HAMILTON — DeAndra’ Cobb discovered years ago that if he was going to succeed as a tailback he’d better get used to being a lightning rod of controversy.
Next to stepping behind centre, it is the most high-risk, high-reward position on a football field. Cobb is an expert in both categories.
“The thing is expectations were so high coming into this year,” he said yesterday. “I don’t think I’ve been running poorly this year. If you look there were some games last year when I had less than 50 yards, too. It’s just people looked at the numbers and there are expectations.”
Last year he was venerated among Tiger-Cats’ fans when he rolled up 1,217 yards, the fifth-highest total in Ticats’ history. The sky seemed the limit.
This year that sky came falling down around him. It took him three games to break the 100-yard mark. And so the “What’s wrong with Cobb?” chorus started to sing. He went 10 games without running for more than 100 yards. Two games ago against Montreal he was almost a forgotten entity — four carries.
Along the way his coaches and teammates told about him contributing in other ways. He blocked. There was talk that defences were keying on him. Still, when a team’s rushing yardage sinks like a rock in a well, the guy every finger points to eventually is the running back.
And Cobb knows it.
“It goes with the position and I’ve been a running back going back to when my coach in Pop Warner had us run around a track and I got back first. He called me Turbo and said ‘you’re my running back.’ ”
Whispers said Turbo was misfiring, that he couldn’t do the job. But then, Cobb has heard all that stuff before, too. There were all kinds of reasons he never even should’ve made it to a major college program. He was too small. His grades weren’t good enough. But somehow he got to Michigan State. Somehow after being cut by the NFL, Bob O’Billovich found him last year. Cobb started the season fourth on the depth chart behind Kenton Keith, Terry Caulley and Tre Smith. More long odds. By week two he was a 100-yard runner and a starter again.
“I’ve always had to fight adversity. I’ve always had to be patient and trust in myself or I’d have gone crazy. It was either learn patience or go crazy,” said Cobb yesterday. “You have to roll with the punches a bit.”
The Hamilton ground attack ranked last in the CFL going into a game last weekend in Vancouver. While much of the public criticism was levelled at Cobb and there was talk the team was considering bringing in a late NFL cut, truth is the offensive line has been in flux all season. But missed blocks, blown assignments and brain cramps by linemen aren’t as evident as a tailback disguised as a tackling dummy.
That’s just the way the game works. Teamwork. It’s what gets a tailback into the endzone and it can also help get him unemployed. “It works both ways,” said Cobb. “When the run game isn’t working people look at the running back. It’s the same when the run game is excelling; most people just look at the running back ... they don’t praise the o-line and nobody thinks, ‘oh, look, the pass game opened up the run.’ ”
Cobb and Co. finally got it together last weekend in B.C. when he piled up 151 yards. “It was just a matter of committing to the running game. The o-line said we were going to run the ball and we ran. All I did,” said Cobb, laughing, “was follow along behind.”
Of course, running against B.C. might’ve been a bit like picking on your baby sister. They’ve had almost as much trouble stopping the ground game as Hamilton has had starting one.
But, said head coach Marcel Bellefeuille, “it is a good start and it gives us some confidence.”
“It’s like anything else, now we have to be consistent at it. The rushing game ... is a combination of four things. It’s a shared responsibility between the guy carrying the ball, the guys blocking, the coaching staff and you have to give defences credit. Sometimes they’re just tough to run against.”
Meantime, Cobb now has 664 yards and is back on pace for another 1,000-yard season.
“We’re starting to click,” he said. “Expectation-wise, I’d like to be farther than I am but hey, it’s a marathon.”