The Packers’ defense has been an albatross weighing the team down for much of this decade, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By doing three things, that side of the ball has a chance to be pretty good come next fall. The only question is whether Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson have what it takes to get the job done.
Here are my three steps to making the defense great again (or at least good enough to not crap the bed against every above average quarterback it faces):
1) HIRE A NEW COORDINATOR – This should’ve been done four years ago, but for whatever reason, McCarthy has continued to stand by his man. That might finally change sometime next week. And it has nothing to do with Dom Capers’ work this season. He’s been every bit as incompetent in prior years. So what’s the difference? Wins and losses. At 7-8, McCarthy can no longer use success on the field as an excuse for keeping Capers around. The “he’s an outstanding football coach” line works a lot better after ending a season in the NFC Championship game in January than it does after ending a season in Detroit in December.
The other reason McCarthy is likely to finally cut the cord with Capers is self-preservation. His MO is to fire coaches after bad seasons or bad games. Just ask former defensive coordinator Bob Sanders, who got canned the last time the Packers missed the postseason in 2008. Or ask former special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, who got his walking papers after the epic choke in Seattle in 2014. McCarthy knows that making a big change will quickly divert attention away from him. You can bet the second he cans Capers, all focus will turn from his failures as a head coach to who the next leader of the defense will be.
As far as who to hire is concerned, well, the market should be filled with quality candidates. That’s because as many as a dozen coaches could be fired early next week. Among the proven names that figure to be available are Vic Fangio (Bears), Paul Guenther (Bengals), Steve Spagnuolo (Giants) and possibly Gregg Williams (Browns), James Bettcher (Cardinals), Dick LeBeau (Titans), Teryl Austin (Lions) and Mike Smith (Buccaneerss). It’s hard to fathom any of them not being a significant improvement over Capers.
2) ADD A LEGIT PASS RUSHER – Paying big-time money doesn’t make a player a big-time pass rusher. Clay Matthews and Nick Perry are living proof. Despite making a combined $25 million, the two outside linebackers were far from money when it came to pressuring the quarterback. In fact, both were far more effective against the run. And while it’s still too early to pass final judgment on Kyler Fackrell and Vince Biegel, it’s hard to imagine either youngster developing into the kind of pass rusher that scares offensive tackles.
The Packers had five chances to draft Carl Lawson last spring, but they passed every time. All the former Auburn star has done for the Bengals this season is pile up 8.5 sacks while playing less than 30 snaps a game. Come late April, Thompson will have another chance to find an impact pass rusher – this time with much higher picks in each round. There’s also the option of free agency. The team will have plenty of money to spend – especially if contract restructurings are done with overpaid players like Matthews and wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Unfortunately, after Ziggy Ansah (Lions) and DeMarcus Lawrence (Cowboys), the pickings are pretty slim. It appears as if the draft will be the way to go this offseason.
3) ADD A TRUE NO. 1 CORNERBACK – These guys are extremely hard to find, but every quality defense has one. Kevin King and Damarious Randall have a chance to be solid No. 2s, but neither has the skill set to shut down top wide receivers on a weekly basis. The draft could be the answer, but Thompson is probably better off using free agency. Someone like Malcolm Butler (Patriots), Trumaine Johnson (Rams) or Rashaan Melvin (Colts) won’t come cheap, but any of the three would be worth the cost. Improved play at the cornerback position will make the pass rush better – even if Thompson doesn’t hit the jackpot in the draft.
And if Butler, Johnson, and Melvin are not available or prove to be too pricey, a top-notch front office should be able to locate a lesser-known cornerback with the potential to be a No. 1. A year ago, for example, ex-Patriot Logan Ryan signed a relatively modest ($10 million per) deal with the Titans. He’s probably been better than either Butler or Johnson this season. The point is, there will be quality cornerbacks available in free agency. It’ll be up to Thompson and his highly regarded staff to find the right one.
I get that finding a new defensive coordinator and acquiring a quality pass rusher and cornerback isn’t exactly as easy as 1, 2, 3, but it can be done And if the Packers want to have a defense good enough to get them to the Super Bowl in February 2019, they need to get started in a few days by sending Capers into retirement.