GREEN BAY – Because what makes him explosive is also causing him to make potential game-turning mistakes, Green Bay Packers rookie returner Randall Cobb plans on taking a page out of legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s playbook.
Be quick, but don’t hurry.
For the second time in three games, Cobb muffed a punt against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, a miscue that led to the Vikings’ lone points in a 45-7 Packers victory. Cobb made the same mistake Oct. 23 against the Vikings in Minneapolis, and that fumble also led to a Minnesota touchdown. Cobb also lost a fumble on a kickoff at Carolina on Sept. 18, helping the Panthers to a 13-0 first-half lead.
So while Cobb had two explosive plays on Monday night – his 80-yard punt return for a touchdown to give the Packers’ their first points of the game, and a 55-yard kickoff return immediately after the touchdown he’d gift-wrapped for the Vikings – Cobb plans on slowing himself down just a tiny bit on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It comes down to just the focus on my part,” said Cobb, who burst onto the scene with a franchise-record 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the Packers’ season-opening win over New Orleans on Sept. 8.
“It’s not my technique. I catch the ball fine; I get off the spot fine. It’s looking to the return before I actually catch the ball. It’s something that I have to focus more on – and if that slows me down as far as getting off the spot, then that’s something I just have to take.”
The Packers, who hadn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2000 and hadn’t returned a punt for a TD since 2008 before Cobb’s returns, are thrilled with the new dimension Cobb has brought them. Improving in the return game had been among coach Mike McCarthy’s goals in the wake of the team’s Super Bowl XLV championship in February, and Cobb has delivered.
But on a team that emphasizes ball security ad nauseam – the Packers entered Week 11 tied for second in the 32-team NFL with a plus-11 turnover differential – fumbles cannot be tolerated, special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said.
“He is a dynamic player, a very talented young man. (But) the two muffed punts and turnover on the kickoff return, we’re going to remove that from his game,” Slocum said. “He has to get that done. (On Monday night), he made a big play and he was anxious to do it again. He lost sight of one of the core fundamentals – making sure that ball is caught before you take off. One of the things he does very well is catch the ball and move immediately off the spot. He didn’t do that well on that particular play.
“The guy is determined to be good. He’s diligent in his work habits. He’s accountable. I expect him to improve.”
That much was evident from the way Cobb ran on the kickoff following his gaffe, but he acknowledged that it didn’t make up for his fumble.
“I beat up on myself and I’m my biggest critic. It’s not like I’m out there trying to make mistakes. But when I do, I want to come back stronger and better,” said Cobb, who ranked second in the NFL in kickoff return average (30.0) and 11th in punt return average (11.1) entering this week’s games. “It’s like a quarterback having a bad pass, a receiver having a couple drops, a lineman not setting as far back in pass protection as they usually do – it’s not something that happens every single time, it’s just something that I have to eliminate as many as I’ve had.”
What makes Cobb dangerous as a punt returner is how quickly he transitions from catching the ball to exploding upfield. According to Cobb, because other returners pause longer after catching the ball, he is able to use that split-second advantage to find open running lanes before they close.
“The advantage of catching the ball and getting off the spot and moving is, I mess up every single person that’s trying to cover – their angles,” Cobb said. “That's one thing I'm pretty good at. Because when they're covering, they're covering where the ball's coming (down) and where they see me set up and catch the ball. So the faster I can move off that angle, the easier it is to create windows.
“Taking that extra .2 seconds to secure the catch, it’s not going to change that much. It’s just a matter of me practicing focusing a little bit more to make the catch and secure the catch first.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.