GREEN BAY - Jared Cook came to Green Bay specifically to share an offense with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, knowing it could unlock new possibilities in his career.
The Green Bay Packers tight end spent his first seven seasons in quarterback purgatory. No division titles. No playoff games. On flights home from games with the Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams, Cook would watch Rodgers in prime time.
They were games like Sunday’s win the Detroit Lions. Games that Cook wanted to play.
So Cook didn’t wait early Monday morning. The Packers clinched their fifth NFC North title in six years. For Cook, it’s his first trip to the playoffs in eight seasons.
On the flight home, Cook called his wife in the middle of the night just to share the joy.
“It’s a difficult league to play in,” Cook said, “and it’s a place that I’ve been trying to get to for eight years. It’s a feeling that I’ve always wanted to feel, and now being able to feel it for the first time, I can’t even describe how cool it is.”
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Cook, who turns 30 in April, faces an uncertain future. Whenever his first playoff run ends — whether it’s the Super Bowl or Sunday against the New York Giants — he will become a free agent for the third time in his career.
Cook said he hasn’t spoken with general manager Ted Thompson about next season, though that’s hardly surprising. He wants no distractions this week, fully focusing on a stage that has eluded Cook for nearly a decade. The time for negotiations is February and early March.
There is an expectation Cook will re-sign with the Packers, a league source said. Cook said “without a doubt” he wants to be in Green Bay next season.
“Because I love it here,” Cook said. “I haven’t had fun playing football in a long time, and being here, being around these guys and this locker room and part of this organization, has allowed me to enjoy and see and do things that I’ve never been able to do in my career thus far.”
Things can change quickly in this league, but it’s no surprise Cook figures to be back with the Packers. Even in a season hijacked by a Week 3 ankle injury that forced him to miss six games, Cook has been the Packers' best offensive threat at tight end since Jermichael Finley’s career-ending neck injury in 2013.
It remains to be seen what kind of deal can be worked out. Cook signed a one-year contract this offseason, the proverbial prove-it year. His two-month injury was far from ideal if Cook wants the security that comes with multiple years in his next contract.
Regardless, the Packers don’t appear to have much choice other than to re-sign Cook. It would be just the first step in rebuilding their tight end depth chart. The Packers had only two tight ends on their roster for much of the season. The position remains one of their top draft priorities.
In 10 games, Cook had 30 catches and 377 yards. His numbers dwarfed Richard Rodgers, whose production steeply declined in his third season. Playing all 16 games, Rodgers finished with barely half the catches (30) and yards (271) with a quarter of the touchdowns (2) he caught last season.
Cook’s 12.6 yards per catch was more than 3.5 yards farther than Rodgers’ average.
“One thing no one ever keeps a stat about,” coach Mike McCarthy said last week in a strong, public show of approval, “is … how much attention does a player require. That’s important. So whether it’s your quarterback or a running back or a tight end that can win one-on-one, those are all the things you have to factor into his presence here. Because he runs down the middle of the field, winning a one-on-one.
“The most important thing is he’s a great teammate. He’s been a great fit for our locker room.”
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When Cook returned in late November, he produced like he’d shared an offense with Aaron Rodgers for years.
Though the Packers lost his first game back Nov. 20 in Washington, they’ve since run the table with six straight wins to finish the season. With Cook playing more than half the snaps, Rodgers has thrown 18 touchdowns and no interceptions with a 120.0 passer rating since his tight end’s return.
The Packers' quarterback played better late in the season, but it may be no coincidence his reemergence coincided with Cook’s presence on the field. Cook is a dangerous target, especially on third down, when he has caught 10 of 13 passes from Rodgers for 175 yards in the past seven games. Since Washington, Rodgers’ passer rating when targeting Cook on third down is 118.2, and he’s averaging 13.4 yards per pass.
Even more, Cook has stressed defenses down the middle of the field.
“A lot of times,” Cook said, “they put safety help over the top.”
When McCarthy’s assessment of how he fits in the Packers' locker room was relayed to him, Cook said the feeling was mutual. He said the Packers have “a great locker room to be a part of.” He appreciates the team’s “no-nonsense” approach.
Everybody gets along, Cook said.
“There’s really no big egos,” Cook said. “Everybody is just real cool. It’s easy to get along with the guys. I think that’s probably because up here, we’re all we’ve got. It’s not a lot of other things, or other distractions to get them going with. It’s just your team, and I think that’s how football should be. That’s one thing about football that kind of brings it home to me by being up here, is just being around the guys, being part of a football team, making it about football and nothing else.”
Of course, winning also makes a big difference.
“Absolutely,” Cook said. “Winning cures everything.”
McCarthy saw the joy from his tight end in the Ford Field visitors’ locker room. There was plenty of happiness, and even relief, to spread around. From safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix heckling reporters to Aaron Rodgers wearing his NFC North champions hat to his postgame interview, each player handled the emotions in their own way.
Cook, McCarthy saw, simply smiled wider than anyone. He hasn’t thought about next season — at least he’s not willing to admit it — but these new possibilities feel pretty good.
“If you had been in that locker room (Sunday) night,” McCarthy said, “you would have had a great picture of it, too. When they passed out those championship hats, I don’t think I’ve seen anybody smile — or (be) more excited — to put it on his head than Jared Cook.”