At his locker Wednesday, Randall Cobb stopped and stared. He pursed his lips. He lowered his head. For six seconds, the Green Bay Packers receiver was silent.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” Cobb said finally. “I don’t know what you want to hear. I’m going to go out, and I’m going to play better for this team. I’m going to do more. I’m going to be the best Randall I can be.”
It has been an underwhelming season for the 25-year-old, a year removed from his first Pro Bowl. Cobb signed a $40 million contract in March, and with it came expectations. Nearing the season’s midway point, he hasn’t met them.
In seven games, Cobb has gained fewer than 50 receiving yards five times. He hasn’t scored a touchdown since September. It’s November now, and Cobb’s 36 catches are tied for 35th in the NFL. His 377 receiving yards are tied for 43rd.
Cobb’s 82-catch, 861-yard pace is far from the 91 catches for 1,287 yards he had last fall.
What’s the difference this season? Jordy Nelson’s absence is most obvious. A year ago, Cobb and Nelson were a record-setting duo, fitting together like two puzzle pieces. Nelson stretched the field vertically, providing a big-play threat. Cobb, with his quickness, took advantage of open space underneath.
There is less open space with Nelson off the field. If anyone is affected by Nelson’s absence, it’s the slot receiver. Cobb averaged 4.5 yards on six catches against the Broncos on Sunday. His longest catch was for 17 yards, which means the other five receptions averaged two yards.
Cobb’s average of 10.5 yards per catch this season is the lowest of his career, falling below his 11.9 yards per catch in 2012. In his other three seasons, Cobb has averaged at least 14 yards per catch.
So he was asked whether he’s still learning how to play without his All-Pro teammate. Given the chance to make a reasonable excuse, he didn’t take it.
“I feel like it’s my fault,” Cobb said. “I feel like it’s on me. I’ve got to make more plays when I get opportunities.”
No one is immune from blame for the Packers’ offensive struggles that have persisted for more than a month. Even quarterback Aaron Rodgers was critical of himself Wednesday, three days after the Packers' first loss this season.
Rodgers remembered overthrowing a wide-open Cobb in the second half against the Denver Broncos, a play that could have resulted in a touchdown.
“I missed some throws I usually hit,” Rodgers said. “I missed a few that I’m used to hitting, which is disappointing. I have to do a better job of hitting the ones you should hit.”
So Cobb isn’t the only one responsible for the Packers’ passing offense falling to No. 27 in the NFL. Far from it. James Jones, a revelation in September, has been held to five catches and 109 yards in the past three games. Davante Adams had one catch for eight yards against the Broncos.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Jones said. “When you get hit in the mouth, there’s a lot of people you can point fingers at. You can point it at the quarterback. You can point it at the receivers. You can point it at the O line. We all watched the film today. We know that we all played some bad football on Sunday. We know that we’ve got to get better, and everybody’s got to get better individually.”
The finger pointing usually starts at quarterback. If he meets expectations – Rodgers’ 15 touchdowns and two interceptions aren’t too shabby – then the finger pointing follows a hierarchy.
Ty Montgomery is a rookie.
Adams is in his second season.
Jones is playing for a league-minimum salary.
Cobb? He’s the $40 million man.
Through the season’s first three games, Cobb played like it. He had eight catches for 116 yards against the Seattle Seahawks, his best game coming against the defending NFC champions. The next week, Cobb caught three touchdown passes against the Kansas City Chiefs, his highest-scoring game coming in the Packers’ highest-scoring game.
Since then, he has averaged four catches and 33 yards in the past four games. Perhaps it’s no coincidence the Packers have averaged 19.5 points in that stretch. An offense tends to produce only as much as its stars.
Coach Mike McCarthy isn’t calling out his players. Asked whether Rodgers should “widen his definition” of an open receiver, the coach refused to answer.
“Next question,” he said.
McCarthy isn’t placing all the blame on the receivers, either.
“This is not a one-position issue,” McCarthy said. “It’s everything involved. I think you have to cut right to the chase of it. First, we look at the opportunities. Our total plays is way down, and there are things that factor into that.
“This is not just about the receivers not getting open.”
It’s not going to get any easier for Cobb this season. With Nelson out, he’s the player every defensive coordinator is scheming to stop. With the success teams have had slowing down the Packers’ offense, that isn’t going to change.
Rodgers said he expects more teams to play like the Broncos, crowding the line of scrimmage in press man-to-man coverage. It’s the riddle Cobb has to figure out.
“I think we all have pride in ourself and in our team,” Cobb said. “That was an embarrassing loss. We’re just ready to move on to the next week. We’re ready to get to Sunday.”
-firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood