This Time, Risk Outweighs Return Reward

The Packers are taking an enormous gamble with Randall Cobb returning punts to start this season. The gamble made sense in 2011 and even 2012. Not anymore, given Micah Hyde's production last season and the offensive depth chart this season.

In 2011, rookie Randall Cobb solved the Green Bay Packers’ longtime problems on kickoff and punt returns.

In 2012, Cobb remained the team’s primary kick returner for most of the season, even though he went from No. 5 among wide receivers and No. 7 overall on the team in receptions to the team’s leader in receptions and receiving yards.

It was at that point when special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum and coach Mike McCarthy started fielding questions about the risk-reward of having Cobb returning kicks.

“I don’t really think you can play these division games and think about being cautious,” Slocum said before the Dec. 2, 2012, game against Minnesota. “Every play counts. It’s all about field position, it’s about scoring opportunities.”

In 2013, the Packers finally got cautious with Cobb. Even with Jeremy Ross bumbling and fumbling his way out of a job, the Packers didn’t turn to Cobb until the playoffs, instead settling on Micah Hyde to return kickoffs and punts for most of the season.

Hyde did well, especially on punt returns. His 12.3-yard average on punt returns ranked fifth in the NFL. More importantly, Green Bay led the league with opponents averaging 35.6 net yards per punt.

Despite Hyde’s success last season, the Packers are rolling the dice this year with Cobb returning punts. The gamble made sense in 2012, even with Cobb’s breakout season in the passing game. After all, James Jones (64 receptions, 14 touchdowns), Jordy Nelson (49 and seven) and Greg Jennings (36 and four) were proven commodities on offense, and old pro Donald Driver was stuck on the bench.

The gamble makes no sense at all in 2014. Nelson, Cobb and Jarrett Boykin are the only proven commodities at receiver. No, they’re the only proven commodities in the passing game. Receivers Davante Adams and Jeff Janis and tight end Richard Rodgers are rookies. Tight end Brandon Bostick, who is sidelined with a leg injury, has seven career receptions. Andrew Quarless is a decent role player but not a front-line threat.

While Cobb is practically irreplaceable given his talent and the lack of depth at receiver, Hyde plays at a position of strength. He played 52 of 70 snaps against Seattle in a rotation at safety with first-round pick HaHa Clinton-Dix and manning the dime position.

“I wasn’t disappointed,” Hyde said about not returning punts. “I knew that whoever is back there is going to have an opportunity to make some plays. I have full faith in Coach with whoever he puts back there. I would like to be back there. I can speak for the other three guys that catch punts in practice, everyone wants to be back there and make plays. I think that whoever is back there is going to have an opportunity to make some plays and we’re all cheering for that person.”

It was typical of Hyde to take the high road. But facts are facts. His 12.3-yard average and one touchdown on punt returns in 2013 is better than Cobb’s numbers in 2012 (9.4 average and one touchdown) and 2011 (11.3 average and one touchdown).

“It’s more about we’re going to use our best guys and go into the game and try to max out our roster and put the guys that we feel like can impact the game in every spot that we can,” Slocum said on Monday.

It was as if Hyde’s season never happened.

McCarthy last week said his focus was providing the special teams the “resources to be successful.” Is Cobb a better punt returner than Hyde? Perhaps, but any difference between the two isn’t significant enough to risk the welfare of the entire offense.


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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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