GREEN BAY—Dom Capers and Tom Clements stood in the same hallway answering questions that would offer perspective to their units’ season, but the two Packers coordinators were standing on very different ground.
Clements’ unit just got an “as good as any offense in the league” seal of approval from the Packers’ head coach, Mike McCarthy. Capers’ unit continues to be a work in progress and the process could include major defections and significant change in 2014.
What has to happen for the Packers defense to be what Capers wants it to be?
“We have to figure out what our group’s going to be and we’ll design what we’ll do off what our group is going to be,” Capers said.
It’s an answer pregnant with speculation. The Packers defense could lose as many as four starters and several key backup personnel in free agency. Veteran nose tackle B.J. Raji’s contract is about to void, sending him into free agency well in advance of the scheduled departures for Sam Shields, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly, C.J. Wilson, Rob Francois and Mike Neal.
“We’ll design what we’ll do off what our group is going to be.” Does that mean the Packers could be headed for a switch in defensive philosophy?
The most pressing question during Wednesday’s season-ending interviews with McCarthy and his assistant coaches was: Will Capers return as the team’s coordinator? McCarthy said, “I’m glad he’s on our staff,” but was otherwise noncommittal.
When Capers was asked directly about his future plans, he said: “I have no plans (for) not coaching. He added that fan criticism is “part of the business.”
The Packers finished the season as the NFL’s 25th-ranked defense, down from No. 11 in 2012, but it must be said in Capers’ defense that he was playing with greatly depleted ranks.
For example, Capers designed a role last spring for defensive end Mike Neal to be a reserve outside linebacker. As it turned out, Neal was a starter at outside linebacker in nine of the Packers’ final 13 games, including the last three.
“Our plan was for Mike to play inside and outside. As it turned out, Mike played more snaps at outside linebacker than any other outside linebacker,” Capers said.
Clements’ offense had to play much of the season without its top two stars, Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb, but when the regular season ended with those two hooking up for a division-clinching touchdown pass, it became obvious the offense’s arrow is pointing straight north.
“I have a sheet of about 10-15 statistics. We improved in about 10 categories. We weren’t as good in the red zone, but we improved in a lot of areas. I think the guys should feel good about it,” Clements said.
The No. 1 area of improvement is the running game, which rookie Eddie Lacy helped take from No. 20 in 2012 to No. 7 in ’13. Despite Rodgers missing nearly half the season, the Packers finished with the No. 6 passing attack and the No. 3 overall offense.
“We feel good about where we are offensively. The defense has to defend against everything. As long as you can execute, it makes playing offense fun,” Clements said.
There’s reason to believe the offense will even improve in 2014 on its production in ’13. Tackles Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod are expected to return to give the Packers amazing depth on their offensive line.
“It was great for Derek after his long rehab to be on the roster for a bit. Bryan got hurt early so his rehab, I’m sure, is on schedule. They’re both good players and they’ll add to the depth of the position,” Clements said.
The focus this offseason will, again, be on the defensive side of the ball, where change and how the Packers react to it may again determine the team’s fate.
“We’ll see how things play themselves out,” Capers said. Additional coverage - Jan. 8