-second of pause, a blink of public concern from the defensive coordinator the morning after 45-31 and 23-20 playoff losses to San Francisco. His boss, Mike McCarthy, sniped at questions about Capers' status.
And that was that. Others don't think see this as a debate, either.
Not even after a winless November fanned the flames.
Bradley, the mind behind Seattle's lockjaw defense, points to Capers' "conviction." Now the head coach in Jacksonville, Bradley has actually plucked aspects of Capers' 3-4 into his 4-3 scheme.
"With Dom, 'defense' is a bad word for him," said Bradley, the South's coach in Mobile. "They're never playing on the defense. They're attacking. That's what I think is great about his defenses."
True, Capers went down swinging this season.
He attacked at the same rate in 2013 as he did in 2012, blitzing five or more 35.9 percent of the time. When the coach took a chance in the playoffs, it backfired. On the 49ers' game-winning drive, he sent Jarrett Bush. For some reason, Bush rushed inside, so Kaepernick dashed outside.
The gaffe was player error. Yet ultimately, coaches are held responsible.
Crennel knows this dance. As head coach, he's been canned by the Cleveland Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs. One day after being named the Houston Texans defensive coordinator, Crennel seemed annoyed that Capers' job security would even be questioned.
Capers has not magically "forgotten" what worked before, the coach said.
"You try to teach them what you think is important and get them to try to do that," Crennel said. "And if they do it, generally it works. If they don't do it, it doesn't work. Or if you don't have enough ability for it to work, it won't work. Then, you have to tweak it some.
"Look, when you lose, nobody's any good. When you win, you're a star."
Added Jaguars defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker, "We're all going to have our good days and not-so-good days. But I know in my book, he's one of the best."
The other three NFC North teams have uprooted their entire staffs the last two seasons. Change is constant. In Green Bay, Capers remains. The "mad scientist" is always in control. That's how he's remembered those years in Pittsburgh.
If the scheme is, indeed, "proven," then it's on those above the "mad scientist."
Coaches must evolve annually, LeBeau says. If he didn't evolve, LeBeau wouldn't be entering Year No. 41 as an NFL coach. Still, the architect of the zone blitz assures that basic tenants of his defense stay the same.
How has he lasted this long? LeBeau laughs.
"I was just going to say, we're talking about Dom and I've got my own problems," said LeBeau, whose Steelers finished 8-8. "We didn't do that well ourselves. You know what they say about an expert? He's a guy from out of town. I'm no expert. I'm just a hard-working coach like Coach Capers."
Those who want coaches fired, LeBeau adds, are "everywhere."
"When they win the division and go to the Super Bowl next year," he said, "we'll all be smart again.
"They won the Super Bowl. That defense was great when they won the Super Bowl. All those turnovers they created. Hell, you could say they won the Super Bowl. They had two key picks that game."
Capers did outwit LeBeau that night in north Texas. Bush wasn't burned on a blitz - he was picking off Ben Roethlisberger. Safeties weren't a step slow - Nick Collins was extending his arms outstretched in the end zone. Across the league, coaches haven't forgotten.
Sometimes, it's about the players, too.
"People do it, man," LeBeau said. "People out there on the field."