LAKE FOREST, Ill. — During practice last Thursday afternoon, Tarik Cohen caught a punt. Still clutching the ball, he proceeded to catch another. And another. And another. And another. And another.
By the end of this wacky experiment, Cohen was cradling seven balls — one, roughly, for every role he has with the Chicago Bears.
Cohen is — O.K., deep breath — the Bears’ handoff-taking, punt-returning, ball-catching, pass-throwing, mismatch-creating, gasp-inducing, highlight-monopolizing cyborg. A year after becoming the first rookie since Gale Sayers, a former Bear, in 1965, to contribute touchdowns by running, receiving, passing and punt return, Cohen has further obliterated concerns that a 5-foot-6 running back from the humble Football Championship Subdivision would struggle transitioning to the N.F.L.’s rugged N.F.C. North.
If the quarterback-wrecking edge rusher Khalil Mack embodies a defense that has fueled the Bears’ worst-to-first ascent — as the N.F.C.’s third seed, they’ll face the No. 6-seeded Eagles in the wild-card round on Sunday, their first playoff appearance since 2010 — Cohen personifies the offense installed by the team’s first-year coach, Matt Nagy: creative, unpredictable and, at times, downright fun. Nagy has maximized Cohen’s speed, suddenness and receiving skills by aligning him around the formation, from the backfield to the inside to the outside, turning him into, in effect, Chicago’s offensive version of Mack: the player opponents must stalk wherever he is on the field. He led the team in catches (71), yards from scrimmage (1,169) and all-purpose yardage (1,599), and was voted onto the All-Pro team as punt returner.
“He’s got a lot of strengths and not a lot of weaknesses,” Nagy said. “Having him be a part of what we do and what we scheme is a huge advantage.”
Soon after the Bears hired Nagy away from Kansas City, where he served for five seasons on Andy Reid’s staff, Cohen heard that last season the Chiefs featured three players who gained more than 1,000 yards: receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Kareem Hunt. Cohen did not know when or how he would get the ball in Chicago, he said, only that he would.
“Get me the ball and get me in space,” Cohen said.
That just might be his motto. His 170 touches rank second on the team, behind Jordan Howard, the primary rusher. As a runner, Cohen has the seventh-best breakaway percentage in the N.F.L., gaining 44.4 percent of his 444 yards on carries of at least 15 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. As a receiver, Cohen averages 10.2 yards per reception, most among the 20 backs with at least 40 catches, according to Pro Football Reference.
As the position has evolved, a hybridized strain of running back has permeated the league, players as comfortable with, and capable of, lining up in the slot or being split wide as they are rushing 20 times per game. Cohen does not run as often as other versatile second-year dynamos like the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey or the Saints’ Alvin Kamara, but his proficiency in the passing game — his 175 snaps away from the backfield were the most among running backs — has made him, according to Pro Football Focus’s Wins Above Replacement metric, the second-most valuable player at his position, just behind McCaffrey.
“I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do,” Bears running back Benny Cunningham said.
The Bears’ vast playbook — Minnesota Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer quipped earlier this season that it contained 800 plays — demands Cohen know entire passing concepts because any week he could line up at four or five different spots. His first-year position coach, Charles London, marveled early on at Cohen’s savvy — how he can see a drawing or a video of a play and master his responsibilities on the field in a repetition or two. His improvement as a blocker has helped Chicago disguise its calls, diminishing tendencies that his alignment might have tipped off.
“There’s not really a route — at running back or receiver — that he can’t run in this offense,” London said.
That was Cohen’s objective during the off-season, he said, when he devoted two days a week to refining routes that come back to the ball, like curls, during seven-on-seven drills with his former North Carolina A&T teammates. He did not want to be branded as only a deep-ball threat, just as he does not want to be perceived as strictly a perimeter runner, someone unwilling — or worse, not stout enough — to run between the tackles.
Further evidence: Ask Cohen his top play from this season, and he mentions not the 70-yard screen against the Jets, the 50-yard catch-and-dash at Miami or the overtime-forcing touchdown toss at the Giants. In his mind, all the feints, cutbacks and bursts that evoke his favorite player, Reggie Bush, do not compare to the punt he fielded midway through the first quarter against New England in Week 7, when he stepped left, cut right, then zipped left again, shedding a tackle at his feet before encountering a defender by the boundary squaring up to level him.
The contact was brief. The defender crumpled. Cohen did not.
“Somebody so small running somebody big over — it makes everybody’s day,” Cohen said.
Cohen is short but, listed at 181 pounds, not small. He is thick and sturdy, with disproportionately enormous hands — size 10⅛ from thumb to pinkie, bigger than those of hulking receiving threats like Kelce, Julio Jones and A.J. Green — that help him do things like, say, hold on to seven balls at the same time.
Growing up in rural Bunn, N.C., about 30 miles northeast of Raleigh, Cohen specialized in such exploits. For one, he developed his speed — like another Bears playmaker before him — through unorthodox methods. Instead of running through tall, thick grass, as Devin Hester did, Cohen dodged the pit bulls that he said roamed his neighborhood.
“It’s fight or flight,” Cohen said. “Either get going or you’re going to get eat, so you’ve got to get out of there.”
He did get out of there — to play football, but barely. Had North Carolina A&T, a historically black university, not offered him a scholarship, Cohen would have joined the Navy.
“I knew how to swim,” said Cohen, sitting in the Halas Hall lobby before practice one day last week. “And it wasn’t like people were getting killed in the Navy.”
Rather than enlist, Cohen opted to dominate the F.C.S. Across his four seasons at A&T, he rushed for a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference record 5,619 yards, the 10th-most in the history of what was formerly Division I-AA. But when N.F.L. scouts passed through Greensboro, said Shawn Gibbs, his position coach at A&T, some seemed unconvinced.
“They just tried to poke holes in everything he did — like, he’s good, but,” Gibbs said. “The guys that were like: ‘Man, this guy can walk under this table. I can’t take him to my G.M.’ Those were the guys that were frustrating.”
It was the Bears’ good fortune that their scout who prowls the Southeast, Sam Summerville, attended a historically black college himself. Before even studying Cohen, Summerville admired him as a fan, watching from afar as he rushed for 295 yards — and touchdowns of 74, 83 and 73 yards — against Alcorn State in the Celebration Bowl.
The deeper he probed, the more Summerville believed in Cohen. Not as a gadget player, but as an N.F.L. running back. At Summerville’s urging, the Bears deployed additional scouts to evaluate him, and they, too, grew enamored. Still, as they prepped for the 2017 draft, Summerville expected pushback — for everything from Cohen’s statistics, perceived to be inflated by the lesser competition, to his stature. So he relied on emotion as much as reason to convey why they needed him.
In an impassioned plea, Summerville showed his colleagues the clip of Cohen catching two balls while doing a back flip. (Yes, really.) He affirmed that rival coaches feared no player more than Cohen. He explained that of the 350 to 400 players he assessed in the fall of 2016, Cohen was “definitely” his favorite.
“It got to the point where some of the other scouts may have been rolling their eyes a little bit, like, ‘this guy’s serious,’” Summerville said. “Every time I opened my mouth about him, or every time a question was asked, they were like, ‘Do you think this guy can do this?’ Tarik can do pretty much everything you ask him to.”
The Bears chose Cohen with one of their fourth-round selections — they took another foundational player, safety Eddie Jackson, seven picks earlier — and before he even took a snap, Cunningham exhorted his friends to draft him for their fantasy football teams. Many satisfied customers, he said.
Over the summer, Summerville reviewed his reports on Cohen, to check whether reality matched projections. It did not. Cohen surpassed them. One after another after another after another.
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