CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Shortly after being hired as head coach of the Carolina Panthers 28 years ago, Dom Capers was asked what he planned to do once he reached retirement age.
Capers smiled and replied, “I want to still be coaching.”
And he still is, coincidentally enough, with the Panthers.
The 72-year-old Capers is back for his second stint in Carolina, this time as a senior defensive assistant where he’ll be scouting upcoming opponents’ tendencies and helping defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero formulate a weekly game plan.
And he can’t wait.
"I enjoy the competitiveness, the X and O part of the game,” Capers said Wednesday. “I don't think there is anything that matches Sunday afternoon for three hours after you put in all that work during the week. There is no in between — you either feel real good (if you win) or you don't feel very good at all (if you lose).
“I don't know what you find to match that when it is all over,” he added.
It is a full-circle moment for Capers.
He returns to a franchise he helped usher into the league in 1995 as an expansion team and took to the NFC championship game in just its second season. He spent four seasons in Carolina, compiling a 30-34 record before being fired — a decision that then-owner Jerry Richardson would later say he regretted.
Capers is now settling back into the stadium where he once spent numerous nights sleeping on a cot in his office after a long day of coaching and game-planning. He's looking forward to returning to the Italian restaurant a couple of blocks away from the stadium, where he would spend his few free moments eating and reading the newspaper in a private booth in the back corner.
And he's eager to getting started working for head coach Frank Reich, the Panthers starting quarterback to open their inaugural season.
Since that one season together, Capers and Reich have stayed in touch and remained friends while developing a mutual respect for one another.
“I'm not overly sentimental, but that is pretty special," Reich said of Capers' return.
But Reich was quick to add that Capers' homecoming should not be misconstrued as a “sentimental hire.”
“Not even close,” Reich said. ”This guy is still vibrant with football knowledge, passion and experience. He and Ejiro have an unbelievable relationship and trust and that is just going to benefit our team."
Evero first met Capers in 2016 in Green Bay when he was a defensive quality control coach working directly under Capers, the Packers defensive coordinator at the time. Evero would later move on, but left an impression on Capers because of his work ethic.
Evero never forgot what Capers meant to him either, and when he landed the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator job he called Capers and asked him to join his staff. The Broncos finished ninth in the league in defense in 2022.
When Evero joined the Panthers earlier this month, Capers agreed to join him.
“Even though you feel like you're prepared for the job, there are things you don't know until you get in that seat,” Evero said of being an NFL defensive coordinator. “Coach Capers is an incredible guide in terms of how to do the job, and do it at an elite level. He's someone to bounce ideas off of as well. He's a man of great character."
Evero and Capers inherit a Carolina defense that finished 22nd in the league last season, but is still considered the strength of the team with core players such as defensive end Brian Burns, defensive tackle Derrick Brown, linebacker Shaq Thompson, safety Jeremy Chinn and cornerback Jaycee Horn.
They'll be installing a base 3-4 defense, but plan to play to the strengths of their players.
“This is not my defense,” Evero said. “This is me, our coaches, especially Dom's influence, the players — we are all putting this thing together and we are collaborating to make this the best defense possible. And Dom will be a huge part of that.”
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