How Jared Cook is navigating season as the best player on a bad team

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BALTIMORE — Jared Cook and his baritone voice provide arguably the most insight of anyone in the Raiders locker room after a loss.

Rarely are his answers short, but one question elicited just a two-word response from the Raiders’ tight end on Sunday after the Raiders’ (2-9) 34-17 loss to the Ravens. Asked how he would assess his own play this season, probably the best of any Raider, Cook quickly deflected.

“No comment,” he said before the reporter finished asking his question. “No comment.”

Cook understandably kept his focus on the team and the loss, but he deserves at least some credit for being the best player on a bad team. You could make the case center Rodney Hudson owns that title, but in terms of players whose performance has benefitted the Raiders most, Cook stands atop the list. He’s having his best season in his 10th year in the league, on pace to break single-season career highs in catches (54 in 2017, on pace for over 68), receiving yards (759 in 2011, on pace for almost 886) and touchdowns (five in 2013, on pace for over seven).

He leads the Raiders with 609 receiving yards (next-highest is running back Jalen Richard with 447) and five touchdown catches. Those totals rank fourth and tied for fourth, respectively, among NFL tight ends. The Raiders would be wise to re-sign Cook, who enters unrestricted free agency after this season. In the meantime, though, how is one of the team’s most experienced players handling a season as a rare bright spot amid the misery?

For one, he’s ensuring the rookies who have played a far bigger role than even they expected – Marcell Ateman, Arden Key, Brandon Parker and others – know this dismal season won’t define their careers. Clearly Cook doesn’t want to discuss his individual exploits on the field, rather how he’s handling this season off it.

“Confidence and instilling in them that they belong here, that they made it this far and that their legacy is still yet to be proven, so go out there and prove it,” Cook said of his advice to younger players. “The team needs them. It’s just words of wisdom. It’s on them to accept it, though. You can talk all day until you’re blue in the face, but if someone is hearing you and not listening, then it makes it a little bit more difficult.”

Jared Cook leads the Raiders in receiving yards (609) and receiving touchdowns (five). (Photo by James Chance/Getty Images) 

Speaking of difficult, Cook has made the playoffs once in 10 seasons (that includes the 2018 Raiders eventually missing out). He played for the Titans from 2009-12, the St. Louis Rams from 2013-15, the Packers in 2016 and the Raiders in 2017 and 2018. Only in 2016, when he won an ESPY for Best Play along with Aaron Rodgers for their incredible throw-and-catch connection in the 2017 Divisional Round against the Cowboys, did Cook sniff the postseason.

So if anyone knows how to guide a locker room potentially in danger of losing its way, it’s Jared Cook.

“It’s kind of like going back to Day 1,” Cook said. “You’ve got to do the little things right in order to be successful. It’s hard to win in this league as it is. You’ve got to be good at the little things and master the little things before you get a win. It’s back to that. It’s back to step one, mastering techniques, taking advantage of your abilities.”

Cook’s Sunday, despite logging only two catches for 32 yards, served as a microcosm for the Raiders’ season. He made the best play of the game, but it was nowhere near enough for a win. When Derek Carr underthrew Cook down the right sideline in the third quarter, Cook rotated back left, palmed the ball with his left hand and somehow kept both feet inbounds while rolling into the end zone untouched to bring the Raiders within three.

Cook’s second-best catch of the day, one that would top the list on most days, came on a leaping grab down the right sideline in the second quarter. With safety Chuck Clark draped on him, Cook corralled the 50-50 ball for a 24-yard gain to the Baltimore 3-yard line. Cook, however, was called for offensive pass interference for what one official deemed a slight push-off. He whipped the ball to the ground in frustration after he rose from the turf and saw a flag nearby.

Cook was asked after the game if he received an explanation for the call.

“Nah, that ref been messing with me since the Cowboys game last year, so I think it’s targeting by him,” he said.

Cook deserves some Pro Bowl votes in the AFC, whether it be for catches that count or don’t, as the Raiders campaigned for above. Based on numbers alone, the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce is the only AFC tight end better, but you can make the case the Patriots’ Rob Grownkowsi belongs above Cook as well. One of those two will likely play in the Super Bowl, so Cook should make the trip to Orlando if he keeps this up.

“Cookie is my guy,” Carr said. ” … His attitude is just, ‘Put it near me and I will catch it.’ He made a great play on that touchdown pass. He caught it one-handed and got it in the end zone. We needed that. He’s a heck of a player and a good friend.”