The parallels were drawn almost immediately; the similarities obvious – to everyone, including the guy everyone was comparing Randall Cobb to.
It was a mid-September Friday afternoon, and Cobb had only played one game for the Green Bay Packers at that point. But as Greg Jennings watched the then-rookie second-round pick from a distance in the locker room, he couldn’t get over how much the youngster reminded him of, well, him.
“He does, he really does,” said Jennings, who as a 2006 second-round pick carried himself in a mature, wise-beyond-his-years way from Day 1, from his attitude to his quiet confidence to his intelligence to his professionalism. “I gauged that off the first time I really met him.
“I spoke to him a few times during the lockout over the phone – never got a chance to actually meet up and get to meet him face-to-face – but once I met him, his demeanor, the way he approaches the game, his football IQ, just the way he carries himself, it reminds me a lot of how I carried myself as a rookie coming in: Just all ears, wide open, ready to learn, ready to absorb any and everything.
“The kid is good. I’m telling you. I told my parents (the same thing). Receivers always talk. We see a guy, we know immediately, ‘OK, he can do some things.’ I actually looked him up because I had no clue who he was. I told him I checked his highlight film out, and I saw one play, and I’m like, ‘He’s going to fit in real good.’ He’s one of those guys where, if you can get the ball in his hands, he’s going to make people miss. He’s going to make things happen. And that’s the type of guy we like to have around. And, he’s smart, and that’s the type of guy we like to have and I know ‘12’ likes to have. So he’s going to fit in really good.”
Jennings knew of what he spoke. A year later, Jennings is sidelined for the foreseeable future with a torn abdominal muscle that will require surgery on Tuesday. Initially thought to be a groin injury, Jennings has missed four of the Packers’ seven games this season – the injury originally occurred late in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against San Francisco – and his absence for much of this season has given Packers fans a glimpse of what life could be like for the offense next year, as Jennings is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March. In the less than three games Jennings has played, he’s caught only 12 passes for 78 yards and one touchdown.
Into the breach has stepped Cobb, who enters Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lambeau Field having caught 37 passes for 435 yards and three touchdowns. (Only Jordy Nelson has been more productive, with 40 catches for 532 yards and five TDs.) With Nelson listed as questionable with a groin injury, it could be Cobb, James Jones, little-used veteran Donald Driver and undrafted rookie free agent Jarrett Boykin who comprise the Packers’ wide receiver corps against the Jaguars.
And if that’s the case, expect Cobb to rise to the occasion.
“We know what Greg brings to the table. It’s going to be hard not having him out there,” Cobb said this week. “We’ve had a couple of weeks where we sustained some success, so hopefully we can just continue that and we can just keep going between all of us.”
In that time, Cobb certainly has won the confidence of “12,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He’s also won high praise from the NFL MVP, who predicted Cobb “is probably going to go down as one of the best picks in Ted Thompson’s career, if not the best.” In the same conversation on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com on Oct. 16, Rodgers also made this comparison, which may ring a bell:
“He’s very intelligent and deliberate about his preparation. He understands soft spots in zones; he’s very detailed in his route running. He and Greg were both very similar when they came in. I still remember the first day that Greg was here in 2006. He ran a comeback outside, and it was just the most mature route I’d seen from a first-year player. Obviously I was just a second-year player, but you look back and go, ‘Man, that guy was really detailed in his routes.’
“The professionalism that Greg took to the team as a young player was so refreshing and surprising, because he just carried himself in a way that it was very respectful and classy, but also that he belonged. He had enough confidence in himself. I hadn’t seen that with any player until Randall. Randall came in last year, (and) again (he was) very respectful and classy, but with that kind of edge like, ‘I belong here. This isn’t too big for me.’ And it’s not that every player who comes in is overwhelmed, but you just don’t see that class and that respect and that confidence from a young player. Greg and Randall, I’ve just never seen anybody who just got it like those two guys and there’s no question why they’re such talented players."
Last season, as a 21-year-old rookie, Cobb made his share of mistakes. In fact, in the team’s season-opening victory over New Orleans, he made two – and scored a touchdown on each of them. He ran the wrong route on his touchdown catch, and he violated what was then special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum’s rule about bringing a kickoff out of the end zone from more than 5 yards deep. (That rule has since been abolished, thanks to Cobb’s 108-yard touchdown on the play.)
This season, the Packers felt so good about Cobb’s accelerated learning and versatility – he played quarterback, running back and wide receiver in college – that they developed more plays specifically designed for him. He’s only carried the ball three times, but he’s put up 67 rushing yards for a gaudy 22.3-yard average and also lines up in the backfield frequently to create mismatches. He has not yet thrown a pass, but he did throw one last Dec. 4 against the New York Giants, so it’s in the playbook.
And, most important, he’s developed into a Jennings-esque big-play, legit wide receiver, catching seven passes for 102 yards and a touchdown at Houston on Oct. 14, then following that performance up with eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns – plus a 19-yard run – in last Sunday’s victory in St. Louis.
“He’s made very good improvement from the first year to the second year. He’s still learning, but he’s a quick learner and he’s a productive guy right now,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “Hopefully he can increase that and continue moving forward.
“Not everyone can do it. But he’s able to do that because he has a good understanding of the game generally, he played quarterback at some point in the past and he was used in college similarly to the way we’re using him now. He understands defenses and can understand why we’re trying to do things and what the defense is trying to do, and that’s helpful. The more knowledgeable you are about what the defense is doing and what you’re supposed to do, it helps you be productive.”
Cobb has certainly been that, although for all his maturity and Jennings-like ability, he confessed that at a point last season he behaved like, well, a rookie.
“I feel like midway through the season, I felt comfortable with my position instead of being hungry for more and continuing to have success and try to get better at my craft every day,” Cobb admitted. “This offseason, I just took a whole different approach and got back to the old me.”
That approach has continued to impress Rodgers, who has continued to heap praise on Cobb – to the point that he claimed to be out of compliments earlier this week. He also felt compelled to pull Cobb aside and warn him.
“I told him in the weight room yesterday, ‘I’ve been giving you a lot of praise. You have a lot to live up to. Don’t let me down.’ And we had a good laugh,” Rodgers said. “He’s doing a real good. I’m just proud of him. Just being in the business for eight years now – you pull for the good guys. You pull for the guys who do it the right way. He’s easy to root for because he really cares about it, and I think he has a lot of leadership ability that you’re going to see come out in the next couple of years as he gets more confident in speaking up.
“But I’m just really proud of him and the way that he approaches his job and the ability that he has shown on the field. It’s fun to give him opportunities because I think he’s really earned it.”
While Rodgers is thinking long-term with Cobb, he’s simply focusing on the here and now. Despite his expanded role on offense, he’s maintained his kick- and punt-return duties, and he doesn’t expect that to change.
“Right now is the only thing we’re worried about. We’re worried about this year and getting to the Super Bowl this year. If it takes me doing both this year, then that’s all I’m worried about right now,” Cobb said. “The future will be the future, and only time can tell that. Right now I’m going to do everything I can to contribute and help this team.
“I believe every guy in this locker room knows what they’re capable of doing personally. Whenever we have the opportunity, it’s next man up. We never want to see one of our guys go down, but when they do, you have to have the next man ready.