‘I’m back and maybe even better’: Panthers’ Tarik Cohen ready to complete comeback

For those who follow the NFL or cover it for a living, there’s a tendency to become desensitized to injuries.

Before a player has even undergone all the medical tests, fans are looking for his replacement on their fantasy football teams and media members are trying to figure out the impact on the depth chart in a league in which “next man up” could be an official mantra.

Then you listen to Tarik Cohen talk for 10 minutes about the three years he spent recovering from two serious injuries to his right leg and you’re reminded that behind the names on the NFL’s injury reports are real people with lives and families trying to return to playing the game they love.

Cohen’s return came Wednesday when the Carolina Panthers signed the 28-year-old running back to the practice squad, the first step in what he hopes will be a terrific comeback story. Panthers players who faced Cohen during his four seasons with the Chicago Bears recalled an “electric” playmaker who was a triple threat as a runner, receiver and return specialist.



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And while it might not happen this week or even this month, Cohen is confident he can be the same player he was in Chicago.

“That’s the only reason that I came back,” he said. “I told everybody who wanted me to come back before that if I wasn’t myself — if I was a fraction of myself — I wouldn’t come back at all. And now I feel like I’m back and maybe even better.

“With two years off, two years rest, I feel like a car that’s been in the garage, a brand new Ferrari that hasn’t been drove in a long time.”

Cohen could have hung it up and taken a coaching job in North Carolina and no one would have blamed him. He thought about it after his second devastating injury, which happened while he was livestreaming a workout in Charlotte, N.C., in May 2022 with the hopes of showing teams he’d recovered from his initial injury.

Instead, Cohen, who admits he was overweight at the time, went to the ground and grabbed his right foot after rupturing his Achilles. “I wanted to show off, try to get on Instagram Live,” he said. “That was first day in two years running and I tried to push it. I made a cut too hard and my leg just gave out.”

Cohen returned to High Point, N.C., 20 miles from where he had starred at North Carolina A&T. He faced another long recovery as he had in 2020 when an Atlanta Falcons’ player crashed into the side of Cohen’s leg as he was fair-catching a punt during a Week 3 game, resulting in ACL and MCL tears and a tibial plateau fracture.

Cohen’s agent hoped his Achilles would be healed by this year’s draft, when teams are making personnel decisions. When he missed that timeline, doubt crept in.

“When I couldn’t get back before the draft, I sat down with my agent,” Cohen said. “I was like, ‘If you think now is the best time to get back and I can’t do it now, I’m just gonna call it quits.’”

But Cohen, who grew up outside of Raleigh, kept showing up at Ragsdale High to work out with former teammates. Then he’d come home and play with his son Carter, who will turn 2 on Christmas. And slowly Cohen’s speed and stamina improved.

“I was just running around the house with my son out in the yard. I’d been working out. And I just started feeling more and more like my old self,” Cohen said. “So I told my agent, ‘Call Carolina and see if they can use me. If they can, I’ll be ready.’ ”

The Panthers could use Cohen’s explosiveness after an opening-week loss to the Falcons in which their longest pass play was 14 yards. Linebacker Shaq Thompson recalled facing Cohen as a rookie after the Bears took him in the fourth round in 2017. On a day when Mitch Trubisky finished with just 107 passing yards in Chicago’s 17-3 win, Cohen was responsible for most of them thanks to a 70-yard catch-and-run.

“I remember telling him I’m gonna give him a speeding ticket because he’s running too damn fast on that field,” Thompson said, “It’s a good addition for him, good addition for us. He’s back in football and we’ve got a great returner. … A good third-down back as well. He’s not just a returner.”



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The 5-6, 196-pound Cohen went to the Pro Bowl and was a first-team, All-Pro punt returner in 2018 after leading the league with 411 punt return yards. He also lived up to his “The Human Joystick” nickname that season with seven catches of at least 25 yards, best among running backs.

Panthers coach Frank Reich said Cohen reminds him of Darren Sproles, another undersized, versatile back whom Reich was with in Philadelphia.

“I remember when (Cohen) was with the Bears just watching him and saying, ‘Man, this guy is different.’ Not only physically is he different but his quickness as a runner,” said Reich, who was impressed with Cohen’s workout Tuesday.

“It’s been a while, obviously a very bad injury,” Reich said. “To his credit, I felt a lot of good energy from him, like he’s ready to play some football.”

Cohen worked on the side Wednesday and Reich said it might be a few weeks before he’s back in football shape. After sitting out nearly three years, Cohen is eager to get going. But he also knows what happened the last time he tried to speed up the process and is willing to be more patient to make sure he gets all the way back.

“If it was up to me, I’d be out there today, right now,” he said. “But I’m just taking it slow. I’ve rushed before, so I’m just gonna take it slow this time and just work my way up.”

(Photo of Tarik Cohen: Tim Fuller / USA Today)

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