Capers by Numbers

In my Monday wrap up of the Colts debacle (and by the way, our debacles sure are piling up. We have the Seattle debacle and now the Colts debacle. Hopefully there won't be a Houston debacle.), I mentioned that Dom Capers has presided over some pretty lousy defenses in the last season and a half. That got me wondering how this year's team matches up with the Capers' historical record. He has a well-deserved reputation as a good defensive coach, but how well has he performed throughout the years. Well, courtesy of the fine folks at Pro-Football-Reference.com, I was able to find the exact performances of Capers-coached defensive units throughout his career.

Trying to come up with some sort of objective evaluation for Capers' performance, I decided to look at a few key categories for every season he served as a team's defensive coordinator or head coach, specifically his year-to-year rankings in total yards given up, passing defense, rushing defense, scoring, and takeaways (turnovers created). I'd have liked to see where his teams ranked in terms of sacks, but that data wasn't available through PFR.

I categorized all the rankings by color. A green box signifies an overall rank between 1 and 10, or a defense that performed in the top third of the league. Yellow is between 11 and 20 (the middle third), and red is for a defense that finished ranked between 21 and 32 (bottom third) in a particular category.

Here's what I found. Look at all the pretty colors!

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A few things jump out to me right away. First of all, Dom Capers is remarkably adept at keeping other teams out of the end zone. Nine times in 19 seasons, his defenses have ranked in the top 10 in scoring, including twice since he's taken over in Green Bay. The Packers ranked second in the league in scoring defense in 2010, the year they won the Super Bowl.

Secondly, the ability to create turnovers has also seemingly always been a staple of a Capers defense. He's had his teams in the top 10 in that category eight times in 19 seasons. More on this in a minute.

Thirdly, Capers' career averages are overall very telling. For his career, he doesn't rank lower than 16th overall in any category, meaning that on average, a Dom Capers defense will very likely finish in the top half of the league rankings in a given statistical category. I think that's the mark of a defensive coordinator that's doing his job.

That brings me to this season. If you look at the Packers' defensive rankings so far this year, they're basically in line with what defenses have produced historically under Dom Capers, if slightly below average. However, there's one glaring difference: takeaways. In short, the Packers aren't creating turnovers as a defense.

This fact, combined with a couple other observations, brings me to a couple conclusions:

  1. The Packers' defensive struggles are more about the players than about Capers. Overall, the defense ranks right up there with what you'd expect from a Dom Capers team, comparing favorably (if slightly behind) what you'd expect from his teams. But performing so poorly in the turnover category speaks to a lack of execution, something you'd probably expect from a young squad, which definitely describes the Packers on the defensive side of the ball.
  2. Last year's defense was really, really bad, but they may have been playing with the deck stacked against them. The overall rankings don't lie: the Packers were horrible on defense in 2011. 32nd in total yards and 32nd in passing defense isn't good any way you slice it. However, their ability to force turnovers leads me to believe that they were executing well, but they just weren't very good. Turnovers happen when you're in the right place at the right time, and the Packers were insanely good at creating turnovers last year. You give up a ton of yards when you're just not very skilled, and that also describes last year's team.
  3. Points 1 and 2 give me reason to hope. Right now, the Packers are relying heavily on guys like Nick Perry, Jerron McMillian, Casey Heyward, and Jerel Worthy, players with solid draft pedigrees that are suffering from a chronic lack of experience. Having now played five games, that foursome has now logged just 1.25 seasons of experience...combined. And you wonder why they're not doing so hot? However, if my hypothesis is correct that last year's team was able to force a lot of turnovers in part because they were a veteran (if unskilled) group that executed well, we may start to see a turnaround as the season progresses. Surely the rookies won't get worse as the year goes on.
  4. If point 3 is correct, the Packers' defensive rankings will eventually skyrocket, or at least start to climb. I'd be willing to bet that if the Packers can get within two or three spots of Capers' career rankings as far as creating turnovers, the defense will suddenly start to look a lot more competent. It's a lot easier to look like a capable group if you can find a way to get off the field. Plus, creating a couple turnovers would give Aaron Rogers and the offense a few more opportunities each week, something that's sorely needed given the relatively lackluster performance we've seen on that side of the ball so far this year.

In summary, take heart, Packer fans. Yes, it's been a dark start to the season, and it's definitely going to be an uphill climb to make the playoffs, but all hope is not lost. As Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire once said, "the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores." The same may hold true here. The best thing about rookies is they don't stay rookies forever, and in the hands of a coach with a track record as solid as Dom Capers, that bodes well for the future.

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