GREEN BAY — Mike McCarthy views play-calling through a somewhat simple lens.
While the Green Bay Packers coach’s offensive scheme may be a complicated jumble of X’s and O’s to the untrained eye, and his mammoth laminated game-day menu of potential calls offers lots of options, McCarthy says his focus isn’t on the plays as much as it is on his players.
To McCarthy, it is really about creating opportunities for each of his guys. And throughout the offseason and into training camp, one thing gnawed at him most: That he’d failed last season to get Randall Cobb enough chances to touch the football.
“It’s important to make sure you create opportunities for all these guys,” McCarthy said during the offseason. “And how can you get Randall the ball a couple more times a game? Those are the things I think about at night — just making sure that our system has something for everybody. Because you need everybody. You need to make sure the right guys are touching the ball as much as possible.”
And while more goes into getting someone the football than simply dialing up plays where he’ll be featured — the defense’s coverage, quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ innate ability to improvise, the timing of the whole operation — McCarthy accomplished his mission to get more Cobb more involved during Sunday’s season-opening victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Cobb led the Packers in targets (13), receptions (nine) and receiving yards (85). He played 63 of the Packers’ 82 offensive snaps, and despite the much-trumpeted offseason additions of Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks at tight end, the Packers’ most-used personnel group on offense was three wide receivers (Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Cobb), one tight end (Bennett) and one back (Ty Montgomery).
“Just trying to get open, trying to make the plays when they were there,” Cobb replied when asked about his performance. “We had opportunities and (I) just tried to make the most out of them.”
Bennett (3 catches, 43 yards) and Kendricks (2 catches, 18 yards) were involved, but Cobb, Nelson (7 catches, 79 yards, TD) and Adams (3 catches, 47 yards) were targeted a combined 28 times to the tight ends’ 10.
“We all benefit from one another,” Nelson said. “We know the more weapons we get on the field, the more opportunities we get, the more one-on-one matchups we get. You’ve just got to go win your matchups. (Cobb) had some big plays for us — big plays early. He’s a guy that can take a 5-yard catch and turn it into 50 in a heartbeat. For somewhat of a smaller guy, he’s extremely physical and takes a lot of pride in what he does.”
Ideally, McCarthy and Rodgers would like to spread the ball around even more, and the expected return of No. 4 wide receiver Geronimo Allison, who served a one-game NFL suspension for the opener, will add another passing-game weapon.
But for Rodgers, who was a groomsman in Cobb’s offseason wedding and has been a staunch defender of his friend, getting Cobb the ball is a priority because he knows what happens when he does — like in the NFC wild card playoffs, when Cobb caught five passes for 116 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s sometimes a forgotten guy in the mix — especially with the way Davante played in training camp and Jordy’s pedigree and the stuff he’s accomplished,” Rodgers said. “But Randall is a great football player. He’s very reliable, he ran a number of great routes (against Seattle) to get open, and he just made some really heady plays for us.”
Added offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett: “He’s one of our playmakers. You’re talking about a guy that continues to produce — he makes plays, he breaks tackles. You look at some of the big plays he had (Sunday), explosive gains, it gets the team going. That’s something that Randall’s done his entire career.”
After a breakout season in 2014 (91 receptions, 1,287 yards, 12 TDs) led to a four-year, $40 million contract, Cobb has struggled through back-to-back injury-plagued seasons that led to some outsiders questioning his value.
Battling shoulder injuries all year, Cobb caught 71 passes for 829 yards and six touchdowns in 2015 — numbers that, while solid, weren’t enough for a team that lost Nelson to a season-ending knee injury in August.
Last season, Cobb caught just 60 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns, missing three games with hamstring and ankle injuries. It was his least-productive season since missing 10 games with a broken leg in 2013.
Now healthy, the Packers hope to keep Cobb that way — and keep getting him the ball.
“Randall said it the other day — and I don’t want to speak for him, but — if he’s healthy for 16 games, he’s going to put up the numbers he’s always put up,” Nelson said. “He’s hit some rough patches the last couple years of being a little banged up and missing some games. That’s more of an issue there than what he’s able to do.”