GREEN BAY - He would be in an airplane 30,000 feet above the ground, watching prime-time football as his team returned from its Sunday afternoon games. Curled in his seat, Jared Cook tuned in as the Green Bay Packers were showcased on the NFL’s center stage.
Yeah, he noticed the quarterback.
That’s where his fandom started. No sales pitch was necessary this offseason to get the free-agent tight end excited about Green Bay, Cook said. For the past seven years, he watched from afar as Aaron Rodgers earned two MVPs, won a Super Bowl and carved a place for himself on the Mount Rushmore of active NFL quarterbacks.
Cook saw the throws, the Houdini magic outside the pocket, and couldn’t help but wonder what he could do with a quarterback like that.
“This place sells itself,” Cook said. “I’ve always been a fan of Aaron’s. They play late-night games on our flights back, so we used to always see (the Packers) play. Just to see the types of throws that he makes, and now that I’m here to see it in person and practices is even more incredible.
“I find myself sometimes still in awe of some of the things he does. He didn’t have to sell me at all, man.”
Cook doesn’t have to wonder what it would be like to play with Rodgers anymore. He was still beaming inside the locker room Tuesday, shortly after his second practice with the Packers.
They don’t wear pads during organized team activities. There is no contact. Little, in fact, can be gleaned from these one-hour, 50-minute sessions at Ray Nitschke Field.
But, yeah, Cook has noticed the quarterback.
“It’s noncontact,” Cook said, “but you still have the speed with guys flying around, and the secondary bringing the stunts and blitzes. It’s great playing with him.
“Just watching the way he delivered the ball to some of the guys is really incredible.”
This offseason has been a whirlwind, Cook admitted. There are few similarities between coach Mike McCarthy’s playbook and the offenses he has played in with the Rams and Tennessee Titans. In Green Bay, Cook said, some terminology has the exact opposite meaning.
Imagine living in a world where left suddenly means right, and up means down. Yes, it can get pretty confusing.
Still, you won’t hear Cook complain. For a man kicked to the curb three months ago, he couldn’t ask for a better situation. Yes, there was a financial hit when the Los Angeles Rams released him in February. Cook’s one-year, $2.75 million contract with the Packers is the definition of a team-friendly deal, short of the five-year, $35 million contract he signed in 2013.
Beyond the money, there’s no comparing Cook’s new setting to his old. In Green Bay, he knows, that one-year deal came with a significant incentive: a legitimate chance to win Super Bowl LI.
The Packers have earned six straight playoff berths. Cook has played on just one winning team in the NFL, and that record was only 9-7. He’s still waiting to play meaningful late-season games.
“I’ve never even been to a playoff game in eight years,” said Cook, whose St. Louis and Tennessee teams had a combined 49-63 record in his career. “So that was definitely a green light, just to be able to cap off a season for a reason on why you start the season, and that’s for the big trophy that you hold up at the end. That’s for the ring that you put on your finger, and do it with guys that would sacrifice everything that you sacrificed for.”
There is also some welcomed tranquility Cook can find in Green Bay. Fewer headaches. A year ago, he was in the middle of a mess.
He’d rather not talk about what it was like playing in the final year of the St. Louis Rams, with the team’s eventual move to Los Angeles looming over every day. Cook could beat linebackers and safeties down the seam. Outside the football facility, the frustration of a fan base and city was harder to shake.
“It’s a much more established team atmosphere,” Cook said. “You’ve got a lot more vets in the locker room, you’ve got a lot of guys that have been here. I guess the respect level mutually throughout the locker room and throughout the building between everybody.”
Stability starts with Rodgers. But if Cook has good reason for his excitement to finally play with a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, Rodgers is also aware of the potential benefit Cook can bring the Packers' offense.
"Jared is able to stretch the field a little bit with his little bit extra speed," Rodgers said.
For a unit that led the league in scoring in 2014, last season was an unexpected failure. Most surprising, the Packers' passing game never found its rhythm. Much of that could be attributed to the lack of Jordy Nelson, but the Packers were expected to have enough weapons to survive his torn ACL.
Ultimately, they didn’t. After Nelson, the most glaring hole was a big, fast tight end who could stretch the field vertically down the seams. Enter Cook, a 6-foot-5 tight end who entered the league running a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the 2009 NFL combine.
Big and fast? Cook checks both of those boxes.
"Very, very athletic," McCarthy said. "I think any time, if you’re just talking purely throwing the football and you’ve got big targets that can move like he does, he’s been an excellent addition. He’s been everything we thought he would be. He’s done a great job of learning the new language, and he looks to get more and more comfortable each time we line up.
"So, you can see him going through the IPW phase the last couple weeks, getting more and more comfortable. But I really like what he’s done so far first two practices."
With the right quarterback, that little extra speed could make all the difference. Cook recognizes the opportunity he has this fall. In this offense, he could get a second chance at earning a lucrative, long-term contract. He might win a Super Bowl along the way.
No matter what, he’ll get the chance to say he caught passes from Aaron Rodgers.
“I think they understand why I’m here,” Cook said, “and what brought me here. My biggest thing is getting used to how things are run here and how Aaron does things, and certain subtle details on his cadence or certain code words that he uses. That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to get used to, is how he runs the offense as a whole.”
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