You’ve come a long way, baby!
By Jeff Harrison
Special to Packerland Pride
From tiny Buffalo in the heart of Guernsey County, Ohio, to a 30-year career in the National Football League including a Super Bowl ring, Dom Capers has made a lot of headway.
Capers’ career road map has more twists and turns than U.S. Route 22. After his formative years as a talented athlete with Meadowbrook High School and the Univeristy of Mount Union, he transitioned into coaching and had stopovers at seven colleges before moving on to the professional ranks with nine teams, including two as a head coach.
His coaching resume began as a graduate assistant at Kent State University in 1972; moved to the NFL in 1986 and continues in 2015 as defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers, thus he has far exceeded the average length of an NFL coach where the ‘what have you done for me lately’ mentality is prevalent.
Although the 65-year-old Capers has made more coaching stops than the well-traveled Larry Brown of NBA and college basketball fame, he’s taken the time to appreciate each and every rung on the ladder.
“It was a long climb,” Capers acknowledged. “It wasn’t like some guy whose dad is an NFL coach and they’re coaching in the league right away… I had to go from being a graduate assistant to quite a few college jobs and even the USFL before I got there (NFL), so you appreciate how hard you had to work to get where you are.
“That’s always been one of the things I’ve tried to live by… don’t forget where you come from or the road you took to get where you are.”
Throughout his career, stories of Capers spending 17-hour days (and sometimes all-nighters on the office couch) poring over films, game plans and the like in order to leave no stone unturned in preparation for the next game, have been well-publicized.
The office sleep-overs may have ceased (at least for the most part), but that’s about all.
“You are what you are,” Capers said. “I’m still the first guy in the office every day. I’m normally at my desk by 5 (a.m.) and I get out of the office around 9 or 9:30 (p.m.) now.
“My wife (Karen) still thinks I’m crazy.”
After all these years, what keeps Capers coming back for more?
“I enjoy the competitive nature of the business,” he related. “I don’t know of anything else I could do where you experience the gratification when you put together a game plan and then go out and win the game.
“When you lose, though, it’s pretty hard on you. There’s no in-between.”
Capers says the ability to remain focused on the task at hand is essential in the coaching profession.
“There’s no shortage of opinions (in the media and on the internet),” he related, “ but you have to make sure you stay focused on what your job is and not let all the peripheral distractions get in the way. When you have an avid fan base, they’re searching for every little thing. The minute something doesn’t go just right, they’re going after somebody, but you understand that’s part of the business.
“If you want to have an extended career, you have to have the philosophy that you’re not going to get too high with the highs or get too low with the lows. When things are going well, you probably get more credit than you deserve and when things are going bad, they’re going to be after you.”
Capers coached a dozen years at the collegiate level, after winning back-to-back championships with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars to get pro experience, the NFL doors opened wide.
“You know you’ve been blessed when you’ve been able to stay 30 years – nine of them as a head coach and this will be 15 as a coordinator,” noted Capers.”
Following six years as the Saints’ defensive backs coach (1986-91), Capers got his first opportunity to being in charge of the defense when he became the Pittsburgh Steelers’ D-coordinator from 1992-94 under Bill Cowher, taking their defense into the top five for three years in a row and leading the league in sacks.
He became a hot commodity in the coaching realm and was named the head coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995.
“I enjoyed being a head coach,” said Capers. “The fun part (of coaching) is winning, but when you take an expansion team, the odds are against you. In the first three years at Carolina, though, we won 27 games which nobody had ever done with an expansion team, and in the second year (1996) we’re playing to go to the Super Bowl.”
Capers was named NFL “Coach of the Year” that season as the Panthers lost the NFC Championship Game, ironically, to the Packers who went on to beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.
“As a head coach, you get pulled more and more away from the ‘X and O’ part of the game with the administrative duties and the media,” Capers acknowledged. “You’re just overseeing the whole operation and trying to get everyone to perform at their best on Sundays, while as a coordinator, you’re involved strongly in the ‘X and O’ part of the game and making decisions on game day.”
After his four-year stint with the Panthers ended (30-34 record, 1995-98), Capers joined Jacksonville as the defensive coordinator under Tom Coughlin. The Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game where they lost to the Tennessee Titans.
Next came an historic appointment as head coach of the Houston Texans, with Capers becoming the first person to serve as head coach of two expansion franchises.
“In this business,” Capers stated, “ it doesn’t matter if you’re an expansion team or an established team, people want results.”
With a backward 2-14 slide, his four-year stay in Houston (2002-2005) ended with a 18-46 record. After two years with the Miami Dolphins (2006-2007), Capers joined the New England Patriots as a special assistant/secondary coach. After years with teams that had their share of less-than-stellar quarterbacks, Capers was looking forward to having one of the NFL’s best on his side instead of having to defend against him.
“I thought, ‘Finally, I’m going to be with one of those top guys,’ but 15 plays into the season, (Tom) Brady gets his knee blown out,” he offered. “We still won 11 games with Matt Cassell (at QB), but I said, ‘It’s got to be me!’ ”
In 2009, he got the opportunity to join Mike McCarthy’s staff with the Packers and it’s been a successful venture to say the least.
“We’ve been in the playoffs six years in a row and only us and the Patriots have been able to do that,” Capers said.
“We won the Super Bowl in the second year (a 31-25 victory over the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV) and now we’ve won the division four years in a row… the first time in the history of the franchise that’s happened.”
