Randall Cobb answered the question Monday the way he always answers the question.
The Green Bay Packers’ third-year wide receiver and part-time – so far, anyway – return man has, since early last season, had a stock reply at the ready for any and all questions about his role in the Packers’ return game. On Monday, as the Packers returned to work after their bye week without having replaced the recently released Jeremy Ross with another return man on the 53-man roster, Cobb had boiled his reply down to shorthand.
“Like I said from the beginning,” Cobb said, “Great. If not, great. It is what it is.”
The full response that was assumed there was “If I’m on returns, great; if not, great.” But perhaps Cobb left out that portion because he knows he’s going to be the guy Sunday against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.
Because when he was asked if he is preparing to be the returner Sunday, Cobb said, “Yeah, I have to. That’s my job to be prepared to be that guy. I’ve prepared all through training camp, all through OTAs, I’ve been practicing it still now, so I’m prepared to go whenever my name is called.”
But should his name be called? The decision to release the underperforming Ross, who was released Sept. 23 after his muffed kickoff helped put the Packers in a 14-0 hole less than six minutes into their 34-30 loss at Cincinnati a day earlier, left the Packers with limited options beyond Cobb.
Ross had made other mistakes – his biggest being a fumbled punt to set up a San Francisco touchdown in the Packers’ NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the 49ers last January, but also hesitating on bringing a kickoff out of the end zone in the regular-season opener against the 49ers on Sept. 8 – but the only alternatives on the roster at present are rookie running back Johnathan Franklin on kickoff returns and rookie cornerback Micah Hyde on punt returns. Both saw action in those roles in preseason.
“The return game is something really will take the work to work through. We have some candidates,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Monday, after the first practice following the bye. “Whether Randall will do it or won't do it, we'll let the week play that out. It’s a focus. It’s been a focus since we made the change.”
The issue with Cobb, who leads the Packers with 21 receptions for 290 yards through three games, is that he’s playing more on offense than ever before. Entering Sunday, Cobb has played 198 of the Packers’ 218 offensive snaps (90.8 percent) while playing only sporadically on special teams. Cobb has one kickoff return (for 10 yards) and one punt return (for 16 yards) along with four fair catches on punts.
“There’s definitely pros and cons to everything we do. So it’s going to be important for us to balance those pros and cons and try to put this team in the best situation to win in the long run,” Cobb said of the return possibility. “Nothing’s changed so far. I’m still practicing the same way I’ve been practicing, the way I’ve practiced all through OTAs, all through training camp, as a returner. We don’t know for certain what the deal’s going to be. In this business anything can change. It’s a lot of time before the game, so we don’t know what it’s going to be when the time comes. As of right now, I’ve got to prepare myself for me being that guy.”
Asked if playing so many snaps on offense might impact his effectiveness on special teams, Cobb replied, “I really don’t know. I’m out there to play every down as hard as I can and give 100 percent effort, 110 percent effort every play that I’m out there. So regardless of whether it’s a special teams play or offensive play I’ve got to go out there with the same mindset, the same mentality.”
One other possibility would be newly signed practice-squad return man Reggie Dunn, who was the all-Pacific 12 returner last season at Utah, where he averaged 51.3 yards per return on 10 kickoff returns and had four touchdowns. In 2010, the 5-foot-9 Dunn shared time with Shaky Smithson, an all-American returner who went to two training camps with the Packers; in 2011, he returned 26 kickoffs for a 23.6-yard average; and midway through last season, he reclaimed the role and put up those gaudy numbers on 10 returns before opponents started kicking away from him. He never returned a punt in college.
“Right now, I just got here. (I’m on the) practice squad. The only thing I can do is work hard and try to work my way up,” Dunn said. “Hopefully as the weeks go by, I can impress some of the coaches and show I can be a help to the team and help the team win games. But as of right now, I’m on the practice squad. I just got here. The only thing I can do is work hard every day, try to bond with some of the guys and work hard.”
The basic premise behind Cobb not being the team’s primary returner is simple: He’s become too valuable to the offense to be risked on returns. While McCarthy and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum have disputed that notion, Cobb didn’t exactly disagree with it when it came up Monday as he spoke with reporters in the locker room.
For his career, Cobb has returned 58 punts for a 10.4-yard average with two touchdowns, averaging 11.3 yards per return as a rookie and 9.4 yards per return last year before Ross took over; and returned 73 kickoffs for a 26.2-yard average with one touchdown, averaging 27.7 yards per return as a rookie and 25.4 yards per return last year.
Asked if he missed being on returns, Cobb didn’t say yes.
“I love football. I love everything about football. I love being on the field,” he said. “So regardless of if it’s offense, defense, special teams, whatever it is, if I’m out on the field, I’m enjoying it. I just love being out there. It doesn’t matter to me.”
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.