Cobb: Receiver or Returner?
by Mike Conklin
November 21, 2012
In his first NFL game, Randall Cobb took a kickoff from deep in the end zone and scored a 108-yard touchdown. It was an electrifying play, and gave an early glimpse of the young playmaker's potential.
Last year in his rookie season, Randall Cobb was used sparingly on offense (25 receptions), and his greatest value to the team was on special teams. He was among the top ten in the NFL in both punt and kickoff return average. After years of trotting out mediocre special teams units, the Packers took a major step forward and Randall Cobb's return ability was a big reason why.
Fast forward to this year. Cobb continues to perform both the punt and kick return duties, and remains a threat in that capacity. But unlike his first season when he was mostly being used as a fourth or fifth receiver, he has now become the focal point of the Packers offense. He leads the team in targeted passes (71), receptions (54), and yards after catch (262). In an effort to get the ball into his hands as much as possible, the Packers have even given him opportunities to run the ball out of the backfield, and Cobb has been productive in that role as well (14.4 average on eight carries).
Now that his role within the offense has evolved so much, it may be time for the Packers to consider relieving him of some of his special teams duties. One of the possible ways they could do this would be to take him off of kick returns, while leaving him on punt returns.
The Packers would not be the first team to take a premier kick returner's duties from him in an effort to maximize his game on offense. After taking the world by storm as a returner, the Bears wanted to utilize Devin Hester's athleticism as a wide receiver. After averaging over 30 kickoff returns in his first three seasons, the Bears scaled back Hester's opportunities and began working him more and more into their offense. Picking and choosing when to put him back deep, Hester averaged less than 10 kick returns over the next two seasons. He remained the primary punt returner throughout that period.
The conversation about whether or not Randall Cobb should continue to return kicks is the classic risk vs. reward debate. Cobb clearly offers the Packers a chance to flip the field position battle every time he returns a kickoff. He is a threat to score each time he touches the ball, and that reward must remain enticing to the Packers. After all, they have said repeatedly that they view both kickoff and punt returns as the first offensive play of a drive.
Even so, the risk is undeniable. Football is not a game for the faint of heart, but it can not be discounted that kickoffs offer a higher possibility of injury than many other plays. In fact, kickoff returns may be the most dangerous play in the sport, as evidenced by the fact that the NFL even changed the rules a year ago in an effort to increase touchbacks and decrease return opportunities and the violent collisions that accompany them.
When it comes to safety, there seems to be a difference between returning punts and kickoffs. With punts, the returner has the opportunity to avoid contact if necessary. He can call for a fair catch, or just not field the ball. Another consideration is that the first players downfield to tackle a punt returner are usually the gunners, who are typically defensive backs or wide receivers and not usually the same hulking physical specimens that used to blow up wedges (when they were legal) on kickoffs. Collisions during kick returns have been likened to car crashes, partly because of the size of the players involved. Mike McCarthy himself often speaks about how he likes the tight end/outside linebacker/fullback body type for special teams purposes. These players are usually in the 250-pound range and often get a 40-yard running start before putting a lick on a player.
Aside from safety concerns, another reason the Packers may want to consider relieving Randall Cobb from his kick return duties is that the chances of breaking a big play are not all that great. Cobb has 24 kickoff returns on the season, and only five of them have been returned for more than 30 yards. Cobb has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season, and in fact his best return (46 yards) did not even make it to midfield.
In most facets of his game, Cobb usually seems to make very good decisions. Having said that, he has not always shown the best judgement when deciding whether or not to bring the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs. This is something that has plagued him at times throughout his career, all the way back to his very first game against the Saints in the 2011 season opener. Although he turned it into a dazzling touchdown, Cobb went against coaches' orders and returned a kick that went eight yards deep in the end zone, and was fortunate to break it into a big play. There have been other times he has made questionable decisions to return the ball when he probably should not, and there is no need to look further than the most recent game against the Lions.
The Packers place a strong emphasis on starting the second half with purpose, and even when the Packers win the opening coin toss McCarthy usually defers to receive the ball first in the second half. Against the Lions, Cobb dug a hole for the Packers to begin the third quarter when he chose to return a kickoff from five yards deep in the end zone. Cobb barely got out to the 20-yard line as it was, but there was a penalty on the play that resulted in the drive starting back at the 5-yard line. The drive seemed doomed from the start, and the Packers ended up punting from the shadow of their own goal post.
The other questionable play was in the last five minutes of the game when the outcome hanged in the balance. The defense had just made a huge stand and kept the Lions to a field goal, which meant the Packers could still win the game with a touchdown. The Lions kicked off and Cobb ran forward to field the ball just in front of the goal line. He did not field the ball cleanly, and it bounded into the end zone. Cobb went back to get the ball, and instead of kneeling down for a touchback he tried to run the ball out of the end zone. (It could have been a touchback even though Cobb had touched it in the field of play, because of the "Impetus Rule" found in Rule 3, Section 15 as stated in the NFL Rulebook.)
It was a busted play from the start, and to make matters worse Cobb even ended up fumbling on the play. The Packers were extremely fortunate that they had a chance to come back at all, as what eventually became the game-winning drive almost didn't even begin.
Even though Cobb's proclivity to bring the ball out of the end zone may be misguided at times, he does offer the Packers a chance for a big play. That is, of course, why they continue to use him in that role. But with all of these factors, it may be time for the Packers to begin to consider other options. This would not necessarily be because Cobb isn't doing a good enough job, but simply to allow him to be used in the smartest way possible.
On the Packers' official depth chart listed on the team website, Sam Shields and Jordy Nelson are listed as the backup kick returners. Another player that may be able to fill that role could be Alex Green, particularly now that he is seeing his role within the offense decrease. Green may not offer the change of direction or explosiveness that Randall Cobb exhibits, but he can likely do a serviceable job if called upon as a kick returner.
There are no indications that the Packers are considering any type of change along these lines. As Randall Cobb proves to be a focal point of the offense with each passing week...he has scored six receiving touchdowns in the past four games...it may be time to consider where his greatest value lies.
Cobb's value to the team is different than it was last year or even two months ago. When it comes to kickoff returns, the Packers must consider if the reward still outweighs the risk.
Photo Credit: Associated Press