There will be more than a few stories written over the next several weeks about how the Patriots plan to replace Asante Samuel. Veterans like Fernando Bryant, Jason Websterand Lewis Sanders, plus rookies Terrence Wheatleyand Jonathan Wilhiteand untested second-year playerMike Richardsonwill see their share of recorders and microphones – most them looking for their responses on the subject.
With no fewer than six new cornerback candidates dotting his roster, none having played a down for the Patriots, Bill Belichickcertainly has plenty of options. But there's a possibility the coach's biggest step toward filling the vacancy won't come in the form of a player at all.
Belichick's decision to bring in Dom Capersmay turn out to be more significant than any of the aforementioned additions. Capers, who was hired in February as a special assistant/secondary coach, brings a wealth of defensive knowledge to Foxborough, and much of that deals with secondary play.
While no coach can succeed without some level of talent to work with, it's safe to assume that Capers' presence will impact a group looking to get by without it's strongest member from 2007. In that regard, Capers is glad to have plenty of options.
"I think it gives you a chance to evaluate," Capers said just days before the official opening of camp. "This is a performance and evaluation business. This will be an interesting training camp to see who goes out and who performs and we'll have to make decisions based on how they perform on the practice field and in the preseason."
Capers is no stranger to secondary play. After accompanying Jim Morafrom the USFL's Baltimore Stars to New Orleans in 1986, he spent his fist six NFL seasons coaching defensive backs. That came after coaching the position for nine years at five different colleges before joining Mora's staff with the Stars. It's the position he played in high school and college (at Division III powerhouse Mount Union in Ohio) and it's the spot he's focused on throughout his time as a defensive coordinator.
"I hope what I can do is do a good job of teaching these guys, instructing them and making a positive contribution on this defensive staff," Capers said of his role. "I think one thing I learned from being a head coach twice (in Carolina and Houston) is you know what you considered to be the qualities of being a good assistant coach and hopefully you can fulfill those qualities and you have a better feel in terms of what people look for. So my goal is to be the best assistant here for Bill that I can be and contribute any way I can to this staff."
According to some of the players he's coached in the past, particularly Bryant, who was with Capers in Jacksonville from 1999-2000, teaching and communication are his strongest assets. With so many new pieces to integrate into a complicated system, Capers will need those communication skills to maintain cohesion.
It's surely one of the things that attracted Belichick to him in the offseason, although it was somewhat surprising that Capers was available at all. After spending the past two seasons as Miami's defensive coordinator, he appeared set to join Dallas' staff in a similar role as the one he currently occupies. But he ultimately turned down the Cowboys offer and roughly a month later signed in New England to replace Joel Collier, whose contract expired after the 2007 season.
No one questioned Capers' credentials, but many of his 3-4 defenses featured high-pressure attacks that harassed quarterbacks through the blitz. Belichick tends to be a bit more conservative in his approach, so it was only common sense to wonder how the styles would mesh. Capers said that each unit is dependent upon its personnel and needs to change accordingly.
"I think each one of them is somewhat unique and what's happened is teams gear their schemes to their personnel," Capers said. "To me that's a sign of a good coach. Your personnel changes from one year to the next and you have to do a good job of evaluating what your strengths and weaknesses are and what you can do and what you can't do. I think that's something Bill's done a good job of here.
"I know I've been with different 3-4 defenses where we've featured different things. If you have the outside rushers that can give you edge pressure, which we were fortunate to have over the years – at New Orleans we had [Ricky] Jackson and [Pat] Swilling, at Pittsburgh we had [Greg] Lloyd and [Kevin] Greene, in Carolina we had Greene and [Lamar]Lathon– we had a lot of those guys so we tried to feature those people."
"I think it's based off personnel," Capers continued. "I think that's something that goes back to Pittsburgh because we started zone blitzing a lot there and we were able to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Same thing in Carolina – we took this scheme there – but to me it's all about adjusting what you're doing to the people you have. That was one of the things that was intriguing to me about coming here and being with them."
Hiring Capers represented a departure from the approach Belichick has employed in recent years. After losing experienced, trusted coordinators Charlie Weisand Romeo Crennelafter the 2004 Super Bowl, the replacements have generally been younger, less experienced coaches. Capers is neither, and his wealth of knowledge may wind up being a big key to the 2008 season.