GREEN BAY – By the sound of it, the only way Randall Cobb won’t be returning kicks for the Green Bay Packers in 2013 – regardless of how big of a role he’ll have in the offense – is if the team finds someone who can do the job roughly as well as he can.
And that could be a tall order.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy would like nothing more than to pull the third-year wide receiver from the job so he can focus on being quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ go-to pass-catcher, but given the premium McCarthy places on field position, he won’t make a change if he doesn’t feel Jeremy Ross or another non-Cobb candidate can be Cobb-esque.
As a result, despite catching 80 passes for 954 yards and eight touchdowns last season while also rushing 10 times for 132 yards, returning 38 kickoffs for 964 yards and returning 31 punts for 294 yards – for a franchise single-season record 2,342 all-purpose yards – Cobb’s workload won’t necessarily decrease this year, especially in the wake of Greg Jennings' free-agent departure.
“Randall Cobb will definitely be playing receiver. We look for him to be a part of our primary focus as far as our approach to game planning, particularly in the passing game,” McCarthy said in advance of this week’s final organized team activity practices of the offseason. “Really, his special teams responsibility is really up to his teammates.
“There's opportunity there for others to compete and perform. And we won't know that until training camp. And hopefully (someone will) take Randall's place.
“Now, we've been very productive on special teams, Randall is a big part of that. It's really the approach that I like to play the football game. Field position is an important statistic and it is an important component of winning football games. We're definitely a different team when Randall is a returner."
For his part, Cobb has not openly complained about the assignment, although he did suggest early last season that he wanted to prove himself as a receiver so he wouldn’t be a full-time returner. Since then, though, he’s eluded the topic like so many would-be tacklers.
“It doesn't matter to me as long as we're getting wins. Whatever it's going to take ... is what I'm down to do. If that's returning, great. If not, great. Whatever it's going to take for us,” Cobb said. “I love playing football, I just love being on the field. It don't matter to me where I'm at.”
The primary in-house candidate to replace Cobb, of course, is Jeremy Ross, who muffed a punt at the Packers’ 9-yard line that led to a San Francisco 49ers touchdown in the team’s 45-31 season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the 49ers in January.
Before that gaffe, Ross had made a Cobb-like impact in limited work – leading McCarthy to give him the job in the biggest game of the year. Ross had a 58-yard punt return in the Dec. 23 victory over Tennessee, then had a 44-yard kickoff return and a 32-yard punt return against Minnesota in the regular-season finale. He worked only on kickoff returns in the NFC Wild Card game against the Vikings before handling both jobs against the 49ers – until the fumble, which landed him on the bench.
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said last week that he didn’t think the costly mistake had lessened Ross’ confidence at all. In fact, Slocum said it was Ross’ confidence that probably got him in trouble to begin with.
“He’s a guy who I think has a lot of confidence catching the ball, and I think that led to his mistake in San Francisco,” Slocum said. “He tried to jump off the spot before he put the ball away. It’s like Randall against Minnesota out here (at Lambeau Field in 2011). Exact same situation. Very confident.”
Other candidates are rookie fourth-round running back Johnathan Franklin, practice-squad cornerback James Nixon or starting cornerback Sam Shields, according to Slocum.
Because the Packers have a track record of letting key offensive or defensive players stay on returns – cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams and wide receiver Jordy Nelson have all been returners while also being starters or seeing extensive playing time from scrimmage – it’s clear that the Packers aren’t afraid to “risk” a key player on returns.
That said, Slocum wouldn’t mind taking a page out of the Chicago Bears’ playbook under former special teams coach Dave Toub, who would use different returners in different situations after star returner Devin Hester saw his role on offense expand.
“I wouldn’t mind having guys do it by situation. It’s been done,” Slocum said. “Chicago has done with Knox and Hester and Danieal Manning. They had three guys in the mix and were pretty good at it.
“You do it in other areas – defensively with sub groups, offensively with different skill position makeups – so we’re capable of going that direction. It’s way too early. We’re not going to make that decision now, because if we make a decision now, we’re making it without all the information we’re going to obtain between now and when the season starts.”
It’s hard to deny how dynamic Cobb is in the return game. He returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown in his NFL debut during the 2011 regular-season opener against New Orleans, then had a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown against San Francisco in last year’s season-opener. It’s hard to give up that home-run threat even though Cobb has evolved into one of Rodgers’ most trusted receivers. Rodgers suggested earlier this offseason that Cobb could catch 100 passes this season.
“Mike and I talk about it a lot, and obviously the issue we’re talking about now is Randall’s production as a receiver on offense. And yet, he did almost all the returns last year as well and did a great job with it,” Slocum said. “We have to do what’s best for our football team. One way or another, we’ll make that decision on all that information.
“We’ll hypothetically come up with a bunch of scenarios. We’re just trying to find the best combination and what we want to do.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.