Sunday, January 13, 2013
Packers watch as Colin Kaepernick runs by
By Kevin Seifert
The Packers could do little more than watch Colin Kaepernick sprint 56 yards for a score in the third.
SAN FRANCISCO -- The way I see it, we have three options at the moment. We can start molding Colin Kaepernick's bust for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We can run Dom Capers out of town. Or maybe we should consider both.
Kaepernick's historic outing Saturday night was indisputably one of the best playoff performances in recent memory. He rushed for more yards (181) than any other quarterback in any game in league history, lifting the San Francisco 49ers to a 45-31 thrashing of the Green Bay Packers in the divisional playoff round. But the Packers' response to his effort -- or, more accurately, their lack of one -- was a stunning failure that should pulse throughout the organization over the coming days and weeks.
In the end, I'm not sure whether there would have been a schematic solution to counter Kaepernick on this night. We saw a breakout performance on a national scale. But by most accounts, the Packers didn't look hard enough for an answer. The Packers played as if they were waiting for their game plan to kick in rather than trashing it once it became clear it had failed.
Several players implied as much in the postgame locker room, and no one was more blunt than defensive back Charles Woodson.
"We didn't make any adjustments," said Woodson, who later added: "I just think when the game is going the way it is, you've got to try something different. It's hard to just continue to do the same thing over and over again, and continue to get burned. ... We need to figure out: Could we have done something differently as far as our game plan was concerned?"
Nose tackle B.J. Raji, meanwhile, deferred most questions to Capers and/or coach Mike McCarthy. Raji did say: "It's assignment football. Everybody knew their assignments tonight, and it came up short."
Therein lies the problem. Coaching is about putting players in positions in which they can succeed. It was clear from the outset that the Packers' initial approach wasn't working. Kaepernick had 107 yards at halftime, and nothing changed thereafter. Here is how thoroughly bamboozled the Packers were: Kaepernick gained 178 of his 181 yards before contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Quite literally, the Packers couldn't touch him.
Is that because they were physically overmatched? Perhaps. Woodson suggested the Packers might be well served to get "bigger and stronger" next season. But the Packers allowed their house to crumble without using every tool in their toolbox to repair it. That's hard to accept.
I can't stand here at this moment and give you five schematic adjustments Capers should have made. The Packers used a "spy defender" a handful of times with no real success. They also sent some risky blitzes by defensive backs; when they missed, Kaepernick had large chunks of open field ahead of him. It's always easier to second-guess than it is to offer solutions.
The Packers don't make their assistant coaches available to reporters after games, and all McCarthy said was: "We tried to make some adjustments to our defensive calls, the pass-rush lanes and so forth, and we did not accomplish that."
What is clear, however, is that people who would know more than me -- Packers players -- weren't entirely in lockstep.
"Next time you're in a situation when you're playing a team like that with a quarterback like that," Woodson said, "maybe you do something different."
I don't want to minimize Kaepernick's role in his success, but I think we all can agree that NFL-caliber defenses should be able to stop opponents short of historic levels even if it means leaving themselves vulnerable in other areas. What we saw Saturday night was rare in the annals of playoff history.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers now have many months to ponder what went wrong.
We've already noted that Kaepernick set an NFL record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback. The 49ers, meanwhile, rolled up the fourth-highest total of offensive yards in a postseason game with 579. This wasn't just a great performance. It was an all-timer.
So it's fair, I think, to step back and ask whether Capers has jeopardized his job. At the very least, should the Packers consider alternatives? Capers has been the Packers' defensive coordinator for four years, and in two of them -- 2009 and 2012 -- season-long issues have directly contributed to a postseason exit.
In 2009, Capers' defense gave up 379 yards and five touchdowns to Kurt Warner in a 51-45 wild-card defeat. The Packers' failures Saturday night, meanwhile, could be connected to the 409 rushing yards tailback Adrian Peterson gained against them in the regular season and could be classified broadly as a chronic weakness.
Woodson said the Packers are playing "the right defense" but consistently qualified his comments by noting a lack of adjustments. At halftime, Woodson said, the Packers talked only about "trying to execute the defense we were running." In the end, Woodson said, "If it works, then it works. If it doesn't, then maybe you change."
When Raji was asked whether an offseason shake-up was appropriate, he offered what I found to be a tellingly neutral answer.
"That's a question better left for [general manager Ted Thompson] and Coach McCarthy or somebody like that," Raji said. "I worry about myself and up front, and that's all I can say about that."
Once again, it's quite possible that everything the Packers tried Saturday night would have failed. But now we're back to our options. Are we to believe Kaepernick is simply that good and the 49ers are that much better -- bigger, faster and more physical -- than the Packers? Or did the Packers not give themselves a chance to find out?
I worry the last option is the correct one. Regardless, they now have an entire offseason to figure it out.