GREEN BAY – Randall Cobb picked up more than just the Play of the Year award at the NFL Honors event during Super Bowl week in Indianapolis in February.
The Green Bay Packers wide receiver had won the award for his 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints in his first NFL regular-season game, but it was bumping into Packers coach Mike McCarthy at the Murat Theatre in downtown Indianapolis and the conversation that followed that gave Cobb a glimpse into his future.
“He said he was preparing some stuff and we were going to try them out,” Cobb said Friday, as the Packers prepared for their Sunday Night Football matchup with the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. “Probably nothing was set in stone at that point, and they probably hadn’t even started game-planning yet. I just think his mind was on it, some of the things back there.
“It just gave me more motivation in the offseason as far as making sure I had my body prepared and making sure mentally I’d be ready for whatever the challenges were when I got back.”
And Cobb has been up to every challenge this season while making himself an indispensable part of the Packers’ offense. While injuries have taken away two-time Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings and workhorse running back Cedric Benson for extended periods – and the unit had to go without wideout Jordy Nelson for a couple weeks, too – the constant has been Cobb, who’s in the midst of an epic breakout season.
“I think he’s certainly made the most of his opportunities,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “I love how Randall plays the game. No. 1, he’s tough, he’s physical, he plays with passion, and he shows the effort. He’s always, mindset-wise, working to improve.
“When you have unique players like that, it opens up a lot of possibilities. And he certainly gives you that. A guy with that type of versatility, it opens up a lot of ways to create mismatches.”
Cobb enters Sunday having caught a team-high 54 passes for 574 yards (second to Nelson’s 577) and seven touchdowns (second to James Jones’ eight) while also rushing eight times for 115 yards (for a gaudy 14.4-yard average).
“I would say Randall Cobb’s plan is probable right on schedule,” McCarthy said. “As specialty plays, there’s a few in every game plan. He has a lot more opportunities in the slot due to Greg’s absence, that’s maybe even enhanced. You really don’t know how those things are going to shake out. It’s just very important schematically to have individuals to play in multiple positions and to play multiple concepts, that’s been a strength of our offense with our perimeter players. Yeah, I’d say this is exactly what we envisioned in him.”
Cobb has lined up as a running back, as a wide receiver and as a slot receiver, taken shovel passes and swing passes and screens passes from the backfield, runs every route on the Packers’ route tree – all the while maintaining his kickoff- and punt-return duties.
And yet, delivering news that can’t be good for opposing defenses, it’s not enough for him.
“It’s good right now. It’s good. But it could be great. And that’s what I’m trying to work on,” Cobb said Friday. “I still have more to give to this team, more to give to my teammates.”
Perhaps, but his teammates have been duly impressed. While answering a question about the team’s rash of injuries this season, Pro Bowl defensive tackle B.J. Raji listed two players that the Packers simply cannot live without: Reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, and Cobb.
“(They) are the only two guys that we really need out there,” Raji said. "He's our version of Percy Harvin, man."
According to offensive coordinator Tom Clements, Harvin – the Minnesota Vikings’ versatile receiver/running back – was the template for the coaches’ plans for Cobb this season. The staff looked at film of Harvin as well as New Orleans Saints running back/return man Darren Sproles when they went into the offensive meeting room/laboratory to start concocting their plan for Cobb.
“It’s no different than every (other) year. You analyze yourself, you analyze some other teams in the league and see if some teams do things that might suit your players’ abilities,” Clements said. “So we did some research and thought we could use Randall in certain ways. That’s all great on the board, until you go out and (actually) do it. He went out and showed he could make some things happen and make us a little better on offense.
“(Harvin and) Sproles do a lot of good things on offense, so we studied them and tried to take some things that we thought we’d be able to do. He has a good feel for offense, in general. He understands why you’re doing things, so he was able to pick it up, kept working on it and has done well.”
The result? A matchup problem that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is thankful he doesn’t have to worry about.
“I’ve always felt like Harvin is one of the most difficult guys in the league to defend because he’s got running back skills playing receiver. From one down to the next, he might be lined up at receiver, then he’s lined up at running back, and he’s a physical guy that’s always a chore to get on the ground,” Capers said Friday. “I think Randall, because of his quarterback background, he’s a multi-threat in terms of carrying and receiving and running with the ball after the catch. Those guys make your offense tougher to defend.”
Against Detroit last Sunday, the Packers offense was quite Cobb-centric, with the second-year player having 12 balls targeted for him, of which he caught nine for 74 yards and the game-winning 22-yard touchdown from Rodgers with 1:55 left in the fourth quarter. He also had two carries for 19 yards while playing 48 of the team’s 65 offensive snaps.
And therein lies the one danger of Cobb’s importance to the offense. McCarthy has admitted in the past – and did so again this week – that he erred in 2010 when he centered his offensive plan around tight end Jermichael Finley, who was coming off a breakout 2009 season and appeared poised for a monster year. When Finley suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 at Washington, suddenly the offense had to be recalibrated because its centerpiece was lost.
So as enamored as McCarthy is with Cobb’s versatility and ability, he’s trying not to depend on him too much.
“We’ve talked about this before, if there was a mistake I made offensively in 2010, we probably had too much for one guy, and that player got hurt,” McCarthy said. “It’s important you go about it big picture, planning for everybody and if individuals have unique talents and skill sets that you take advantage of it.”
Perhaps, but comments like Raji’s illustrate just how important Cobb has become to his team. Cobb didn’t know about what Raji had said until he was told on Friday, and it was clear that the comment meant a lot to him.
“That’s big. That’s humbling, to know that my teammates have that much trust in me and they believe in me that much,” Cobb said. “Like I’ve always said, whenever you’re getting praise from your teammates and the coaching staff, nothing can be better than that. So that’s big, that’s huge for me. I didn’t know that he said that. That shows the confidence they have in me.
“But I know what I’m capable of myself. I know I have more to give. So I’m working on that daily to become what I know I’m capable of being.”
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.