GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Mike McCarthy has a chance for a redo.
On Sept. 9, 2012, the Green Bay Packers hosted the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener at Lambeau Field and McCarthy was set to spring multi-functional offensive game-breaker Randall Cobb on an unsuspecting 49ers defense.
Still a little bit of an unknown professionally, Cobb had a history of lining up at receiver, running back and quarterback at Kentucky. McCarthy had given training camp visitors a glimpse of what Cobb might be able to do out of the backfield, but he had hoped the 49ers wouldn't be prepared for him.
It turned out they were. As soon as Cobb broke the huddle and lined up at halfback or motioned into the position, they adjusted their defense. McCarthy later said he felt it was media reports that tipped off the 49ers about Cobb's new role (although they undoubtedly noticed some plays he ran from there the year before).
It is now 2014 and McCarthy and his staff are preparing for their fourth meeting in two years with the 49ers. This time around Cobb's role may be a true mystery because other than the 37 snaps he had against Chicago on Sunday -- mostly as a slot receiver -- there is a 10-game empty canvas for the 49ers to contemplate.
Cobb missed all that time with a broken leg suffered against Baltimore in Week 6 and in his absence the Packers shifted their offensive emphasis more toward running the ball. Behind rookie Eddie Lacy and his franchise rookie record 1,178 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, they became far less one-dimensional.
After catching two touchdown passes in limited playing time against the Bears, Cobb is the Packers' mystery man heading into their playoff opener against the 49ers on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
"Randall does so much for our offense," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Wednesday. "When he was out though, one good thing I think that came out of that though was (receiver) Jarrett Boykin's emergence. He really stepped up and made some big plays for us and proved his value to this offense. And also we got to move Jordy (Nelson) inside and he got to show his versatility inside.
"So, bringing Randall back with the way those guys can be interchangeable at different positions definitely has a lot to offer."
McCarthy and his coaches are taking extra time this week to prepare for the 49ers, and while Cobb's role Sunday certainly isn't the only reason it makes sense that Xs and Os are being drawn all over the place to figure out ways for Cobb to be a factor.
Two weeks ago, the Packers weren't even sure Cobb would be ready for this game, but he made so much progress last week he was given the green light to play in the division-decider against the Bears. Set to play maybe a dozen or so plays, Cobb wound up with triple that and won the game with a 48-yard touchdown catch with 38 seconds left.
Now, Cobb isn't even on the injury report, so the possibilities appear limitless.
"Randall is probably one of the most explosive players we've got in our game," receiver James Jones said. "So whenever you can get him back in the offense, he can do so many different things. You can move him around in so many places, get him on different people and create some mismatches.
"So it's huge to have him back, healthy, at 100 percent. Hopefully, he goes out there and makes some plays."
The importance of Nelson blossoming as a slot receiver can't be overestimated because it means the Packers now have two options -- a big, strong one with deep speed and a short, quick one with open-field elusiveness. They can line both to one side and make it more difficult to double one; they can spread them out to help split the safeties and open up the middle; and they can use them as decoys to open things up for Lacy.
"I think we're definitely a pretty dangerous team, just when you look at our rushing attack and when you look at our passing attack, we're pretty balanced now," Cobb said. "That's something that we haven't had around here in the past.
"Going into the playoffs, it's going to be tough for defenses to play us, the way they're going to approach the game as far as, are they going to try to take the pass away, or are they going to try to take the run away? So, we (pose) a pretty obvious threat I think."
The Packers need all kinds of options because the 49ers' fifth-ranked defense can cut an offense in half with its aggressive run play and four-man pressure ability. Opposing quarterbacks had a combined 76.4 passer rating against them and only once all year did a team that rushed for more than 100 yards manage more than 200 yards passing.
Until Week 16, the Packers were the only team that had passed for more than 300 yards against them.
In that 34-28 loss at Candlestick Park in Week 1, Nelson caught seven passes for 130 yards and a touchdown, Cobb caught seven passes for 108 yards and a touchdown and tight end Jermichael Finley caught five passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. It was one of the few times all year they had their full complement of playmakers.
Cobb lined up only once in the backfield in that game, and with Lacy around he won't be there a lot Sunday. But putting him there and then motioning him out to a selected spot could keep the 49ers off-balance, especially in a no-huddle attack.
Because Cobb is a runner and receiver, the 49ers have to figure out how many defensive backs they want in the game and how they are going to double him. The likely absence of starting slot cornerback Carlos Rodgers adds another game-planning element for both sides.
"I think it'll be great just to have all our weapons out there," Nelson said. "And just be able to move around, put us in different situations. It's a way for us to be able to move guys in and out and them not really be able to focus in on us in certain spots. So I think it'll help us."
Of course, the weather will play into how much Rodgers can stretch the field with his receivers, and the offensive line will factor greatly into whether Rodgers has the time to connect with his receivers. It is not a given either of those will work in the Packers' favor.
But heading into this one, McCarthy has something he hasn't had a lot of this season. And that's options.
Louisa Boardman 5/8 Assistant Sports Editor
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