Aaron Nagler took Green Bay Packers fans' questions in a Facebook Live chat on Thursday afternoon. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY - When former Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers exited Lambeau Field for the final time this month, he did so with a metaphorical anchor strapped to his leg, an unfortunate reputation he could not shake. For all of the good things Capers accomplished with coach Mike McCarthy, a Super Bowl victory chief among them, a string of gruesome playoff losses eroded the body of work.
Consider his first playoff appearance with the Packers, in the 2009 season, when aged quarterback Kurt Warner hacked apart the secondary for 379 yards and five touchdowns in an overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Or his last playoff appearance with the Packers, in the 2016 season, when wide receiver Julio Jones galloped for 180 yards and two touchdowns, drowning overmatched cornerback LaDarius Gunter in an embarrassing 44-21 defeat.
Those postseason bookends were less outlier than norm in nine years under Capers, 67, whose defenses were prone to fantastic flameouts at the most inopportune times. And while the Packers failed to reach the playoffs in 2017, perhaps saving Capers from another undressing, his prior missteps were certainly a component of McCarthy’s decision to fire him.
“We didn't continue our streak of playoff appearances,” McCarthy said in his season-ending news conference. “So we need to reboot, cleanse, however you want to word it. But we did not play to the standard of the Green Bay Packers, and it's my responsibility to make sure we get better and get back to that.”
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The theory is that Capers’ replacement, former Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine, can apply his track record of postseason success to a defense that largely has floundered since a run to the Super Bowl in 2010. Pettine, a disciple of the defensive-minded Rex Ryan, spent four years coordinating the New York Jets from 2009-12. During that time he won twice as many playoff games as he lost, with the defense keeping mediocre quarterback Mark Sanchez afloat as the Jets reached back-to-back AFC Championship games.
While there is a significant difference in sample size between Capers’ playoff games with the Packers (16 total, 9-7 record) and Pettine’s postseason experience with the Jets (6 total, 4-2 record), the statistics clearly favor the latter in nearly every category. The disparity widens when the quality of opposing quarterbacks is considered.
» Average passing yards allowed: Capers 275.6; Pettine 246.3
» Average passing touchdowns allowed: Capers 2; Pettine 1.3
» Average passer rating allowed: Capers 89.3; Pettine 82
» Average rushing yards allowed: Capers 125.9; Pettine 117.5
» Average yards per carry allowed: Capers 4.8; Pettine 4.3
» Average rushing touchdowns allowed: Capers: 1.1; Pettine 0.7
To be clear, Capers’ defenses were not without their share of strong playoff performances, from forcing three interceptions against the Chicago Bears in the 2010 NFC Championship game to picking off Russell Wilson four times in the 2014 NFC Championship game before everything disintegrated in the closing minutes. In total, the Packers held opposing teams to 23 or fewer points eight times with Capers at the helm in the postseason.
But some of the playoff defeats were heinous. The Packers were hoodwinked in 2012 and ’13 by the read option of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ran for a combined 279 yards and two touchdowns. They were shredded by Eli Manning and the New York Giants, whose 37-20 victory in the 2011 season featured 330 passing yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 114.5, some 31 points higher than Manning’s career average.
Carson Palmer threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns in 2015. Dak Prescott threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns in 2016. Then Matt Ryan topped them all by completing 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards, four touchdowns and a rating of 139.4 in the NFC Championship game a year ago, incinerating an injury-riddled secondary.
Said McCarthy after the 2016 season: “We need to play better defense. We’ll break that down. If you throw a statistic at it, you say, OK, pass defense. We’ll look at all those things. Will we spend more time in the OTAs on the passing game? Yes, we will. That decision’s already been made. That’s what I’m talking about: the process has been made. We may not run the ball until July. So, things like that. That’s what you have to do. That’s what this time of year is. It’s about cleaning things up.”
He added: “Dom Capers is an outstanding football coach. That doesn’t change. He had a tough challenge in front of him this year.”
Meanwhile, the Jets encountered a string of top-tier quarterbacks in the AFC. Pettine formulated game plans that suffocated Palmer (146 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 58.3 rating), who was with the Cincinnati Bengals, and Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers (298 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 76.9 rating) in his first two playoff games as a coordinator in 2009. The Jets yielded 28 combined points.
A year later, in 2010, the Jets downed Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round before taking out Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the divisional round. This time, the Jets allowed just 37 combined points to two of the best quarterbacks in league history. It was the best stretch of Ryan’s tenure.
Pettine’s playoff losses, though, were fairly grotesque: Peyton Manning gashed the Jets for 377 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 123.6 in the 2009 AFC Championship game; the Pittsburgh Steelers stampeded for 166 rushing yards and a pair of scores to offset a poor performance from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC title game a year later.
Two trips to the doorstep of the Super Bowl; two disappointing defeats.
“I don’t even feel like the bridesmaid,” Jets linebacker Bart Scott said after the Steelers prevailed 24-19 to reach the Super Bowl. “We’re more like the flower girl, I guess. We can’t get past that last hurdle. It hurts.”
Surviving the last hurdle is why McCarthy brought Pettine to the Packers, a franchise that stalled in the NFC Championship game twice in the last four years. Pettine must do what Capers couldn’t — or risk being a flower girl one more time.
Raiders hire Bennett, Trgovac: Two former Packers assistants have been named to new Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden's staff. Edgar Bennett, the former Packers running back who rose to the position of offensive coordinator, will coach wide receivers in Oakland. Mike Trgovac, who served as Packers' defensive line coach for the last nine seasons, will fill the same role for the Raiders.