GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jeremy Ross had his chance as the Packers’ new return specialist in the postseason. A muffed punt in a critical moment of a playoff game may yet make Ross a former Packers’ return specialist.
Ross could get another shot next season, but one thing is nearly certain: Randall Cobb’s days on special teams are over.
“I hope (Cobb) is not playing (special teams) next year,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the Scouting Combine. “That’s really the responsibility of the rest of the skill players in the locker room. I prefer not to play (Cobb) on special teams. We’ll let time answer that.”
Cobb, a second-round pick by Green Bay in 2011, took over the return responsibilities immediately as a rookie. In his first NFL game, he ran back a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown and has been a dynamic force on the Packers’ special teams ever since.
“Our special teams in a number of areas was about as good as we’ve played in our time there in Green Bay, and Randall is a big part of that,” McCarthy said.
Perhaps McCarthy meant that Cobb was a big part of that.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the first person within the organization to state publicly that Cobb should stick to wide receiver. After Cobb — who was Green Bay’s leading receiver last season — injured his ankle on a punt return in Week 16, Rodgers didn’t hide his opinion.
“I hope we can get him off special teams soon,” Rodgers said.
Cobb sat out the Packers’ regular-season finale with the injury but returned for the postseason.
In Green Bay’s wild-card win over Minnesota, Cobb returned punts and Ross returned kickoffs. Though neither player contributed much in that game on special teams, they both secured the ball every time they touched it.
A week later in the divisional-round game at San Francisco, with Ross now also on punt returns, his inexperience became apparent at the most inopportune time for the Packers.
Midway through the second quarter with Green Bay leading the 49ers, 14-7, Ross muffed a punt at the 10 yard-line. San Francisco recovered and scored a touchdown three plays later. The Packers were never able to regain the lead as their season came to an end.
That wasn’t Ross’ only notable blunder last season. Late in the game in Chicago in Week 15, Ross was on the receiving end of a misguided special teams trick play drawn up by McCarthy. Cobb caught the punt and threw it across the field to Ross. The pass from Cobb wasn’t right on target, but Ross was unable to come up with it as the Bears took over near the goal line.
Ross, 25, has the talent and the right mix of skills to be a successful returner. In college at the University of California, he finished his career ranked second on the program’s all-time punt return list with a 15.2-yard average.
During various practices in recent years, the Packers have given some return game chances to cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams, as well as wide receiver Jordy Nelson. Considering the importance of those three players on defense and offense, they — like Cobb — likely won’t be considered for the return role next season.
Despite Ross’ struggles, this may still be his job to lose. At the moment, the Packers don’t have another suitable replacement option for Cobb.
If Ross’ confidence is shaken from his rough rookie season, there may be nothing that can bring it back. Even more difficult for Ross may be regaining the confidence of the coaching staff.
But with McCarthy joining Rodgers in wanting Cobb off special teams, it’s safe to assume Green Bay will not be putting its star receiver in harm’s way next season.