GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy’s first answer left the door wide open. His second left it open only a crack.
The Green Bay Packers coach wasn’t particularly definitive on Tuesday when initially asked whether defensive coordinator Dom Capers would return next season. When the topic was broached a second time during his annual end-of-season news conference, McCarthy still didn’t guarantee the 62-year-old defensive coordinator’s return, but came close, saying he’s “very confident” Capers will remain in place.
Capers later said that he and McCarthy were scheduled to meet “all day” on Wednesday.
When asked three questions into Tuesday’s 20-minute press briefing if Capers would return, McCarthy replied thusly: “Like I stated already, our process has already started, there’s no decisions on anybody. I have great faith and respect for Dom Capers, and all of our coaches, but everything top to bottom will be evaluated.”
The topic was revisited later, as it was pointed out that when he’d been asked about struggling kicker Mason Crosby throughout the season, he’d respond with some variation on “Mason Crosby is my kicker.” McCarthy did not go that far in his reply but definitely was more forceful in his support of Capers, who has drawn the ire of many of the club’s passionate fans after Saturday night’s 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
“I’m not making (any) decisions but I feel very confident that Dom Capers is going to be our defensive coordinator. But I think it’s totally premature to make those types of (statements),” McCarthy replied.
“That’s what knee-jerk, reactive people do. You don’t make crazy decisions like that, especially (about) a man of Dom Capers’ ability, his experience. I trust him – the level of responsibility he has with our coaching staff – and I think it’s ridiculous that I have to answer the question, frankly. I’m appalled by it.
“There’s a process that goes (on). I would not do my job, I would not fulfill my responsibility if I didn’t look at the job Dom Capers has done, the job Mike McCarthy’s done, what Tom Clements has done, all the way down, and I can promise you that’s what’s going to happen. I don’t dig the drama stuff, and I get the concern. We have great fans, but there’s no decisions going to be made today, and we have never operated that way and never will.”
Capers acknowledged that the defensive performance against the 49ers on Saturday night deserved scrutiny and criticism and that, as defensive coordinator, the buck stops with him. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushed for an NFL single-game quarterback 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).
At the same time, Capers emphasized that he hoped McCarthy would consider the defense’s full body of work and not focus only on Saturday night’s train wreck.
"(The 49ers are) a talented team but I feel good about our guys. I’ve seen us make great strides this year,” Capers said. “It didn’t look that way the other night but I’ve seen us make great strides, and I think with the number of young people we’ve got that we can move forward with this group. Obviously, you always want to add a few things here or there, but what I hope is that game’s not a total evaluation of what this group has done this year, because I think there were some very good things that were done."
In 2012, the Packers finished 11th in scoring defense (21.0 points per game), 11th in total defense (336.8 yards per game), fourth in sacks (47) and tied for 19th in takeaways (23).
Asked bluntly whether McCarthy should bring him back next season, Capers replied, "Well, let me just say this: I've been around the league a long time. I know those are Mike's decisions. My plans are to be here. Again, I think we've got a young defense that's ascending. All the statistics point to that. I feel awful about the way we played because you want to play your best in that game and we didn't. And I accept responsibility for that. That's my job to make sure that we play better. But I know how things can happen in this league, especially when you're on the road, big game, the emotions, that momentum gets against you."
Among the defensive starters or key reserves who missed games this season due to injury were inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (18, including playoffs); outside linebacker Clay Matthews (four); safety Charles Woodson (nine); first-round draft pick Nick Perry (12); defensive tackle B.J. Raji (two); cornerback Sam Shields (six); inside linebacker D.J. Smith (12); defensive end C.J. Wilson (four); cornerback Davon House (seven); and rookie defensive end Jerel Worthy (four).
“It’s a tough spot and it’s on all of us. We’re all in this together,” said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, a former defensive coordinator himself with the Carolina Panthers. “All of us have a lot of great respect for Dom and you feel bad for him because I’ve been in that situation before. You look at Denver – Denver’s taking a lot of heat, I didn’t even see the end of the game – there’s only one happy team at the end of the year. You have to kind of stay focused and not let that stuff influence you because it can kind of wear on you if you listen too much or read too much into what you guys are saying and all the bad things you’re saying about us (in the media).”
During Capers’ first three seasons in Green Bay, the Packers finished seventh in scoring defense in 2009 (18.6 points per game), second in 2010 (15.0) and 19th in 2011 (22.4); finished second in yardage allowed in 2009 (284.4 yards per game), fifth in 2010 (309.1) and 32nd (dead last) in 2011 (411.6); were tied for 11th in sacks in 2009 (37), tied for second in 2010 (47) and tied for 27th in 2011 (29); and led the NFL in takeaways in 2009 (40), were sixth in 2010 (32) and tied for first in 2011 (38).
“I challenge anybody to go look at our four years here and look at it as a collective,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “When you look at it that way, we’re top 5 in almost every category. Because I’ve done it. I’ve looked at every season and put them all to a four-year total, we’re in the top 5, top 7 in every category.
“We all did not perform the way we wanted to perform on Saturday. Working for Dom Capers has been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, because he’s one of the most detailed individuals that you can be around. ... I have the utmost respect for him and I will work my butt off for him to make sure my players play in the vision he wants his defense to look like.”
But the Packers’ three playoff exits have been ugly under Capers. 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 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..
Since Dave Hanner became the first Packers coach given the defensive coordinator title in 1972 under Bart Starr, the team has had only 12 defensive coordinators. Of those, only four were fired while the sitting head coaches who fired them remained. (The others who either were dismissed or departed did so as part of full regime changes when the head coach was fired or left.)
The four defensive coordinators fired were Hanner, in 1979 by Starr; Ed Donatell, by Mike Sherman after the fourth-and-26 debacle in the 2003 NFC Divisional Playoffs; Bob Slowik, who replaced Donatell in 2004 and lasted only one season before being fired as well; and Bob Sanders, whom McCarthy fired in 2008 after hiring him in 2006 after Jim Bates turned down the job. McCarthy replaced Sanders with Capers and the Packers converted from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4.
For his part, Capers did not sound like a man expecting a pink slip. He also made it clear he has no intention of calling it a career anytime soon.
“My plans are to coach for a long time,” he said. “Some of my friends are coaching and they're well into their 70s. That's my plan. Like I said, to me the challenge now is to go back to work, make sure we get this fixed so these type of teams we're playing against next year, the same thing doesn't happen.”
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.