Despite Career Inconsistency, Jared Cook may Simmer in Green Bay

The initial reaction to Jared Cook signing with the Green Bay Packers was met with an anticlimactic “ho hum”.  But while he has underachieved and certainly has his failings, the former Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams lanky, talented tight end could find success in Green Bay.  A lot of the negativity likely stems (interestingly enough) from the fantasy football world.  Many people have been smitten by the measurables of Jared Cook and/or by his big game potential.  They drafted him or nabbed him off the waiver wire, only to be disappointed with his inconsistency.  One week he would catch 4 of 5 targets for 61 yards and 2 TDs and literally the next week he catches just 3 of 9 targets for 22 yards and no TDs.

But Cook is a 6’5″ receiver who weighs in just north of 250 lbs, ran a 4.49 40, posted a 41″ vertical, and has an absurd catch radius.  So why wasn’t he more successful in his prior stops?  For one, he’s never had a talented offense nor a talented quarterback.  In fact, moving to Aaron Rodgers from this motley crew of has-beens, never-met-potential, or never-will-bes is going to be dramatic for Cook.

Prior Quarterbacks

Cook QBsIt’s a total mess, and no wonder there is very little consistency.  The recipe that Jared Cook was given to follow:

  1. Start with a base stock of a few passes from old veteran QBs playing out their career with beat-up offenses, such as Shaun Hill, Kerry Collins, Kellen Clemens and Matt Hasselbeck.  Bottle and ferment for 5 years. When the smell becomes unbearable, add to a 4 quart soup pot and heat to a simmer.
  2. Add a pinch of passes from middling QBs that have not met potential, such as Nick Foles and Sam Bradford.
  3. Sprinkle in some targets from less heralded QBs who may never amount to anything, such as Austin Davis and Case Keenum.
  4. Whip together with the best and worst of Jake Locker and Vince Young.
  5. Form into a patty and bake until hardened.
  6. Finish with a drizzle of Rusty Smith and enjoy!

Red Zone Efficiency

One of the biggest surprises for the Packers the last few years has been the drop in their red zone production on offense.  From 2010-2012, the Packers converted 65% of their red zone trips into TDs.  It was the best rate of any team in the NFL.  But from 2013-2015, that rate dropped all the way to 54%, a 11% decrease.  They went from being the best to posting a rating which was actually slightly below the NFL average.  Recently, they’ve been calling a fewer percentage of pass plays in the red zone, and they are missing a key figure:  an efficient tight end.

It’s no coincidence that between 2010 and 2012, Jermichael Finley was a key cog in the Packers offense inside the red zone.  Even if the ball wasn’t being thrown his way, Finley was a matchup nightmare, and his size/ability allowed Aaron Rodgers to make easier reads at the line of scrimmage toward the most favorable receiver.  If too much attention was going to Finley, he’d target his other options, such as Greg Jennings, James Jones or Jordy Nelson.  The three of those WRs plus Finley at TE all had double digit red zone TDs in the three years between 2010 and 2012.

But the number of options shrunk dramatically the last 3 years.  The only threats Rodgers really had were Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.  They tried to make use of TEs Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless, but it was not the same production as Finley delivered in the red zone with Rodgers.

Finley ended his career with red zone stats from Rodgers of 60% completions, 18 TDs:1 INT and a 104 rating when targeted.  While Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver played tremendously in the red zone, none of them caught the ball as reliably as Jermichael Finley and his 6’4″ frame.

Throwing to Big Receivers

Aaron Rodgers has been one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the NFL in history.  And he really likes throwing the ball to big targets.  GM Ted Thompson loves targeting WRs in the 2nd round, and brought in 5’10” Randall Cobb, 5’11” Greg Jennings, 6’1″ Davante Adams and 6’3″ Jordy Nelson all in the second round.  But when you analyze the receivers you see a grouping of Rodgers favorite targets around 6’0″ (James Jones, Adams, Driver, Jennings, Cobb), and a grouping around 6’3″ (Finley, Rodgers, Quarless, Nelson, Donald Lee).  And despite the fact that the bigger players (apart from Nelson) were drafted in the 3rd (Finley, Rodgers) or 5th (Quarless, Lee) rounds, they produce better stats when targeted than do the higher profile, higher drafted, smaller WRs.  I looked at all receivers with at least 25 catches from Rodgers and sorted by height:

Rodgers TargetsThese taller receivers produce 1 touchdown every 13 of Rodgers attempts, and he throws just 1 interception per 88 attempts.  (Even if you remove Jordy Nelson from that grouping, and the numbers are 1 TD per 15 att and 1 INT per 90 att).  Looking at the other, smaller receivers, Rodgers throws 1 TD per 14 att and 1 INT per 43 att.  His passer rating is a stellar 116 when targeting players at least 6’3″.

Scouting Report on Cook

Taking a look at a scouting report on Jared Cook from the Scouting Academy, it certainly look like the perceived fit looks strong.  Some of the positives in their review include:

  • Overall, complimentary piece that can function as a receiver at Y, who can win in the deep, intermediate, and short zones. Can play in a spread system that takes advantage of his vertical speed, big play ability, and catch radius.
  • Uses good, physical hand technique, and a very quick first step to avoid jam at the LOS by CB’s/Safeties when aligned in the slot and at X/Z.
  • Competes for the ball in traffic, using good body control to shield defender.
  • Always a big play threat because of rare speed to run away from defenders and good play strength to break tackles.
  • Good at Chipping and releasing to Flat in Pass Pro.

