ARLINGTON, Texas — Jared Cook had been here before. It wasn’t in front of 93,000 fans in AT&T Stadium. And after his first seven seasons with the Titans and Rams, it definitely wasn’t in the playoffs. But catching a ball on the boundary? That happened earlier this week in practice.
Aaron Rodgers had looked for Cook at the sideline in practice leading up to the Packers’ Sunday game against the Cowboys. Cook, all 6' 5″ and 254 pounds of him, caught the ball, but his size-15 cleats were on the white. Tight end Richard Rodgers and other teammates clowned him that his feet were too big.
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So with 12 seconds left in the game as Aaron Rodgers rolled left against Dallas in a tie game and threw across his body to Cook at the boundary, he made sure that his black Nikes weren’t touching the white paint. Asked no fewer than a half-dozen times if he knew he completed the catch without a replay review, Cook voiced confidence.
It would have been complete even with size 16 cleats, he said.
Cook’s 36-yard catch put the Packers in position to kick the game-winning 51-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Cowboys 34–31 in Arlington. Sunday’s game was the 35th contest between these two storied franchises, and each one had 17 wins coming into the game.
With all due respect to the Ice Bowl, this was the greatest game in the history of the Packers-Cowboys matchups.
This year’s edition of the NFL postseason gave us nothing until Sunday afternoon, and then 24 fourth-quarter points were scored between the best thrower of a football in NFL history and the greatest rookie duo in NFL history in the best stadium in NFL history.
Let’s look at this catch by Cook and understand everything that went into it. This isn’t a toe-tap on the sideline. Hell, it’s not even a toe drag. This is the football equivalent of Michael Jackson’s toe stand—a marvel that enough balance can be achieved with knees bent at nearly 90 degrees before succumbing to gravity.
Then consider how dubious an NFL sideline catch has become. The last time the Cowboys were in the playoffs, they lost due to a sideline catch that wasn’t by their star receiver. Secure the ball. Feet down. Control the ball going to the ground.
“I was just trying to secure the catch. Just making sure I stayed in bounds to secure it because anything could have happened,” Cook said. “If I would have bobbled it a little bit they probably would have brought it back. Just trying to secure it was the most important thing.”
Credit to side judge Rob Vernatchi, who ruled it a catch almost immediately when everyone not dressed in green and yellow thought otherwise. Had Cook bobbled it, Rodgers would have had three seconds to execute another Hail Mary attempt and test his 60% completion rate. Instead there was the Mason Crosby 51-yard make following a freeze attempt by Jason Garrett to send the Packers on to Atlanta for the NFC title game.
Cook’s hometown is just north of Atlanta, and he could hardly describe his emotions about playing in the Georgia Dome’s final game next Sunday. No one else would have put him here as recently as a year ago.
A former fifth-round pick out of South Carolina, Cook spent his first four seasons with the Titans before signing a five-year deal with the Rams in 2013. During his time in St. Louis he lent his support, money and voice to a Boy Scout troop in Ferguson, Miss., following the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent civil unrest. He’s long hosted a basketball tournament in Suwannee, Ga., around Thanksgiving.
The Rams, in all of their dysfunction, dispatched the tight end after last season, and he went a month without a team until the Packers signed him on a one-year show-me deal.
“Depends on who you’re talking to, I guess,” Cook said, when asked if he’s surprised where he is today. “I don’t know. I came here to ball with some of the best guys in the league. I’m having fun doing it.”
Cook dealt with an ankle injury early in the season that kept him out of three games. But in the final seven games he became one of Rodgers’s most reliable targets catching 24 passes for 324 yards. Through two postseason games, Cook has 11 catches for 152 yards.
“Whenever we got him in free agency, everybody knew he was going to be a difference-maker for us,” Packers cornerback Damarious Randall said. “Ever since he got back healthy, our offense has been clicking on all cylinders. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s the one coming down with the catch.
“We haven’t had a tight end that can stretch the field vertically like that since Jermichael Finley. And man when we had Jermichael the offense was dynamic the way it is now.”
The Packers’ offense is the way it is because of Rodgers, of course. The quarterback is going to his third conference title game in seven years after seemingly playing with the cheat codes the second half of this season. But Sunday he bled. Rodgers threw one interception and got bailed out of another when a defensive pass interference (it should have simply been a five-yard holding penalty) was called in the fourth quarter.
His pass to Cook was masterful, though. He rolled to his left and threw across his body to the boundary as Cook got over the coverage, sped up to the sideline and then slowed down to get his feet in position. Media mortals salivated over the throw and remarked aloud how Cook could possibly focus on catching the ball and get his feet in bounds. Then Randall Cobb offered some refreshing clarity.
“Whenever you’re a trained, professional athlete, it’s not really as hard as what you make it out to be,” Cobb said of the catch. “We practice those kind of things all the time. So you’re poised. You train and you trust your training, and when you get in that position, you make the play.”
So yes, Cook says, this is a measure of vindication. The Titans didn’t think enough of him to re-sign him or franchise tag him. The Rams were over him after three seasons. Now he’s helping his team get to the conference championship.
This is the best he’s ever felt as a professional. And he’s playing with the best quarterback he’s ever had—a guy who can deliver a sideline dime whenever you need it.
It didn’t take Cook long to figure out if he’s ever had a catch as big as this one.