GREEN BAY — For all the words and stories dedicated to the forced ascendancy of Green Bay Packers cornerback LaDarius Gunter, a former undrafted free agent hoisted to the No. 1 spot as injuries ravaged his colleagues, there lurks a disconsolate B-side chronicling another player’s startling fall.
A year ago, rookie Damarious Randall sat atop the depth chart as the Packers entered the playoffs seeded fifth. Drafted in the first round a few months prior, Randall replaced Casey Hayward as a starting corner and equipped himself fairly well as the fill-in for veteran Sam Shields, whose recovery from a concussion exceeded a month. Though his blown coverage against the Arizona Cardinals all but eliminated the Packers from the playoffs, Randall finished the season with more interceptions (four) than anyone else on the team.
But a future that glistened quickly dimmed as Randall endured what the Packers hope is nothing more than a sophomore slump in 2016. A season that began with the winning play in Jacksonville devolved into routine beatings, at least one benching and a timeshare on the injury report, where problems with his groin, shoulder, knee and foot have all been noted.
Now, as the Packers prepare for the NFC championship game against the Atlanta Falcons, you wonder if Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff know which version of Randall to expect.
“Obviously I’m a better corner than what I’ve been showing,” Randall said. “But the injuries have been hampering me a little bit. At the end of the day, the injuries hampered Davante Adams last year, and now he comes back and now he’s one of the top receivers up in the league this year. What does he got, 12 or 13 touchdowns this year?
“I know a lot of people were counting him out saying he’s a bust, saying this and that, so we’re just going to keep on pushing forward. I just guess that whenever my body feels 100 percent and everybody starts jumping back up on the bandwagon, I think my truck will be pretty big for them to jump on.”
Randall's fan base appeared to swell after a solid training camp and tremendous performance in the season opener against the Jaguars. Randall, playing again as the No. 1 corner after Shields exited with another concussion, exhibited terrific instincts and recognition on the game’s defining play.
As the Packers clung to a four-point lead, Randall sliced across the line of scrimmage on fourth and 1 to disrupt a bubble screen with 23 seconds remaining. His intrusion caused wide receiver Allen Hurns to fall short of a first down, sealing a win for the Packers. The cruciality of the play was reminiscent of Randall’s game-winning pass breakup against the San Diego Chargers last season.
Then came his precipitous fall:
- In Week 2, Randall followed wide receiver Stefon Diggs for the majority of the Packers’ loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Diggs torched him repeatedly and finished with nine catches for 182 yards and a touchdown.
- One week later, Randall made a terrific interception early in the game against the Detroit Lions before his afternoon worsened. On a day that receiver Marvin Jones Jr. finished with six catches for 205 yards and two touchdowns, Randall was at least partially responsible for plenty of them.
- Randall injured his groin in Week 5 against the New York Giants, which in many ways foreshadowed the difficulty to come. The groin ultimately required surgery in late October, and it can be argued that Randall hasn’t been the same since.
- He returned cautiously in Week 12 against the Philadelphia Eagles, a game that ignited what is now an eight-game winning streak for the Packers. Randall missed multiple tackles that evening and flashed the timidity he has struggled with down the stretch, something he attributes to playing through injuries.
- A decent game against the Houston Texans was followed by two interceptions in the demolition of the Seattle Seahawks as Randall flashed the ball skills that, when healthy, make him the most valuable corner not named Sam Shields.
- But one week later the coaches benched Randall in Chicago after he yielded big gains in the second half. His tackling was untrustworthy. He was bowled over for a touchdown by wideout Josh Bellamy. “Ask my coaches,” Randall said when reporters questioned him about being pulled. “Don’t ask me. Ask my coaches.”
- A knee injury popped up against Detroit in the regular-season finale. Randall bounced in and out of the lineup but could not finish the game. Then he suffered a foot injury during the final practice before flying to Dallas last week. He wound up playing but was turned around on a number of routes by wide receiver Terrance Williams. He gave up a touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten off a play-action fake in an altogether dreadful performance.
“Being a cornerback out there on an island, when you’ve got something nagging you, you’re going to be thinking about that instead of maybe thinking about your technique,” Randall said this week. “That’s just something that I’ve been fighting through. That is something that will be corrected.
“My confidence is there. It was just more with the nagging injuries and just kind of thinking about the injuries as the game is going along, whether or not they get worse during the middle of the game or such and such things like that. Or maybe I have a hard time covering a certain route because of some of my injuries.”
The Packers could use a rebirth of Randall’s typical swagger against the Falcons, whose receiving corps is arguably the deepest in football. Even if Gunter is asked to shadow Julio Jones, who Randall described as “top-two, top-one, the best receiver in the league,” there are still difficult matchups across the field with Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, both of whom scored against the Packers in Week 8.
Randall's job becomes even harder if Gunter doesn't shadow Jones. In that case, he too would spend time covering Atlanta's best weapon.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s fought through a ton of things,” McCarthy said of Randall. “I’m very pleased just to see him overcome the number of different injuries that he’s had to deal with. I thought he looked great at practice (Wednesday) and we’re obviously going to need him to play big in this game.”
In addition to Gunter and Randall, it appears Quinten Rollins is on the verge of returning after suffering a neck injury and concussion in Week 17. Should Rollins clear the concussion protocol, the cornerbacks would be as healthy as they’ve been in weeks, relatively speaking.
The projected dime defense would feature Gunter, Randall, Rollins, Micah Hyde, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and either Kentrell Brice or Morgan Burnett, who is questionable with a quadriceps injury suffered against the Cowboys.
“You get to this time of year and players, they have certain things where they’re banged up,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “It’s just a matter of where they are and their ability to go out and play at a high level.”
It means Sunday’s game is about mind over matter as much as anything else. In the biggest game of his young career, Randall must find a way to push through pain.
“Things are different because my mind is accustomed to my body being a certain way,” Randall said. “Whenever you rely on so much of your athletic ability to make a lot of your plays, and then when some of it is gone it’s like your mind has to catch back up with your body.
“I be seeing the things guys write. But I could care less because at the end of the day this organization believes in me and I believe in myself, and we’re about to go win the Super Bowl.”