GREEN BAY – Sunday was record-breaking day for the Green Bay Packers’ Randall Cobb. But after the ankle injury he suffered midway through the third quarter, will it also be remembered as the day that put an end to Cobb’s time as the team’s primary punt and kick returner?
“Well, we’ll see,” coach Mike McCarthy said after the Packers beat the Tennessee Titans, 55-7, at Lambeau Field. “We’ll see.”
Count quarterback Aaron Rodgers among those who feel that Cobb, who caught three passes for 62 yards and a touchdown before his injury, is too valuable on offense to continue exposing on special teams.
“He's a big time player,” Rodgers said. “He's fun to watch. Just trying to get him the ball in space. He makes some big plays. He’s got incredible preparation habits. He’s always ready to play, knows where he’s supposed to be. He’s like a seven or eight-year veteran out there, it feels like at times. I feel like we’ve played together for a while. He understands the concepts we’re running, where to get open. He’s a big-time player.”
Then, after a brief pause and with a slight grin, Rodgers added, “(I) hope we can get him off special teams soon.”
Cobb was injured at the end of an 8-yard punt return when Titans’ safety Tracy Wilson fell on Cobb’s right ankle while making the tackle. Cobb initially was helped off the field by the training and medical staff, but about halfway to the Packers sideline, Cobb began to jog off on his own. When he went to the locker room later after being examined on a table behind the bench, he did so under his own power rather than riding in a cart.
"I hope it’s not serious,” McCarthy said. “The training staff on the field did not give me anything to believe that it was very serious but as you know with ankle sprains and joint injuries the next day is a huge indicator."
Late Sunday night, ProFootballTalk.com reported that x-rays were negative on Cobb’s ankle and that he would undergo an MRI on Monday morning.
The injury came two quarters after Cobb’s 14-yard punt return gave him the franchise record for most combined yards in a season with 2,342, breaking former running back Ahman Green’s old mark of 2,250 yards set in 2003.
“Records are made to be broken,” said Green, who works part-time as a TV analyst for the local CBS affiliate in Green Bay and also owns his own sports training training company D-1 Sports. “It’s dynamic, because I did it more running the ball and catching it, and he did it receiving and on kick returns. From a statistical point, what I did was amazing, and what he’s done is amazing.”
Nearly 54 percent of Cobb’s yards have come via punt or kick returns, but he’s become a huge part of the offense, leading the team in receptions (80) and receiving yards (954). Since Green Bay drafted Cobb in the second-round of the 2011 NFL Draft, McCarthy and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum have said that his importance to the offense would never impact his role on special teams.
“It’s all in the perspective, of how you look at the return game. It is the first play of the offense?” Slocum said before the season. “It’s vitally important to setting up field position, the potential to score, things of that nature. When we start with the ball outside the 20 or an explosive return outside the 40, or punt returns for big gains, it really enhances our offensive production. So I think he’s a vital part of that, and as we move forward, we’ll always consider each players’ role in terms of play time.”
Cobb, meanwhile, told FOXSportsWisconsin.com in September, “Hopefully at some point I've validated myself as a receiver where a younger guy can take over that role.” But every time the subject came up thereafter, Cobb avoided anything that remotely sounded like a complaint about his workload.
Throughout McCarthy’s tenure in Green Bay he’s had no issue using some of his most important players as returners. Charles Woodson, a starting corner in 2007, was injured on a punt return against the Detroit Lions that year. Before Cobb was drafted, receiver Jordy Nelson returned kickoffs, while starting cornerback Tramon Williams was used as the team’s main punt returner in 2010, even though he was developing into a shutdown corner.
But in those instances, McCarthy apparently didn’t feel he had any other viable options. This year, it’s possible he does in wide receiver Jeremy Ross.
After Cobb got injured, the former University of California-product made the most of his opportunity with a 58-yard return in the fourth quarter that led to a 7-yard touchdown run by Ryan Grant.
“It was a left return,” Ross said. “Caught the ball, went left, my teammates did a great job of blocking, which made my job easy. As I was going upfield, I slowed down a little bit to let my blockers catch up, which allowed me to get some extra yards.”
Ross, who was just signed to the Packers’ active roster earlier this month, averaged 15.2 yards per punt return in college and returned one for a touchdown. If McCarthy decides that keeping Cobb on kickoff and punt returns is too risky, Ross said he is ready to fill the role.
“Yeah, I feel comfortable back there,” Ross said. “It’s something I did in college. If Randall’s not able to do that job, then I’ll be more than happy to go back there and I feel confident enough that I can be successful there.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.