The wish of many, most, or maybe even all Green Bay Packer fans came true on New Year’s Eve, when ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that defensive coordinator Dom Capers would be fired. Shortly after the Packers lost against the Panthers and fell out of playoff contention, rumors surfaced that Capers would lose his job. Those rumors had been cropping up for the last few years, so it was easy to be skeptical. However, after the Packers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Capers was the first of many inevitable casualties. Several assistant coaches, on both offense and defense, have been let go as well.
Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac and inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley are the two defensive coaches who have departed along with Capers. Defensive tackles Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark are two highly successful players Trgovac developed, and the Packers’ run defense was in the top 10 this season, which makes his firing particularly surprising. It’s possible he told the organization he wouldn’t stay if Capers were gone, but that’d be pure speculation at this point. Like most Packers personnel decisions, there’s a good chance we’ll never find out the details.
Anyway, this creates an obvious need for a new defensive coordinator. If the Packers hire from outside, the new DC would have the opportunity to bring some of his own guys to fill the other vacancies. With Ted Thompson transitioning from general manager to an advisory role, a new GM from outside the organization could conceivably help bring in outside talent at those spots. However, ESPN’s Jason Wilde reports Mike McCarthy will also consider internal candidates for defensive coordinator, and presumably for the other positions as well. There are certainly strong candidates both outside and inside the organization, and I’ve listed some of the more likely candidates.Embed from Getty Images
Fangio, a defensive coordinator in the NFL since 1995, is an obvious name that comes to mind first for many. Any Packers fans who watched Fangio’s defenses with the San Francisco 49ers and then Chicago Bears should be excited at the possibility. Fangio’s strategy of containing Rodgers as a dual-threat quarterback with the 49ers contributed to the team’s 4-0 record against Rodgers from 2012 through 2014. After the 2015 bye week, other teams successfully used this strategy to thwart Rodgers, who struggled to find open receivers with Nelson on injured reserve and Adams nursing an ankle injury. Without the option to scramble, and with an inconsistent run game, first downs were often hard to come by.
All this is to say, Fangio is the kind of brilliant defensive mind who can change how the game is played. There’s no question he’s one of the best candidates, if not the best. However, is he available for the job? John Fox was fired as Chicago’s head coach, so Fangio’s future there is uncertain. On Wednesday, Fangio interviewed for Fox’s old job, so it’s possible he gets a promotion and stays (Fangio’s contract expires this offseason). It could signal Fangio has higher ambitions than defensive coordinator for his next stop. If Chicago opts to bring in an offensive mind, there are several other head coaching vacancies across the league. As defensive coordinator, he’d be expected to install a new defense over many years, a significant commitment. If he has the option, one can imagine Fangio would choose a head coaching opportunity, even though the Packers’ DC is a particularly coveted position. If the Packers can’t bring Fangio on board, there are still plenty of quality candidates.
According to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, defensive back coaches Darren Perry and Joe Whitt Jr. are the top internal candidates to replace Dom Capers. Perry, the Packers’ safeties coach since 2009, is currently developing a talented group consisting of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Kentrell Brice, Josh Jones, and Marwin Evans. The safety position has been one bright spot in a mostly mediocre defense since 2014. This wasn’t always the case, as free safety was a glaring weakness from Nick Collins’ career-ending 2011 neck injury through Clinton-Dix’s progression to starter in 2014. But, given adequate talent, Perry has shown he can mold an excellent unit.
One concern might be Clinton-Dix’s apparent performance drop-off since his 2016 Pro Bowl nod. His effort and explosiveness didn’t seem fully there in the 2017 season. It’s possible that he returns to form under a different defensive coordinator, but it’s hard to imagine how different the environment would be under Perry. One could argue the effort problem is Clinton-Dix’s, but ultimately it’s Perry’s responsibility to make sure his guys are giving 100% every game.
The real question might be, does this reflect on Perry’s ability to impose discipline on his players? There’s no question Perry has done phenomenal work developing guys like Morgan Burnett and Kentrell Brice. However, with fresh vacancies at offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Mike McCarthy will likely have his hands full with the offensive half of the roster. He needs a defensive coordinator he can trust to keep his two dozen or so defensive players in line, especially if there are more defensive coaching changes on the horizon.
Joe Whitt Jr.
As noted above, cornerbacks Joe Whitt is the other top internal candidate identified for the promotion. Like Perry, Whitt has been with the Packers since 2009. Whitt has a sterling resume, having developed undrafted free agents Tramon Williams and Sam Shields into starting-caliber cornerbacks. Whitt has a very notable proponent in Charles Woodson, whom Whitt coached until Woodson left after the 2012 season (for what it’s worth, Jason Wilde is also advocating for Whitt).
The delayed development of Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins might present a similar concern for Whitt. However, unlike Clinton-Dix, Randall was held accountable for his performance. Since his benching, Randall has actually been stellar. Rollins saw a stark decrease in snaps after poor performances early in the season, as well. This could be interpreted as a sign Whitt is more willing than Perry to discipline his top players even if it risks upsetting their ego.Embed from Getty Images
Pagano never had much success fielding a formidable defense in six years as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, but that was arguably more a matter of defensive talent (or lack thereof). Before his stint as Colts head coach, Pagano had great success as a defensive coordinator for the Ravens in 2011. His experience as a secondary coach was reflected in that Ravens defense’s elite pass defense.
Pagano would make a great outside candidate after being fired from the Colts, but the Packers would have to compete with the Ravens, who have expressed strong interest in luring Pagano back. Pagano worked under Harbaugh in his time there, and there are no signs Harbaugh is going anywhere.
Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is a free agent going into the offseason, opening him up to a potential move. The former Jacksonville head coach is known for fast, aggressive defenses, and that showed in the Charger’s excellent pass defense in 2017. Though the pass defense was among the league’s best, however, their run defense was among the league’s worst. And one should note Jacksonville’s defense vaulted into the top of the league after his departure.
In the end, it’s difficult to blame (or credit) Bradley for his one year in Los Angeles. But he had undeniable success as defensive coordinator in Seattle from 2009 through 2012, as the defense improved to one of the league’s best in 2011 and 2012. He certainly would be a top candidate to replace Capers, but Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn seems to want him back for the 2018 season. Like with Fangio and Pagano, the Packers will face stiff competition if they hope to acquire Bradley.
Known for his terse press conferences, Packers assistant head coach / linebackers coach Winston Moss has sometimes been floated as a potential head coaching candidate in recent years. Moss was at the top of many people’s short list for successors to Capers. However, Demovsky’s report suggests he might only be third (or even lower) on McCarthy’s short list for defensive coordinator. It’s possible Moss has higher ambitions, and like Fangio might prefer a head coaching opportunity over committing to a defensive coordinator job.
Trgovac was another name many people initially suggested as a candidate, before McCarthy announced he was departing. It’s possible McCarthy and others aren’t satisfied with the pass rush from the front seven, as despite high sack totals, the Packers notably struggle to consistently pressure quarterbacks. The Packers had a great run defense in 2017, but the lack of progression from pass rushers might have dampened that achievement.
Who do you want to see as the next defensive coordinator in Green Bay?