GREEN BAY - Temperatures flashed single digits on the Soldier Field scoreboard last December as Randall Cobb emerged from the tunnel, testing his ankle hours before kickoff.
One week before Christmas, the arctic wind off Lake Michigan brought one of the coldest games in Chicago Bears history. Cobb, questionable on the injury report, was limited in practice all week. Seven days earlier, the Green Bay Packers receiver was carted off the field with a sprained ankle, only to return for the second half.
That decision may have been unwise. This one, Cobb said, definitely was.
In Chicago, he jogged through a series of drills designed to stress his ankle. They lasted only a few minutes, enough for Cobb to understand his limitations.
“I could barely walk,” he said.
He kept that tidbit to himself. When the Packers asked their receiver whether he could play, he didn’t hesitate.
Cobb took 51 snaps against the Bears. He barely left the field, but you wouldn’t notice. For only the second time in his career, and the first time since his rookie season, Cobb didn’t catch a pass.
He only saw one target.
“I realized about midway through the game that I probably wasn’t good (to play),” Cobb said. “So that’s definitely on me, but I think that goes to show how much our coaching staff and our training staff believe in my word, and my ability.”
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No player wants to tap out. The greatest ability in the NFL is availability, they say. Enticing players to grit through injuries, contracts include roster bonuses.
Miss a week, don’t collect your game check.
Cobb’s determination goes beyond dollars. Pound for pound, the 5-foot-10, 192-pound receiver may be the toughest Packer. It’s what coaches love about him. Inside their locker room, they point to Cobb as an example — living, breathing proof of how to play through pain.
But Cobb’s injuries lingered each of the past two seasons, possibly derailing them. In 2015, Cobb tore his right shoulder’s AC joint during the preseason, but he returned for the regular-season opener. Discomfort followed him through the fall.
Cobb missed one game with a strained hamstring last October. He was determined not to miss a week with his sprained ankle. After 51 unproductive snaps in Chicago, the Packers made Cobb’s decision for him.
He missed the final two games last season, returning fresh for the NFC wild card game against the New York Giants.
“It definitely helped a lot,” Cobb said.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence Cobb had his best game last season against the Giants after taking a couple weeks off. He caught five passes, three for touchdowns. His 116 yards — 42 coming on a Hail Mary before halftime — were a season high.
Those 100-yard games have become rarer for Cobb since 2014, a career year that led to a new $40 million deal.
Cobb combined for 10 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016, two fewer than in 2014. His career-high 1,287 yards (on 91 catches) from 2014 almost mirror the 1,439 yards (on 139 catches) he had the past two years.
Now Cobb enters the third season on that contract, crossing the midway point, still trying to match the production he showed in 2014.
“Bounce-back year,” Cobb said, “that comes from a stats perspective. I think when people watch the games, they don’t pay attention to that. They just look at the stats. I feel like if you go watch my film and watch the tape, there’s opportunities there. We have a lot of guys here and the ball gets spread around in different situations.
“I don’t know what to say. I had one of the highest catch percentages in the league, and I feel like those stats speak for themselves. I’ll let that noise be the noise, and I’m going to continue to do what I need to do to get myself into position to help this team.”
Cobb’s 71 percent catch rate indeed was impressive. He was the league's only receiver with at least 50 targets without a drop, according to Pro Football Focus. But big plays have become few.
In 2014, Cobb had a 20-yard catch in 14 regular-season games. He had a 20-yard catch in six regular-season games last season.
The diminished production is easy to see. What’s harder to judge is how much injuries drove his decline. Cobb, wondering if his determination to play limited him more than any secondary, said he needs to be more forthright when discussing his physical limitations with the medical staff.
“I think definitely that’s on me to understand being tough and being smart,” Cobb said. “So trying to find that fine line, and I think our training staff does a great job of helping me, especially in those last couple of weeks (last season), of setting that line.”
The Packers are unlikely to release Cobb, despite the contract. They value his versatility, which extends to special teams. In the open field, they believe he can make big plays.
There’s been less open field — Jordy Nelson isn’t the same vertical threat he was in 2014 — but Cobb’s opportunities didn’t diminish until last season. His 129 targets in 2015 were two more than he had in 2014. Cobb had 84 targets in 13 games last season, roughly 1½ targets fewer per game than the previous two years.
Receivers coach Luke Getsy stopped short of saying the Packers need to get Cobb more touches, but he was clear the seventh-year veteran remains an important piece to the offense.
“You take the Giants game early (last) year,” Getsy said, “and it’s third-and-long and we throw the ball way short of the sticks, and he’s the only guy on the football team that makes that play for us. That’s why we say we’ve got to get him the ball, because he’s such an impactful guy, and he’s going to do it again.”
One way for Cobb to make a bigger impact would be returning to his roots.
He had big-play potential as a punt returner early in his career, with one touchdown in each of his first two seasons. After returning 26 punt returns as a rookie and 31 in his second season, Cobb has 25 total the past four years.
The Packers rotated Cobb in punt-return reps through the spring and first two days of camp, though Trevor Davis may be the early favorite for the job. Cobb made it clear he wants to win that competition.
“Punt return has always been a part of who I am as a player,” Cobb said. “That’s always been something I wanted to do. I asked about that last year, the year before. I’m going to continue to ask about that. I’m going to do everything I can to be back there.
Cobb added: “That was never my decision not to be back there.”
Returning punts could also present more injury risk. Cobb missed one game in 2012 after rolling his ankle on a return, but he noted most of his injuries have come as a receiver.
More than anything, health may be the key to Cobb producing at a level the Packers expected two years ago. Cobb hopes to get through the season unscathed.
“I think the last time that happened was 2014,” Cobb said. “So hopefully I can have a season like that where I don’t have to worry about anything.”