GREEN BAY - The best quarterback Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook had before this season is still haunted. He's retired now, ending a 17-year, three-Pro Bowl career, but there’s a play from 2012 he can’t shake.
Seventy seconds remain in an AFC South showdown. Tied score. A game the Tennessee Titans need for any real shot at the playoffs. They are driving, ball on the Indianapolis Colts’ 41-yard line, facing second-and-9.
“Triple slants,” Matt Hasselbeck says.
Hasselbeck shares the memory because he thinks it’s important. Here, he says, is a perfect snapshot of Cook’s career. On this Sunday afternoon in 2012, Cook’s job is simple. Clear out space for teammates. Be a decoy.
Only Cook does not slant.
He is staring at a linebacker who can not cover him. Cook knows it. The linebacker knows it. Hasselbeck knows it.
“He’s just like, ‘The heck with this,’” Hasselbeck remembers. “’I’m going to win the game. I’m just going to run by this guy. This linebacker can’t cover me. I’m going to run by him.’”
On the snap, Cook scraps the play call. He runs 20 yards downfield, through another receiver’s post route, almost bumping into his teammate. Three steps past the linebacker, there is nobody between him and the end zone.
Hasselbeck didn’t expect it, but he adjusts. In the pocket, he connects with Cook’s improvisation. He knows he has a touchdown.
His throw sails five yards over Cook’s head.
Titans lose in overtime.
Hasselbeck can’t believe it. He is kicking himself, hands on his hips, shaking his head. He smiles sheepishly at the sideline. He turns back to Cook and pats his chest.
“As the quarterback,” Hasselbeck says, “I absolutely love that he did what he did. I was just standing there, ‘Gosh, you should’ve anticipated that. You should’ve just went out there like it’s you and your buddy playing football in the back yard. Make a play, man.’ I was playing too much like a robot.”
Quarterbacks live for that moment. That throw. But the play is not what haunts Hasselbeck. It’s his coach’s reaction Monday morning.
Football is a team game. Eleven separate parts move in unison. Deviate from the plan, pay the price. So when Hasselbeck walked into the film room, he got a surprise.
There were no icy glares. No admonishment.
“They reprimanded Jared for not doing the right thing,” Hasselbeck says.
Four years later, Cook is standing in a new locker room. He hears Hasselbeck’s recollection. How his quarterback accepts blame.
At his locker, Cook’s eyes get big. He rubs his hand over his mouth, genuine surprise. He can’t believe Hasselbeck remembers the play, let alone the next morning.
“It’s over now,” Cook says finally. “I took the butt chewing, but it is what it is, man. You live, and you learn. Maybe if I would’ve just ran the play, I wouldn’t have gotten chewed out. But it was a play to help us win.”
In seven years, Cook has been cast as an underachiever. Unfulfilled potential. Hasselbeck thinks his former teammate is misunderstood, internally and outside the locker room. A tight end can only control so much, he says. Cook hasn’t been perfect, but that’s not the point.
In Tennessee, Hasselbeck says, Cook never had a chance. Same in St. Louis.
“Just realize,” Hasselbeck explains, “he’s an artist. He’s not a blacksmith. It’s not math. It’s art.”
Like most art, Cook’s comes from a tortured soul. In Green Bay, his torment is over.
He finally gets to work with football’s Picasso.
The list is staggering. Eleven quarterbacks in seven seasons. There are aging Pro Bowlers, devastating injuries, top-10 busts.
One reason after another, Cook never has found stability at the game’s most important position. A good quarterback means everything, he knows. Cook learned the hard way.
If not for bad luck, the best quarterback Cook had before this season might be Sam Bradford. It’s why Cook signed with the Rams as a free agent in 2013, enticed by the former top overall draft pick.
In their first game together, Cook caught seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in an upset win against the Arizona Cardinals.
“He’s why I picked to go to St. Louis,” Cook says. “He had a heck of an arm, heck of an accuracy. Just a great quarterback.”
If only they had more games together.
Bradford’s career – and, ultimately, Cook’s time with the Rams – derailed eight weeks into 2013. Bradford tore his anterior cruciate ligament, a fluke injury. His next regular-season snap wouldn’t come until 2015.
In between, Bradford had another torn ACL during the 2014 preseason, and was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.
“If Sam Bradford would’ve been able to stay healthy in St. Louis and been around,” former Rams receivers coach Ray Sherman says, “you would’ve probably been able to see (Cook) have success.”
The Rams signed Cook for the same reasons Packers general manager Ted Thompson brought him to Green Bay. Too fast for linebackers, too big for defensive backs, his athleticism creates mismatches all over the field.
Hasselbeck expected Cook’s marriage with the Rams to work. Up close, he saw the havoc Cook created in the secondary. He may be the one tight end Hasselbeck ever had who could take a slant route 80 yards for touchdown.
It happened against Cleveland in 2011. Hasselbeck’s pass traveled 14 yards downfield. Cook ran the other 66, beating a safety down the left sideline.
“He reminds you of a receiver,” Hasselbeck says. “He reminds you, when you meet him, his body type is similar to a Calvin Johnson. For him, I think he just hasn’t reached his potential. He’s got tons of potential. I just don’t think he’s reached it quite yet.”
The reason is no mystery.
