Why the Green Bay Packers Must Find a Return Man to Replace Randall Cobb
Such an undertaking, at least so far, has come up empty.
While the Packers have worked through five total practices to start training camp, head coach Mike McCarthy still doesn't feel comfortable handing the job to someone other than Cobb.
According to Ty Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McCarthy said post-practice Wednesday that the 22-year-old Cobb would be his returner if the season started today.
"Our return game, someone has to step up," McCarthy said. "Randall Cobb has been excellent for us back there. If we were going to play a game tomorrow, Randall would be my returner."
McCarthy reiterated that the live-game opportunities presented in the preseason would factor in greatly in determining his returner for 2013. But the clock is now ticking, and the Packers appear dead set on keeping a valuable offensive piece on special teams if a suitable alternative does not emerge.
However, there is simply too much risk for such a situation to unfold.
In 2011, the Packers drafted Cobb in the second round in large part for his ability in the return game. Fast forward to the summer of 2013, and Cobb is now arguably the team's most important offensive player not named Aaron Rodgers.
With the Packers dealing with several injuries at receiver last season, Cobb quickly became Rodgers' favorite target. He led the team in catches (80), targets (104), receiving yards (954), 20-yard catches (17), yards after the catch (479) and first downs (45).
Former do-it-all receiver Greg Jennings is now in Minnesota, donning the Viking purple. While Cobb assumed a bigger role with Jennings injured in 2012, he'll be expected to contribute to the offense at an even greater volume now.
Rodgers went as far as to say Cobb could catch 100 passes next season (per Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee) or, as the Packers quarterback put it, "every year."
Factor in what Cobb brings as a gadget running back—he carried 10 times for 132 yards last season—and the Packers will likely be expecting more out of their 22-year-old, 192-pound receiver than just about any other player in the NFL next season.
Of course, that's not even counting returns.
Over the last two seasons, Cobb has returned 57 punts and 72 kicks, or 129 total.
Only six players have more punt and kick returns during that time span: Brandon Banks, Josh Cribbs, Stefan Logan, Darren Sproles, Brandon Tate and Leon Washington. Only Sproles could be considered even close to as important offensively as Cobb is to the Packers.
In 2012, only Cobb, Cribbs, Jacoby Jones and Darius Reynaud returned at least 30 punts and 30 kicks. Keep in mind, Cribbs had just 13 offensive touches. Jones, 30 catches. Reynaud, 21 touches.
The moral here: NFL teams—even if in possession of an important offensive weapon who excels on special teams—rarely expose key members of the offense to the beating of returns. Cobb and Sproles remain the exceptions, not the rule.
The reason for this line of thinking is fairly obvious. While special teams can often impact games, the risk of having one of your key offensive components injured on a return is far too great. The game moves faster and is more dangerous on returns (hence why the NFL is continuing to investigate new ways to improve kickoff safety). There are violent, sometimes unavoidable, collisions.
The Packers have been mostly lucky. Over 129 total returns, Cobb has been injured just once—during a Week 16 contest with the Tennessee Titans last season. He sprained his ankle on a punt return and later missed Green Bay's Week 17 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings.
All that said, Cobb has made the most of his injury-free returns.
Only Jones, Reynaud and Devin Hester can claim to have returned two punts and one kick for touchdowns since 2011, and the Packers were second in the NFL last season in average starting drive position (32-yard line, only the San Francisco 49ers were better). Replacing that kind of production in the return game figures to be very difficult.
However, a change won't be made at all if McCarthy fails to develop trust in one of the Packers' other return options.
Jeremy Ross, despite his game-changing muffed punt against the 49ers during last year's Divisional Round, appeared to have the inside track to displacing Cobb as the primary returner.
McCarthy: Jeremy Ross is a good football player. Unique skill-set. Glad he's here for camp. See development. Has shown he can return.— Tyler Dunne (@TyDunne) July 31, 2013
Big (215 pounds), fast (4.44 seconds in the 40-yard dash at pro day in 2011) and experienced (No. 2 all-time in punt return average at Cal), Ross possesses the exact profile of an ideal NFL returner. He's also a straight-line runner who understands the angles and blocking reads of the job.
He showed off those skills with Cobb ailing last season, when he returned four punts for 103 yards (25.8 average) and three kicks for 86 yards (28.7 average). Among those were punt returns of 58 and 32 yards and a kick return of 44. The talent was visibly obvious.
Should the Packers be attempting to remove Randall Cobb from returning duties?
However, ball security has been an issue for Ross, and McCarthy has continually preached that catching and keeping the football are at the top of his list in terms of a returner's duties.
In response, the Packers have trotted out various others for return drills in camp, including rookie Johnathan Franklin and undrafted free agents Tyrone Walker and Myles White. The shifty and quick Franklin seems to be an ideal return candidate, but so far, McCarthy has yet to develop any sort of trust in any of the three youngsters.
Luckily for McCarthy and the Packers, training camp is in its infant stages, and the first preseason game is still over a week away. There is ample time for trust to build and McCarthy's mind to be changed.
But the steps forward need to happen soon. With every practice that passes, the Packers appear to be getting closer to naming Cobb the primary returner in Week 1 against the 49ers.
If that happens to be the case come September, and Cobb suffers a severe injury that negatively impacts Green Bay's season, we might look back on these summer days and wonder why no candidate could build enough trust with the coaching staff to keep one of the offense's best players off special teams.
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