Packers running back Ty Montgomery explains how he is amazed at Aaron Rodgers cool and calm in the huddle during pressure situations on Clubhouse Live. Jim Rosandick/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – When tight end Keith Jackson was holding out, refusing to report to the Green Bay Packers after being traded by the Miami Dolphins, general manager Ron Wolf told him something he’ll never forget.
It validated everything he believed about the game of football.
“He told me, ‘You’re the missing piece to us winning a Super Bowl,’” Jackson recalled this week. “When someone like that tells you that, you realize how important a tight end is to the offense.”
Since Mike Holmgren introduced the West Coast offense to the Packers in 1992, the tight end position rarely has been neglected.
Before Jackson arrived in 1995, Mark Chmura had established himself as a key part of Holmgren’s offense. When Jackson arrived, the offense took off and the Packers went 24-7 with him on the roster, including 5-1 in the postseason.
Jackson caught 40 passes for 505 yards (12.6 average) and 10 touchdowns in 1996, the year the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI. In six playoff games, he caught 17 passes for 267 yards (15.7 average) and two touchdowns.
In 2000, Wolf drafted Bubba Franks with the 14th selection. Franks was a red-zone specialist who caught 32 touchdowns in eight seasons with the Packers, second only to Paul Coffman in team history.
In 2008, general manager Ted Thompson drafted Jermichael Finley in the third round. The 6-5, 247-pound Finley redefined the position in coach Mike McCarthy’s offense with his wide receiver-like skills. Finley caught 20 touchdowns and averaged 12.5 yards per reception in a six-year career shortened by a career-ending neck injury.
From the time Finley left at the end of the 2013 season to Week 11 of the 2016 season, the Packers were dying for someone with Jackson's or Finley’s athletic ability to man their tight end position.
It wasn’t until Jared Cook, signed as a street free agent for $2.75 million in the off-season, returned from a high ankle sprain that McCarthy finally found his man. In his first game back after a six-game absence, Cook caught six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in a 42-24 loss at Washington.
Since then, he has been the Jackson who led the Packers to a Super Bowl in ’96 and the Finley who helped the Packers go 15-1 in 2011. The Packers have won eight straight games and are preparing to play in the NFC championship game in Atlanta on Sunday.
“He can stretch the field, he plays multiple positions and he creates mismatches,” said Jackson, who was at AT&T Stadium last weekend to see Cook make his fabulous sideline catch that set up the game-winning field goal. “It seems like Aaron Rodgers really trusts him.
“He’s had so many guys hurt, but he finds a different guy each week. It’s like it has forced him to find a different guy. But the tight end has become one of his main guys.”
In his day, Jackson was used as a slot receiver and punished teams who tried to cover him man-to-man with a linebacker or safety. But the coverage rules were different and tight ends regularly got throttled and held at the line of scrimmage and ended up blocking a lot more.
Now teams are playing more spread offense and tight ends like Cook are taking the place of wide receivers. Teams can’t treat him as a receiver and cover him with a cornerback because he’s 6-5 and 254 pounds and would catch the ball over their head all day long.
So, they put a safety or linebacker on him, but Cook is so fast, he can run right past them. His long arms allow Rodgers to throw the ball in places defenders can’t reach and so even if he is covered, he’s still a target.
“He’s a former wide receiver,” said former Tennessee general manager and Packers front office official Mike Reinfeldt, who drafted Cook in the third round in 2009. “He ran the 40 in 4.45. Think about that. You’ve got a guy who’s 6-5 and can run the seam. That changes everything.”
RELATED: Brice hopes to learn from miscues
X's and O's: Inside the Falcons playbook
It’s been hard to quantify exactly what the difference in the Packers' offense has been from midseason to now, but anybody with eyes can tell Cook has had an impact. Not only does he have 35 catches for 475 yards (13.6 average) and two touchdowns in the past nine games, he has opened up coverage for other receivers.
It’s very similar to what Finley did after growing into McCarthy’s offense.
McCarthy was so enamored with Finley’s talents that he made him the focus of the entire offense in 2010, only to lose him to a season-ending knee injury after five games. Still, it allowed him to incorporate the things he had seen the Packers do with Jackson and Chmura in the '90s and Kansas City Chiefs with Tony Gonzalez when he was an assistant there.
“I think, really it’s never changed, other than I’ve been fortunate to have different players with particular skill sets,” McCarthy said of how he uses tight ends.
“It’s our responsibility as a coaching staff to make sure you take advantage of that. So when you have an outstanding tight end, whether it’s Jermichael or Jared, there’s opportunities you try to create for them.”
Jackson said Cook’s talents aren’t the same as his.
When he played, Jackson thrived on quick releases off the line of scrimmage and shake-and-bake moves down the field. Cook, he said, is stiff and can’t run routes that require double or triple moves.
But he said the Packers have done a great job directing him to certain spots on the field and running him on angles that best use his skills.
“He does a lot of damage on the crossing and over routes,” Jackson said. “Seems like he doesn’t run as many seam routes in the middle of the field. But they’re good at trying to create one-on-one matchups for him. The routes are great for him.
“He has the ability to get open and when he’s not open create space where Aaron Rodgers can find a way to get him the ball.”
Rodgers now seems likely to look for Cook as much as any of his receivers when he’s in trouble because he knows his tight end can get open. Cook's percentage of catches on targeted passes (58.8) is well below the top tight ends in the NFL, who score in the mid-to-low 70s.
In fact, Rodgers threw incomplete to him twice on the same drive in which Cook made his clutch sideline catch. Though his catch rate is low, Rodgers still does not hesitate to target him. In the two playoff games, Rodgers has thrown to him 20 times, second most only to the 22 thrown to receiver Davante Adams.
“He’s got such a big frame and he’s able to hold guys off,” Reinfeldt said. “He’s got good hands. It’s not a problem there. You can see he’s settling down and trusting the quarterback and trusting the system. He knows where the ball is going and he knows where to be to get it.”
If the Packers are going to beat the Falcons they’ll have the most success with Cook on slants and corner routes because of how many single-safety looks they’ll get. In a victory Dec. 11 over Seattle, which plays almost exactly the same coverage as Atlanta, Cook caught only one pass for 15 yards.
In this game, he might wind up being more of a decoy than target, especially if Jordy Nelson and Adams can’t play because of injury. If you’re the Falcons, he might be the guy you most want to take out of the game.
Cook will have to deal with that.
“Create mismatches when needed, get open when needed, being there when ‘12’ needs me or clearing it out for somebody else to get open, creating different triangles on different parts of the field just to kind of help 12 out,” Cook said of what his role is. “It’s been vice versa, they’ve been doing the same thing for me. That’s the best part about being in kind of a dynamic offense; you have different elements and different options and weapons to use at your disposal when needed.”
And none more important than a talented tight end.