Potential oozes from Packers rookie Johnathan Franklin. He’s quick, he’s athletic, he’s a touchdown waiting to happen.
There’s a chance he could supplant the electric Randall Cobb as the Packers’ return specialist and prevent the Packers wide receiver from getting injured on special teams.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy brought attention to such a possibility on Saturday when he was asked about Franklin at his post-practice press conference.
“He definitely is off to a good start,” said McCarthy. “I really like what I see from Johnathan Franklin.”
Who could blame McCarthy? Franklin looks the part without pads, which is how the first two days of training camp were spent in Green Bay.
From a distance, it’s easy to put two and two together when first looking at Franklin’s physical prowess combined with the desire for the Packers to relieve Cobb of his return duties, a notion expressed as far back as February by McCarthy.
It may appear at first blush that Franklin is the solution. Or perhaps it’s Jeremy Ross, he of the exciting 58-yard punt return last December.
But taking Cobb off returns is no guarantee.
This is a job Cobb has done the past two seasons and has become one of the NFL’s best at doing so in the process. With three touchdowns in the return game each of the last two seasons, Cobb has made his presence known to opponents across the league.
Entering his third season in professional football, Cobb has become the kind of player you can rely upon to field the football and make something happen once the ball is in his hands.
By no stretch of the imagination has Cobb been perfect. He lost three fumbles his rookie season on returns and another in his sophomore season in the NFL. But he’s smart, experienced and has the ability to take the ball to the house at any moment.
If the Packers are going to take Cobb off returns for the foreseeable future, they have to be absolutely positive that they’re replacing Cobb with someone they can trust, particularly on punt returns.
What must be realized is that returning punts is 10 times more difficult to do than returning kicks for a variety of reasons.
1. There’s the ever-present danger of tacklers waiting to decapitate the punt returner, protected by only a one-yard halo. At the same time, the returner has to keep his eye on the football while merely trying to sense where the defense is coming from. Only on the rare pooch kick does a kick returner have to worry about a similar threat.
2. The trajectory of a punt makes it harder to catch. Like corralling a high pop fly in baseball, they’re more difficult to judge than the lower-trajectory kickoffs.
3. Punts can spiral. If it’s a windy day, punts can catch those gusts and be taken further than expected, whereas the end-over-end kickoffs are much more predictable.
4. When backed up to the end zone, there’s the added responsibility of deciding whether to field a punt or potentially letting it go for a touchback. On kickoffs, there’s no decision to be made. The ball must be fielded, lest it be recovered by the other team.
5. The mental game of returning punts is much greater. Punt returners have to worry about all the above, and do so in very short amount of time. Add in the opportunity for the returner to make a fair catch, and it’s just one more thing to think about in a split second.
For the Packers to pawn these responsibilities on someone else would be a risk. Cobb has done these things for the better part of two years and can be trusted to continue to do them.
“No. 1 is the responsibility of handling the football,” said McCarthy. “Any time you’re dealing with returner, regardless if it’s in punt and kickoff, the confidence of everybody has to be the returner is going to handle the football. Secondly, he’s going to make good decisions and he’s going to make good decisions with the football. And then secondly, be in tune with the scheme and the concept that’s called on that return.”
There’s a reason Cobb is the NFL’s reigning all-purpose yardage leader. He’s fantastic at what he does, whether it’s receiving, rushing or in the return element of football.
Perhaps the better the Packers are better of simply replacing him on kickoffs if they’re worried about exposing him to injury.
Collisions in kickoff returns are worse than any other aspect of the game because of the speed at which they happen.
And if the Packers use Franklin or Ross on kick returns, there will be less for them to worry about. Franklin has next to no experience as a return man in college, so he already has a lot of obstacles to overcome to become comfortable in that department, as if running back isn’t enough.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” and editor of Cheesehead TV’s “Pro Football Draft Preview.” To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.