National Football League

Great Expectations Await Rams’ Cook – Again

You’ll have to excuse Titans fans for rolling their eyes after hearing the recent praise being thrust upon new Rams tight end Jared Cook.

They’ve heard it all before.

While attending the second annual Drive4Dinger celebrity golf tournament held in memory of former Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger last weekend, Jeff Fisher told the Nashville Tennessean that the Rams plan to use Cook “all over the place” next season. “We’ve even got him in the backfield,” Fisher said.

Of course, Fisher wasn’t the only former Titan and current Ram waxing poetically about St. Louis’ new offensive weapon. Cortland Finnegan also told reporters that there’s a “night and day” difference between where Cook was earlier in his career and where he is now as a player. Finnegan went on to say that Cook has been “tearing it up like I’ve never seen.”

This is all positive news for the Rams, who hope to be a surprise contender in the NFC this season. But it’s also statements like these that have made Cook a rather polarizing player over his four years in the league.

Fisher thought so highly of Cook that he traded a 2010 second-round pick in order to nab the former South Carolina prospect in the third round of the 2009 draft. Cook turned heads in training camp as a rookie and early in preseason before an ankle injury in exhibition play slowed him down for the start of the regular season. Cook’s playing time was also capped because of his struggles as a blocker, which was something that Fisher required his tight ends to do in Tennessee.

It wasn’t until the end of the 2010 season that coaches and teammates said Cook was coming into his own. He caught five passes for 96 yards and a touchdown in a Week 16 loss to the Chiefs and then posted seven receptions for 58 yards the following week against the Colts. His performance over his final six games in ’10 (24 receptions, 292 yards, one TD) sparked excitement heading into the ’11 offseason.

When Mike Munchak replaced Fisher as head coach in 2011, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer gushed about Cook in the offseason. He, too, talked up Cook as a mismatch and how he couldn’t wait to use his new tight end in a variety of ways. And while Cook did catch a career-high 49 passes for 759 yards and three touchdowns that year, he still fell short of expectations.

The same could be said in 2012, when Cook caught 44 of his 72 targets for 523 yards and four touchdowns. He also missed three games due to a torn rotator cuff that ended his season in December. And while Munchak indicated that re-signing Cook was one of the Titans’ offseason priorities, a potential battle would have ensued had Tennessee used its franchise tag to retain the tight end. That’s because Cook wanted out of Tennessee, and for good reason.

It was mind-boggling how infrequently former Tennessee offensive coordinator Chris Palmer used Cook last season. His former quarterback Matt Hasselbeck even admitted to reporters that the team needed to get Cook more involved in the offense following a game in October in which the tight end played on just 25 of the 59 offensive snaps. Palmer was eventually fired and replaced by Dowell Loggains, who did get Cook more involved, but Jake Locker’s accuracy woes limited what the Titans could do in the passing game.

Due to his versatility and athleticism, Cook drew comparisons to Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley coming out of college. He’s a mismatch for opposing linebackers due to his speed, and for defensive backs because of his size. He does a nice job high-pointing passes and will fight for the ball in traffic. He also has the speed to rack up yards after the catch (he has an 80-yard touchdown on his resume), and as Fisher indicated, he can line up all over the field.

Fisher wouldn’t have signed off on the five-year, $35 million contract that the Rams signed Cook to this offseason if he didn’t plan to use him as a primary weapon. But just like with Tavon Austin, Brian Schottenheimer will need to game plan to get the ball into Cook’s hands and if he does, the Rams should flourish offensively. If he doesn’t, then history will repeat itself because it’s not as if the Titans failed to see what they had in Cook. They said the same things about his talent and athletic ability as we’re hearing now in St. Louis. Palmer and Co. just failed to put words into play.

That said, it’s not all on Schottenheimer. Sam Bradford needs to spread the ball around efficiently if this offense is to fire on all cylinders, and Cook needs to learn from what went wrong in Tennessee. He had a habit of mixing in spectacular catches with bad drops, and there was a game against the Bears last season in which he was spotted throwing a temper tantrum on the sideline because he was frustrated about his involvement in the offense (or lack thereof). He had reason to be frustrated in Tennessee, but the Rams made a big investment in him this offseason. Consistency needs to be a strong part of his vocabulary moving forward.

Expectations should be sky-high for Cook heading into the 2013 season. But then again, they’ve always been high. It’s up to Cook and the Rams to turn talent and upside into results.