Capers was voted Coordinator of the Year in 2009 by The Sporting News in a vote of the league’s head coaches and league executives.
His teams have been known for putting intense pressure on the opposing quarterback as often as possible.
“I put a lot of thought into what were the most significant factors in the teams that won and won big,” he related.
“One stat that I feel is really underrated is your quarterback rating as opposed to your opponents’ quarterback rating and the differential. It’s such a quarterback-driven league and if you look at the top teams each year, they all have top-level quarterbacks, so I’ve always felt you have to develop a defense that’s tough on them and forces them into bad decisions.”
It obviously works.
“In the last six years with the Packers, we’re number one in opponent quarterback rating,” he said, “and when you’ve got a quarterback on your team like Aaron Rodgers, whose rating is always very high, that combination will result in you winning a lot of games. We’ve won something like 91 percent of the games we’ve had the opposing quarterback rating under 80.”
The Packers have also been No. 1 in the league in interceptions during Capers’ tenure; No. 4 in total takeaways and No. 5 in sacks. Since Capers came on board, the Packers are 67-28-1 in the regular season and 6-4 in the post-season for an overall winning percentage of .693.
During his 30 years in the NFL, Capers has seen more than his share of changes in a variety of areas.
“When I first came into the league, we might have three or four weeks of two-a-days in a row at training camp,” he recalled. “You had an unlimited number of guys and the camps were longer, but now with the collective bargaining agreement, we have no two-a-days and once we get into the season you only have 14 practices with pads during a 16-game schedule. You only end up with one day a week (in pads) and then later in the season you might go a week or two without any.”
Technology has had a major impact on the game as well, both in game preparation and player safety, according to Capers.
“When I first started, you put a notebook together and everything was hand-drawn,” he said. “ When I went to Pittsburgh in ‘92, it took me something like three months staying in the office until 10 or 11 every night and I did a 900-page notebook all by hand.
“We didn’t have a computer in our office, so in the second year, Billy Davis (now the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive coordinator) was my quality control guy and I gave him money and told him to get us one of those new Apple computers. His job was to put all of my drawings into the computer.
“When I first started, the film was all 16-millimeter and then we went to Beta cam and now everything’s digital. You’d be splicing (the film) together piece by piece and now you can just punch a couple of buttons and it’s done for you. Now everything is on I-pads instead of the old notebooks, so when we install the game plan on Tuesdays, as soon as we’re done putting it together, the players will have it almost immediately.
As for monitoring players’ health, “Sports science has crept into the thinking now, and the last few years there is such an emphasis on player safety with concussions, so some of the changes are better from that standpoint, he noted.
“Players have a GPS-type device to track the effort and exertion levels and hydration levels and teams have a sports science guy, a nutritionist and maybe three strength coaches who observe the numbers and if the levels reach a certain point, we shut them down because the chance for injury goes way up.
“There’s more emphasis now on the mental part of the game, with more walk-throughs and film study than there used to be. You have to change with the times. (Although) there are certain principles that I feel don’t ever change in terms of the technique and fundamentals and the effort.”
Finding the right fit, so to speak, when selecting players is another key component, says Capers.
“Every player has an agent, so you have 53 independent contractors that you have to pull together and have them buy in to one vision,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important in your personnel selections that you get the type of guys you feel are going to fit in and it’s not about ‘I, me, my.’ It’s about ‘we, us, our,’ and they have to understand they have to sacrifice for the good of the team.”
Despite making it to the big-time, Capers says he never forgets where he came from.
“It’s wrong if you ever forget the people who enabled you to get started,” Capers said. “You pass the same people on the way down as you did on the way up, and if you treat people right, you’ll get rewarded. You wouldn’t be where you are if you hadn’t had a lot of good people who gave you advice and directed you properly.”
Not surprisingly, Capers has also been faithful to his roots in another way – financial support.
For some 13 years, he attached his name to a golf tournament which raised money for the Cardiac Rehabilitation Center at East Ohio Regional Hospital in memory of his late father, Eugene, and for a college scholarship at Muskingum University in memory of his high school coach, Dale Dickson.
More recently, he gave a sizeable contribution to Meadowbrook High School, which named its state-of-the-art turf facility Eugene Capers Field, and he also funded a new press box at Mount Union, the Dom Capers Press Box.
“I can remember when they built Meadowbrook and Dad was a contractor for the state,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I felt so good about being able to put his name out there, because he did all the laying out and surveying to put it there in the first place.”
Being back ‘home’ (he still makes yearly stop-overs to visit his brother, Julius, in Pleasant City and his sister, Nina Defabaugh, in Columbus) also brought back a few memories for Capers, first from his high school years and then from college summer breaks.
“I look back and think about my family… growing up in a small town like Buffalo,” he said. ”I had something like six widow ladies living nearby who I cut grass for in the summer and shoveled their snow in the winter.
“Every summer when I was going to Mount, I’d come back and work road construction. The roads going into the lodge and the beach at Salt Fork (State Park)… I worked on those and by the time the summer was over, I knew I wanted to go back to school!”
He also learned perhaps his most valuable trait.
“The greatest thing I learned around here was work ethic,” he said. “You’re never going to get anywhere if you don’t have a good work ethic. Unfortunately, the job situation is not ideal here, but people know you have to work hard and the things you work the hardest for mean the most to you.”