Of the many starting quarterbacks who shared an offense with Cook, none threw 20 touchdowns in a season. None completed 65 percent of his passes. Only one exceeded 2,100 passing yards.
Only one started all 16 games.
Cook never had the same quarterback be his team’s primary starter for more than one season. Seven years, seven different starters. Without a doubt, Sherman says, Cook’s situation with the Packers is better than it ever was in St. Louis.
Already, Cook sees a difference.
“Aaron is in a league of his own,” Cook says. “I’m just going to put it like that. I’m not going to compare anybody to him. He’s special, man. You all have seen it. I’ve seen it on TV for years.
“It’s just different. That’s all I can really say about him, is just different.”
‘Elite quarterback with elite coaching’
Cook knows how this sounds. He isn’t interested in self-pity. No, he is not a victim.
Nobody forced him to leave Tennessee for St. Louis.
“We all have choices,” Cook says. “My choices of going to those places where I went, it was my choice to do it. So you really can’t dwell on it now.”
An elite athlete, Cook signed a five-year, $35 million contract with the Rams. At the time, it was big money for a tight end. They expected him to be a game changer.
Seven years ago, he ran 40 yards in 4.5 seconds at the NFL combine. When asked to guess what Cook’s 40-yard dash time would be today, Sherman laughs.
“I would just say he can run,” Sherman says.
There’s a reason the Rams released Cook three seasons into his deal.
Cook didn’t exactly lift his quarterbacks. He never caught more than five touchdowns in a season. He never reached 800 yards. The production didn’t justify his salary.
Hasselbeck says he saw Cook’s frustration bubble over during games. Trapped by his quarterbacks’ limitations, he tried to do too much. Cook would lose focus, drop the football.
Five-yard passes became adventures.
“In games,” Hasselbeck says, “he’s dropped balls that I would not expect him to drop. Because I know that he has great hands. He does not drop balls in practice. He catches the ball very well. He catches the ball very naturally. But I think it would be a fair critique that he has dropped some passes that he normally would catch.
“I would chalk that up to just being frustrated.”
Cook hasn't struggled with drops in his limited practice reps this offseason. He has made difficult catches look easy, like the back-shoulder, 20-yard reception over a safety in his first training camp practice.
But it’s early. With the Packers, Cook is in the honeymoon phase. Hasselbeck calls Cook an “emotional” player. Sherman describes him as “very serious” about his work.
“There were times,” Hasselbeck says, “that I could sense his frustration with how he was being used by the coaching staff. I think as a young player – or even as an older player – if you’re not really trusting in your coaching staff, it can be a little more frustrating, and it can be a little more difficult.
“He’s craving an elite quarterback with elite coaching, and he’ll be getting both of that in Green Bay.”
Hasselbeck believes Cook’s lack of touchdowns shows the rift between him and coaches. They draw the plays, he says. In the red zone, the football wasn’t going to him.
Asked if the Packers offense will be different, Cook tips his head back.
“I hope so,” he says.
‘Get him involved’
Speaking of torment, Mike McCarthy, whose roots are at tight end, couldn’t use a position dear to his heart the way he wanted to in recent years.
Not since Jermichael Finley’s career-ending neck injury in 2013 have the Packers had a tight end who could stretch the field. Richard Rodgers did many things well last season, but an 8.8 yards-per-catch average limited his impact.
So Cook wasn’t the only one who needed a fresh start. He could be a missing link in the Packers' offense. His one-year, $2.75 million deal was ideal.
“He definitely has that kind of big-play ability,” Hasselbeck says. “It’s something that’s probably been missing in what Mike McCarthy likes to do, just a little bit, taking it to the next level at the tight end position.”
Sherman sees Cook as a “move guy” in the Packers' offense. A tight end who can line up all over the field. In St. Louis, Sherman says, Cook regularly practiced with receivers.
But, he warns, Cook needs passes thrown to him.
“You’ve got to get him involved,” Sherman says. “If you get him involved, that’s going to motivate him and help him.”
When pressed, Sherman says it’s no more important to get Cook involved than any other playmaker. Still, it’s fair to wonder how he will handle splitting snaps with Richard Rodgers, who caught 58 passes last season.
Cook isn’t new to tight end rotations. He never has started 16 games in a season. Only twice has he started more than six.
For now, Cook says, he doesn’t mind sharing, whether it’s starts, targets or touchdowns.
“I think this offense is good enough for everybody to shine,” Cook says.
It’s because of the man at the center. The game’s Picasso.
Those who knew Cook in Tennessee and St. Louis believe Green Bay will be different. In the past, Hasselbeck says, Cook was stuck in “bad situations” with no hope in sight.
Now, Cook’s career is renewed. His value in the Packers' offense is clear. So is Cook’s inspiration. A year after catching passes from Nick Foles and Case Keenum, Cook gets a two-time MVP.
With Aaron Rodgers, if Cook runs three steps past a linebacker, it's a touchdown.
“I think that’s why this is a great situation,” Hasselbeck says. “Because he’s got the best quarterback you could possibly hope for, and you’re talking about an offensive mind who has a history – even though it’s way back – a history of understanding how to create matchups with tight ends with Mike McCarthy and that staff.
“That’s everything you’re looking for. If ever you were going to capitalize and maximize your potential, this would be the opportunity to do it.”
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