GREEN BAY, Wis. – Put the ball in Randall Cobb's hands, and good things tend to happen.
He's the Green Bay Packers' leading receiver, with 45 catches. He's tied for third in the NFL with six touchdown catches, and no one's been better over the last three games, when he's had five scoring grabs. His rushing average of 16 yards per carry is four times better than the Green Bay average. He's responsible for one of the five punts returned for a score this season, and is averaging better than 11 yards a return.
And in his spare time, he spells the beer vendors at Lambeau Field.
OK, that last part isn't true. But in his second NFL season, there seems to be very little Cobb can't do.
"Oh, man, Randall's a playmaker. He's a mismatch problem for a lot of people," James Jones said after Cobb padded his touchdown tally with two in Sunday's 31-17 victory over Arizona. "He can play wide receiver, running back, kickoff return, punt return, and he does 'em all well. He ain't just good at punt returning or something, he's a great receiver. So having him on our team, it's going to be tough to stop."
The Packers (6-3) rolled into this weekend's bye on a four-game winning streak that has them back in contention for the NFC North title. They trail Chicago by 1½ games, with five of their last seven against division opponents, including a Dec. 16 showdown at Soldier Field.
Green Bay's turnaround comes despite a laundry list of injuries that would have leveled most other teams. Top receiver Greg Jennings has missed most of the season with a torn abdominal muscle. Rodgers' next-favorite target, Jordy Nelson, returned Sunday from the hamstring injury that kept him out of the Jacksonville game only to sprain his ankle the first time the ball was thrown his way.
Workhorse running back Cedric Benson is out until at least mid-December with a foot injury. James Starks got healthy only to have John Kuhn get hurt. And on and on and on it goes. Add it up, and 12 players who were starters or projected to be starters have missed a total of 40 games.
But the emergence of Cobb has helped keep Green Bay's offense humming.
"He can do a lot of different things," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "We're just trying to find different ways to do it, get his hands on the ball, because he can make things happen."
Over the last six games — or since Jennings went out — Cobb has 34 catches for 404 yards, an average of almost 12 yards per catch. He's scored all six of his touchdowns, and had the first 100-yard receiving game of his career, against Houston.
All that, and he's still Green Bay's main return guy, among the league leaders in both punt return average (11.1) and kickoff return average (27.8).
"I love the game, man," Cobb said. "As long as I'm on the field and I'm contributing and helping, that's all I can ask for."
The Packers were attracted by Cobb's versatility at Kentucky, where he played receiver and quarterback, as well as returned kicks. As a junior, Cobb was the only player in the country to rank first or second on his team in receiving, rushing and passing, and he still holds the SEC single-season record for all-purpose yardage, with 2,396 in 2010.
He made an impression in his very first game with the Packers, matching the NFL record with a 108-yard kickoff return and scoring another touchdown on a 32-yard reception. Cobb would return a punt for a touchdown later in the year, and would be chosen a Pro Bowl alternate as a kick returner.
"He wasn't arrogant in the locker room, but you could tell that he belonged and he felt like he did," Aaron Rodgers said earlier this season. "He had a confidence about himself, and Randall has been that guy since he got here."
The Packers had so much faith in Cobb that Clements said they began plotting ways to get him more involved as soon as last season ended.
"These plays we're running now, with him in the backfield and moving him around, we've been working on them since the spring," Clements said.
Despite his quick success last year, Cobb wasn't satisfied.
"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," he said. "This offseason I just took a whole different approach and got back to the old me."
As Packers coaches were concocting ways to get the ball in Cobb's hands more often, he was huddling with Rodgers. He picked the reigning NFL MVP's brain about what he saw on the field, and told Rodgers what he was seeing. They talked about routes on specific plays so Cobb could get a better idea of what Rodgers was looking for and where he'd go next if things broke down. They examined the challenges different defenses gave the Packers.
Those intense study sessions would make any player better, and the fact Cobb was a former quarterback only helped him pick it up quicker.
"He understands the timing that a quarterback has to have, when he's got to get open," Rodgers said. "You have to make sure that you're breaking at the proper time where the quarterback can deliver the ball on time, and he does a great job really understanding where he's at in the progression and the time clock."
Rodgers hasn't been shy in his praise for Cobb, going so far as to say he'll be one of the best draft picks general manager Ted Thompson has ever made, if not the best. Considering Thompson also drafted Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Jennings, Jones and B.J. Raji, that's saying something.
"I feel like I have a wide range of stuff I've been able to do, and a wide understanding," Cobb said. "But I still haven't perfected all those things, so it's a daily battle for me to go out and work and get better at the little details every day."
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