GREEN BAY – That old saying about not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone? In the case of the Green Bay Packers’ return game, you didn’t know what you were missing until you had it.
After years of lacking a consistent, playmaking returner, the arrival of rookie Randall Cobb as a second-round pick last season reminded coaches (and Packers fans, to be sure) just what a difference a dynamic return game can have.
From his 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the regular-season opener against New Orleans to his 80-yard punt return for a touchdown against Minnesota on Nov. 14, Cobb invigorated the long-dormant return game, which hadn’t had a kickoff return for a touchdown since Allen Rossum’s in 2000. Cobb’s 108-yard return was a franchise record, and his 27.7-yard kickoff return average ranked second in the NFL last season. (His 11.3-yard punt return average ranked seventh.)
The only drawback to Cobb’s season was his three fumbles on returns, something that special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum believes won’t be an issue anymore.
“I think he’s obviously shown that he can be dynamic. I think what we need to do is, he needs to move forward just from a consistency standpoint,” Slocum said. “I think he’s had a great learning curve (as far as) what the return game is all about in this league. Ball security is one area that I think he could definitely improve in. And keeping the returns within the scheme, which I think he does a good job of, and just continue to grow.”
In addition to his special-teams contributions, Cobb also proved to be a quick study on offense, learning all the receiver positions a la Greg Jennings as a rookie in 2006 and caught 25 passes for 375 yards and a touchdown in limited opportunities – opportunities that figure to increase in Year 2.
“I knew being a return man was going to be my first role. They had told me that, so I just took that to heart and tried to make the most of that, and I knew whenever I would get opportunities at receiver, it’d be here and there,” Cobb said. “(I was) just trying to make the most of the simple opportunities as you get them.”
Cobb isn’t the first dynamic return man the Packers have had during coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure, but the other one – Will Blackmon – couldn’t stay healthy in his time in Green Bay, which underscores Cobb’s importance to the 2012 Packers. So, too, does this: While former undrafted free agent Shaky Smithson, who spent the 2011 season on injured reserve, was an excellent returner in college at Utah, Slocum insisted that Cobb is such a weapon on returns that will remain in that role no matter how vital he becomes on offense.
“It’s all in the perspective, of how you look at the return game. It is the first play of the offense?” Slocum said. “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.”
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