Randall Cobb could be the X-Factor (if the defense actually forces some punts)
By Jason Wilde, ESPN Wisconsin
~GREEN BAY – If you want to know just how much it’s meant to the Green Bay Packers to have rookie Randall Cobb returning punts and kickoffs for them this season, just think about what happened when they didn’t have him.
With Cobb sitting out the Jan. 1 regular-season finale against Detroit with a groin injury, Pat Lee replaced him and promptly turned the first kickoff return opportunity into a comedy of errors. He bobbled the ball after catching it in the end zone, watched it bounce across the goal line, pulled it back into the end zone and took a knee in hopes of a touchback. Instead, of course, it was a safety, putting the Packers in a 9-0 hole.
“I feel bad because it’s my responsibility. That’s my job back there,” Cobb said. “Not being able to be on the field definitely hurt the team. Pat Lee did the best he could. It’s always hard to step in and try to take over something like that.”
Luckily, the Packers won’t have to have someone else take over for Cobb in Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. While Cobb was limited in practice for the second consecutive day Thursday, coach Mike McCarthy expects him to be fine by Sunday.
“(I) had a chance to talk to Randall on the field. Returning punts, he said he feels a lot better today than he did yesterday. I’m not concerned about his availability Sunday,” McCarthy said after Thursday’s practice. “He’s getting better through the week, and once he gets off the field tomorrow, he’ll have 50-plus hours to get ready. I think he’ll be fine.”
As a result, so will the Packers’ return game. While the Packers won Super Bowl XLV last season, they did so with the 25th-ranked kickoff return unit (20.4 yards per return) and 22nd-ranked punt return unit (7.9 yards per return). In addition, the Packers exposed two of their brightest young star players – Tramon Williams, who became a Pro Bowl cornerback last season, and Jordy Nelson, who developed into one of the league’s top receivers this season – to potential injury on returns.
Enter Cobb, a second-round pick from Kentucky who made an instant impact with a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in his NFL debut, the Packers’ 42-34 victory over the New Orleans Saints. The return tied the record for longest kickoff return in NFL history and was a preview of what was to come. It also was the Packers’ first kickoff return for a touchdown since Allen Rossum on Nov. 19, 2000.
“Randall’s a playmaker,” said McCarthy, now in his sixth season in Green Bay. “He’s brought productivity to our return game that we really haven’t had at that level in my time here.”
In fact, Cobb finished the regular season ranked second in the NFL in kickoff return average (27.7 yards) and seventh in the NFL in punt return average (11.3 yards). With an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown against Minnesota on Nov. 14, he joined Chicago’s Devin Hester and San Francisco’s Ted Ginn as the only players this season to return both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown.
He also joined Travis Williams and Robert Brooks as the only players in franchise history to register a receiving touchdown, a punt return touchdown and a kickoff return touchdown in the same season.
“I think it’s pretty evident. Randall’s done a good job,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “He’s had a couple turnovers this year but, outside of that, I think he’s done an excellent job in terms of ball security and making decisions.”
Indeed, if there was one knock on Cobb during his rookie season, it had to be the three fumbles he lost on returns. He muffed a punt against the Vikings on Nov. 14 at Lambeau Field, muffed another on Oct. 23 against the Vikings in Minneapolis, and also lost a fumble on a kickoff at Carolina on Sept. 18. But he’s been perfect with ball security since.
“I’m still a rookie and I still have a lot to prove and a lot of things to do,” Cobb said.
Now, he could be a difference-maker in the playoffs, where a dynamic returner can give a team a much-needed edge. Cobb, who became the first player born in the 1990s to play in an NFL game when he suited up against the Saints, was only 6 years old when returner Desmond Howard won the Super Bowl XXXI MVP award after lifting the Packers to their first NFL title in 29 years.
“I probably was running around with a football somewhere trying to watch the game but really wasn’t, so I don’t really know the full history of that game or anything,” Cobb said. “But I have seen some highlights of it.”
He’ll get a chance to deliver his own postseason highlights beginning Sunday.
“There’s going to be some urgency. This is win or go home now,” Cobb said. “This is definitely a little bit different than the regular season. We’re just trying to prepare ourselves and have a mind-set ready to go in.
“We’ve had some pretty big returns this year to set us up with some good field position and some pretty good opportunities. Right now, we’re just making sure we can get back and get to that point.
“I’m not going to change who I’ve been. I’m going to continue to try to be the player I’ve been and stay disciplined and stay in tune with what we’re trying to accomplish with this team.”
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