Cobb's Touchdown Part of Special Teams Story

Randall Cobb won't get any leeway even though league-wide results on kickoffs defied conventional wisdom. Bill Huber provides the local perspective from Monday's news conference and Len Pasquarelli lends a national viewpoint from the surprising results.

Upon further review: Randall Cobb still screwed up by taking a third-quarter kickoff out of the end zone.

"I was thrilled with the result, don't get me wrong," coach Mike McCarthy said with a smile at a short Monday news conference.

Still, Cobb won't be given a little leeway to bring out kicks that go deeper than 5 yards into the end zone, even though he tied an NFL record with a 108-yard touchdown. And he won't get additional leeway, either, just because kickoff returners across the league defied conventional wisdom by returning three for touchdowns heading into Monday night's doubleheader.

"It's very important, whether it's Randall Cobb returning kicks or any other player, to coach the gray area," McCarthy said. "Anybody can coach after the game, or anybody can coach Monday morning, (but) that was a minus decision. We spend a lot of time just in base rules, base adjustments, of coaching the gray area. Eight yards deep's not gray. That was something, you learn from it and you take them through, ‘Where is the line making it gray, when you bring it out, when you don't?' We're thinking 5 yards deep, and the flight of the ball has a lot to do with it, too. We'll just continue to coach through those type of situations to make sure that the players are being decisive and making good decisions that put all 11 players on the field in synch. That's what it's all about. Decision-makers on offense, defense and special teams have to put the other 10 in a position to be successful, because if they're making decisions that are not in line with the other 10 players that are doing them, it's not going to work."

The rules change had an impact on special teams going far beyond Cobb breaking an almost 11-year drought between kickoff-return touchdowns for the Packers.

One conclusion of some special teams coaches, to whom The Sports Xchange's Len Pasquarelli spoke on Sunday night and Monday morning: The competition committee can create all kinds of rules to alter the game — in this case, with the switches ostensibly aimed at engendering a safer environment on kickoffs — but better tackling and improved special teams play early in the season can't necessarily be legislated.

"In just about any season," said one veteran NFC special teams coach, "you hold your breath a little bit (on runbacks), because you have a lot of turnover (on special teams), and you know you're going to be a little ragged out of the gate until those guys get settled in. This year, with no minicamps or OTAs to work on some of the finer points, it was probably worse."

Even with the new kickoff rule, which, in theory, should lead to fewer returns?

Said another special teams coach: "Yeah, just as much, probably."

Sloppy tackling, even from scrimmage, has been a deficiency in the game for a number of years. Form tackling, with players breaking down into classic hitting position and then wrapping securely, seems to be a vanishing art. That was evident on Cobb's return, when he spun off a tackler landing a blow with his shoulder but not wrapping up. The shortcomings are more magnified on special teams, where the field is more spread, and the missed tackles are more obvious. Compounding the problem this season was the lack of work in the spring, a compacted training camp schedule that likely meant less work for special teams units, less live hitting and an unexpectedly large rookie class.

Even speaking not for attribution, specials teams coaches were reluctant to concede that their units were provided less practice time in camps this year. But with the compressed preparation period, it's likely some elements got short shrift, and the kicking game may have been among them.

Also, the conventional wisdom during the lockout was that fewer rookies, particularly undrafted players, would earn roster spots. But that wasn't the case and, as usual, many of those rookies found homes on special teams coverage units. The notion that many franchises would retain veteran players in the four- to six-year range — veterans who were not starters but who filled out special teams units and didn't need acclimation to the kicking game — didn't really bear fruition.

The upshot was that some special teams coaches suffered the same kinds of uneven results they have in most early-season games, even with the new kickoff rule.

Beyond the combined seven kickoff and punt returns for scores, there was a blocked punt for a touchdown.

In virtually any season, it takes a few weeks for the special teams units to jibe. The weekend was no different. Couple the newness of the units with the shoddy tackling that has become so prevalent in the league — and which will continue to be a problem with the new CBA rules governing contact during practice — and it helped to counter, to some degree, the new kickoff rules.

One special teams coach pointed out that, while he and his colleagues around the NFL would "love to take credit" for doodling up the perfect return blocking scheme, most touchdowns on kickoff and punt runbacks generally include at least one missed tackle or a cover player being badly out of position.

That was the case on each of the seven returns for touchdowns in the first 14 games.

Fueled by the three runbacks for touchdowns, kickoffs were returned for an average of 27.7 yards in the first 14 games, a pretty healthy mark. Again, those numbers are no doubt skewed, and bloated by the touchdown runbacks of Cobb, Percy Harvin and Ted Ginn Jr. Still, they might provide return men some solace for the first few weeks of the season, until coverage units become more cohesive.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.


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