As Packer Nation held their collective breath in the middle of yesterday’s blowout of the Tennessee Titans, many not only prayed that Randall Cobb would recover quickly from his ankle injury, but began the predictable process of questioning why he was put in a position to get injured to begin with. After all, the return man for any NFL team runs the risk of getting his bell rung on every play that doesn’t end in a fair catch.
However, you may want to avoid asking the question of head coach Mike McCarthy, who snarled when asked if perhaps Cobb should be taken off the return team. “I don’t understand how you play scared,” said McCarthy. “You can’t sit here and say special teams (are) important if you don’t put a guy like Randall Cobb out for a return.”
Now, the man is head coach. However, given the recent Mason Crosby fiasco, just having him get all gruff and ornery on a topic doesn’t necessarily mean his viewpoint is the most prudent.
Obviously, McCarthy doesn’t like to be second-guessed, and the injury opens up the door for a lot of folks with 20/20 hindsight to question why he places his star receiver in a position where injuries are more prevalent. But common sense observers among fans and the media have had the foresight to mention this many times over the course of the season, particularly as Cobb’s role has grown in the absence of Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson (and the decline of Donald Driver).
This was no surprise for most fans and media who had be questioning it all along. The fact it happened while being up almost thirty point in a blowout just makes it a little bit worse.
But, its not just the timing that gets McCarthy flustered. It’s the very thought that he shouldn’t be putting his starting wide receiver out there every play. You have to remember that Cobb technically started the season as, at best, the third wide receiver and might have been regulated to Tim Tebow-type appearances had James Jones and the other two starters remained healthy and productive all season long. In that case, certainly Cobb could and should have remained as the returner.
But over the course of the season, Cobb has grown into even more than just a starter: he is Aaron Rodgers’ possession receiver and security blanket. Jones is the playmaker, for certain, but Cobb is the guy Rodgers looks for when he’s in trouble or needs a first down. It’s a critical role in the offense, and the offense isn’t going to run as well in the post-season without him.
Even more concerning is the becoming-ever-clearer impending divorce from Greg Jennings. Body language says a lot, and when Jennings was clearly upset about being overlooked despite being wide open in the third quarter, Rodgers seemed to try desperately to get him the ball afterwards (getting him a short touchdown). Jennings seemed to refuse to celebrate with Jermichael Finley, and bypassed a Lambeau Leap with the fans.
In other words, you may want to get used to Cobb’s name at the top of the depth chart, because that’s where he’s going to be staying.
Look, McCarthy trying to state that starters on special teams is something all teams do is ridiculous. Why do you think rosters have expanded to 53? Why do we not see Clay Matthews as the gunner on punts? Wouldn’t he be the best guy for it? Why do final roster spots come down to which backups can play special teams?
In the 1990′s, the Packers had some of the best special teams in the league, led by players like Travis Jervey, Desmond Howard, Don Beebe, Mike Prior, and Bernardo Harris. None of these guys were starters. It was true then, and true today: your depth makes up the bulk of your special teams players.
Now, it is true that, come playoff time, Packer stars such as Charles Woodson and Robert Brooks have taken to the field to return kicks. While some point to this is evidence that starters can play special teams, I would point to it as proof the other direction: you don’t put your most talented and valuable players out there week in and week out during the preseason and regular season. When the chips are down and the game is all-or-nothing, pull out all the stops.
In the end, realistically, Cobb is an adequate returner this season. The Packers rank 12th and 11th in kickoff and punt return yardage, respectively. Cobb has scored one touchdown on a punt return, but with the recent rule changes, Cobb gets fewer and fewer chances to make a consistent impact on the game (Cobb ranks 6th in the NFL in fair catches and 14th in touchbacks).
In other words, Cobb’s impact on the return game has been important, in that he has sure-handedly fielded punts and kicks and advanced the field position in a positive fashion: which, to be honest, is incredibly important, as we remember not too long ago we couldn’t find a player who could even do that.
But since Cobb has not been a Desmond Howard-esque level of returner, his impact on the return game is nowhere near the impact he’s having in the regular offense, where he leads the team with 80 receptions and 954 yards. He is the possession, security-blanket receiver for Aaron Rodgers.
It isn’t “coaching scared” or cowardly to protect the guy who has ascended to your #1 receiver status over the course of the season, and will likely keep that status for the foreseeable future. And if you have a guy like Jeremy Ross on the roster who can cleanly field the kicks and advance it a decent amount…well, what’s the difference between that and what Cobb is offering you?
Nobody…I mean NOBODY…has their #1 receiver returning kicks and punts. It’s just common sense, Mike.
C.D. Angeli is a longtime Packer fan and feature writer at CheeseheadTV.com. He is also the co-host of Cheesehead Radio at PackersTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.