When Firing the DC Blows up in Your Face
By Walter Rhein
Special to Packerland Titletown USA
Kelly O’Day photos
There’s nothing better than a dominant defense. We all love the sight of an opposing quarterback getting planted by some deranged dude with more facial hair than can be detained behind a standard issue facemask. Or what about a perpetually bloody-faced defensive back who, in moments of reprieve, awkwardly peers at the world as if questing for something he can crash into head first? It’s great to have multiple shut-outs a year, interceptions returned for touchdowns, and being able to expect the opposition to score no more than 3.
It’s for the slightly deranged. Great offense is fun to watch, but if you have an all-world ‘D,’ your team cannot be defeated.
These days, the NFL is getting so diluted with rules that favor the offense that it’s tough for a defense to put together a stretch of anything approaching dominance. Throughout the league, even exceptional defenses look porous and vulnerable on occasion, and good coordinators are run out of town with disturbing frequency.
Although there have been frequent times when fans have called for his head, Dom Capers has been a stabilizing force with the Packers since 2009. But even though there have been some moments of questionable play, it should not be forgotten that the Packers ‘D’ was the strength of the team during the 2010 Super Bowl run. Stellar play from Nick Collins, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Clay Matthews turned the tide with return TD’s and forced fumbles throughout the playoffs. Go watch the playoff tape of the 2014 team as well, and you’ll see it was special teams, not defense, that cost the Packers the trip to the Super Bowl. Any defense is going to give up some big plays, but prior to Capers, the defensive coordinator (DC) position in Green Bay was something of a revolving door.
Bob Sanders had the job from 2006 to 2009. He was largely responsible for the misconception that Aaron Rodgers couldn’t perform in the clutch. Frequently during that era, Rodgers would drive the team to a 4th-quarter lead, only to have the defense – in combination with poor special teams play – surrender a late winning score to the opposition.
Jim Bates came over in 2005 after having been the Dolphins interim head coach in 2004. For a while, it looked like the defensive coordinator position had finally been solved. At the time, Mike Sherman was in hot water, so Bates’ work with Green Bay was a de facto extended interview for the soon-to-be-available head coaching position. When Sherman was fired at the end of the season, Bates interviewed, but the job eventually went to Mike McCarthy. Sadly, McCarthy couldn’t convince Bates to stay on as DC.
Bob Slowik occupied the position in 2004, having replaced Ed Donatell after the 2003 season. Slowik guided the Packers to the 23rd-ranked defense in the league. Ed Donatell – who had just been fired by the Packers – did well enough with his new club, the Atlanta Falcons, to earn a 14th overall ranking that same year.
Slowik’s predecessor, Ed Donatell, had been an effective coordinator for the Packers in his four years with the team and it was a major surprise when he got fired. He ranked 14th in 2000, 5th in 2001, 12th in 2002, and 11th in 2003. Mike McKenzie, our great corner back, was so frustrated by the firing that he essentially demanded a trade in the aftermath and got sent to New Orleans. Donatell was known for employing creative schemes and making up for talent deficiencies with an emphasis on turnovers. His defenses gave up yards, but they tightened up when it came to scoring.
In the playoffs following the 2001 season, Donatell led the Packers’ defense against Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams. This was the era of “The Greatest Show on Turf” and Donatell deployed a strange defensive adjustment which swapped out linebackers for extra defensive backs in order to account for the Rams’ fleet wide receivers. Although the Packers would go on to lose 45-17, that was more because of Favre’s six interceptions than a defensive failing. For the most part, the perception was that the Packers would lose Donatell to a head coaching position, not a firing.
The impetus for Donatell’s release came in the form of a scapegoating move as a result of the infamous 4th-and-26 playoff game against the Eagles on Jan. 11th, 2004. At the time, the Packers had the best offensive line in the league, and though Brett Favre was under center, the star of the team was Ahman Green, who rushed for 1883 yards that year. Although 4th-and-26 historically gets the blame for that loss, it was really Mike Sherman’s ineptitude that cost the Packers the win.
With two minutes to go in the first half, and facing a 4th-and-1 on the Philadelphia 1-yard line, the normally conservative Sherman made the right call and gave the ball to Green. Green, however, got muddled up with his lineman for no gain, turning the ball over to Philadelphia. It was kind of a fluke, but the failure of this play apparently scared Sherman back into his conservative old self.
Although Sherman had been saying all week that you have to get aggressive to win in the playoffs, he’d be faced with another 4th-and-1 late in the game. With 2:30 left to play on the Philadelphia 41-yard line, the Packers were nursing a 17-14 lead. With the best running back and the best offensive line in the game, the Packers lined up as if they were going to go for it. However, instead of actually running a play, they let the play clock run out in an attempt to get the Philadelphia defense to jump offsides.
Occasionally, you can get the other team to jump in situations like that, but playing to get a cheap penalty first down is not “aggressive playoff football.” I’ll always remember the look of relief on Andy Reid’s face when the clock ran out without the Packers running a play. Any time you do something that makes the opposing coach sigh in relief, you’ve made an error.
To make matters worse, the Packers punted into the end zone and in essence only gained 21 yards on the decision to punt (26 because of the delay of game penalty), instead of running to win it outright.
The 28 yards gained by Freddie Mitchell on 4th-and-26 didn’t lead to the end the game, it only gave the Eagles the tying field goal that sent the game into overtime.
The other thing that people forget about that game is that Philadelphia won the overtime coin flip, but the Packers held them to a 3-and-out. Upon receiving the ball, Favre immediately threw an interception, which allowed Philadelphia to take possession at the Green Bay 32 yard line. The Eagles quickly shuffled forward for a game-winning field goal. Expecting Donatell’s defense to hold in that situation is too much to ask.
Sherman felt the heat in the offseason and Donatell was shown the door. He’s had a few more DC positions, and has been consistently employed since his release. He’s currently coaching the Bears defensive backs. Mike Sherman lasted two more years with the Packers and is currently coaching Nauset Regional High School. Although the 2004 Packer team finished 10-6 and made the playoffs, the cry frequently heard around the state of Wis. was, “Can we call Atlanta and get our defensive coordinator back?”
Whenever I hear fans demand that Dom Capers be fired, I reflect back on the Ed Donatell scenario. There’s something to be said for having continuity within your squad. Players grow and develop within a system, and the kind of familiarity a long-term coach has with his players gives the incumbent a few extra points. Consistently throughout Capers’ run as defensive coordinator, the Packers have played their best defense in the playoffs. In the modern NFL, with rules that overwhelmingly favor the offense, it doesn’t seem likely that a change at DC would bring improvement.
There aren’t a lot of defensive coordinators in the league with the pedigree and success of Dom Capers.
Blame the rule changes and the athleticism of NFL players for the occasional big play against the Pack. This is a coaching squad that can win, and believe me, things can be a lot, lot worse.
About the Author – Walter Rhein spent 10 years living in Lima, Peru, where it was very hard to watch Packer games. Check out his web page at: www.StreetsOfLima.com. He can be reached for questions or comments at: WalterRhein@gmail.com.