Cook, Starks provide shot in arm for offense

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook breaks away for a long first-down reception past Washington defender Keith Marshall in the third quarter Sunday at FedEx Field.

LANDOVER, Md. - For so many games and so many weeks, the Green Bay Packers spoke at length about the need to get healthy. The message was repeated on a daily basis, and the expectation was always the same: Once a few key players return, the offense will come to life.

They missed tight end Jared Cook, a rare offseason acquisition whose size and speed would stretch the field in ways Richard Rodgers couldn’t.

They missed running back James Starks, whose veteran presence would halt the tailback revolving door and soothe coach Mike McCarthy’s run-first, pass-second offense.

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BOX SCOREWashington 42, Green Bay 24

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The irony of Sunday night’s demolition is that the offensive weapons were mostly intact; aside from a thinning offensive line, the Packers had what they lacked the most. From Starks they gained 71 yards and a crucial 31-yard score, and from Cook they received an injection of life — six catches, 105 yards, one touchdown — as the team’s primary option, Jordy Nelson, was essentially out of sight.

McCarthy’s chamber was finally full, yet the Packers still shot blanks: Washington 42, Green Bay 24.

“We ain’t got time to sit around and sulk on it,” Cook said. “We’ve got to get to work. It’s time to pick it up and go to work. Pull on your boots and pull up your boot straps; tie them on tight and let’s go.”

The Packers won the coin toss and opted to receive, an instant deviation from McCarthy’s defer-happy norm. Perhaps he wanted to protect his defense, wounded for what feels like the last five weeks. Perhaps he trusted his retooled offense to spot the Packers an early lead.

What he got was lethargy in the most obvious and embarrassing form: The Packers, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, bolstered by their flashy tight end and aided by the availability of starting left tackle David Bakhtiari, simply could not move the ball. They went three and out on their first three possessions without so much as a first down.

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“I don’t know,” said wide receiver Davante Adams when asked about the particularly heinous start. “I’ll have to see the film to assess that.”

Added Bakhtiari: “I honestly don’t know.”

When the offense finally flowed, the Packers already trailed. The defense, led by coordinator Dom Capers, hemorrhaged yards and coughed up points as the team fell perpetually behind. McCarthy’s hand was quickly forced: Once again, he and Rodgers had to let it fly.

They clawed to life with a torrid stretch of four scores in six possessions, and a fifth was wasted with Mason Crosby’s left-leaning miss. There were chunk plays to Cook, whose longest gain was 47 yards and also snagged a 6-yard score. There were catch and runs from Starks, Adams and Randall Cobb, who each caught a pass of 37 yards or more. (Starks was left wide open in the flat and ran untouched for a 31-yard score.)

“I feel like I can help,” Cook said. “I feel like we have a good offense in hand right now. I feel like nobody can stop us if we come together, put our minds to it. But we’ve got to be able to show that on the field and do it.”

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When it ended — and by that point backup quarterback Brett Hundley was on the field — the passing game was not unfruitful. Rodgers finished 26-for-41 for 351 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating was 115.

“I mean, what was the score? We scored 24 points,” Adams said. “It’s not like we went out there and had three points. I don’t think that’s a problem. Maybe slow starts, but I don’t know. Twenty-four points is not (an issue).”

But there is a level of irony to the offensive performance that encapsulates the season’s ongoing struggles of one step forward and two steps back. Starks and Cook provided shots in the arm as Nelson (three catches, 28 yards) and Ty Montgomery (three catches, 27 yards; four carries, 17 yards) were, for all intents and purposes, nowhere to be found.

Such is the conundrum McCarthy faces: His bevy of weapons is finally healthy; continuity is still out of reach.

“There was drives that we left out there on the field as well,” Cook said. “It was mistakes we made as well as an offense. We just have to come together as a team and stick together as a team and just keep moving this thing forward.”

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