Certainly there are negatives as well, you can read the full report here.  But there are plenty of positives in terms of his “fit” in Green Bay.  And the bottom line as it relates to his integration into the Packers offense:

He fills a void left in 2013 by TE Jermichael Finley’s injury and then retirement.  Aaron Rodgers loves throwing to big targets and produces better stats when targeting them.  Jared Cook is the biggest starting target Rodgers has ever had to work with.  Cook should help to refresh the Packers drop in red zone production, and elevate them back to a top-10 red zone offense (from below-average since Finley left).  And finally, its almost impossible to go from a less stable receiving situation as Cook has been in from a quarterback/coordinator perspective to a more stable one.  Moving from that laundry list of QBs (and coordinators including Rob Boras, Frank Cignetti, Brian Schottenheimer, Chris Palmer and Mike Heimerdinger) to the stability of the Packers offense and the greatness of Aaron Rodgers will certainly help.  Elementary science tells us you can’t have all independent variables and no controlled variable.  But that is what Cook has faced, with rotating quarterbacks and coordinators: too many independent variables.  Were they his problem or is he the reason his own potential was never met?  He will finally have a controlled environment in Green Bay which will allow the Packers to experiment and see how Cook reacts.

At the end of the day, the contract is very Packers-friendly, and there is zero long term commitment.  The potential exists for this to be a big upgrade to the Packers offense, but time will tell if Cook’s inconsistency in performance can be corrected or if it ultimately becomes his undoing in a short stint in Green Bay.

Why “Mortar” Kicks Can Win Games in 2016

by Warren Sharp

With the NFL changing the rule on touchbacks, to move the ball from the 20 yard line to the 25, there is inherently less of a reason to attempt to return the kickoff. Such a result would make the competition committee quite satisfied, as they desire to reduce returns and reduce risk of injury on the violent kickoff return play. However, the rule change inadvertently leads to an edge that the smartest teams can now exploit: the “mortar” kick.

If a team ignores the “mortar” kick, this year they essentially “give” their opponent between 0.15 and 0.24 more “points” per touchback than prior years (based on the expected point difference on 1st and 10 from the 20 to the 25 yard line).  Consider there are an average of 5 kickoffs per team per game, and deciding to kick all as touchbacks gives an opponent an average of one point more per game than that team would have in prior years. That may sound small, but with alternative option to an intentional attempt for a touchback being a “mortar” kick, the actual difference is much larger than that:  it can be over 1 full point per kickoff.

A “mortar” kick is one that is executed to force a returner to catch the ball in the field of play, preferably inside their own 5 yard line. The high-arching kick puts the returner in the unenviable position of having to be extremely cognizant not only of catching the ball, but where on the field he catches it: is he on the goal line? Can he go backwards for a touchback or not? Is he near the sideline and in danger of stepping out of bounds?  Instead of simply reacting, the returner must process several thoughts quickly (instead of simply focusing on the catch) and that causes mistakes.

If executed correctly, the returner gains minimal yardage after the catch, either by stepping out of bounds, getting tackled in the field of play, or worse yet, having to kneel down on a muffed catch. Examining the difference between starting at the 10 yard line following a “mortar” kick as opposed to starting at the 25 is massive:

At the 10 yard line, a team’s opponent is actually more likely to score the next points than the team that has the ball on 1st and 10. The last several years, almost 55% of drives starting inside the 10 yard line ended with a punt, and 14% ended with a turnover.  Both are definitively higher than if starting at the 25 yard line.  Additionally, points of any kind are scored on these drives 11% less often. From an expected points perspective, the difference of starting a drive on a team’s 10 yard line instead of the 25 yard line is almost 0.8 points/drive.

2016 Touchback Rule ChangeIf a team can pin its opponent at the 5, the difference in the starting field position from the 5 to the 25 is essentially worth 1 full point.  For the sake of comparison, let’s imagine a team in scenario A decides in to kick touchbacks on each kickoff (assume 5 kickoffs per game, the NFL average). And in scenario B, they attempt 5 “mortar” kicks.

Scenario A – the 5 kickoffs all result in touchbacks and the starting field position is the 25.  This translates into 0.58 expected points for the opponent (five times). Thus a net of 2.9 expected points (up from 1.7 last year).

Scenario B – let’s assume a variety of outcomes on the 5 “mortar” kicks: assume 1 goes out of bounds, 1 is actually returned to the 30 yard line, and 3 are pinned inside the 10 (at the 3, 6 and 9 yard lines). The kick out of bounds allows the opponent to start at the 40 yard line (and gives them 1.44 expected points), the return to the 30 yard line results in 0.9 expected points, and the other 3 result in -0.47, -0.37 and -0.25 expected points. Thus a net of 1.25 expected points for the opponent.

When the goal is to minimize the opponent’s expected points, it is easy to see that attempting the “mortar” kick strategy (even if it means it works on only 3 of 5 kickoffs) is still substantially more favorable than simply giving an opponent the ball on the 25 yard line after each kickoff.  Even if, in scenario B, the team only pinned its opponent exactly at the 10 yard line on the three successful “mortar” kicks (instead of at the 3, 6 and 9 yard lines), the net expected points for their opponent only increases from 1.25 up to 1.71. Which is still better (by over 1 full point) than the 2.9 expected points received from five touchbacks.

Taking it a step further:  even two botched “mortar” kicks out of bounds (giving the opponent the ball at the 40 yard line to start each drive) and three which pin the opponent no deeper than the 13 yard line will result in fewer opponent expected points (slightly better than break even) than 5 touchbacks under the new rule.

While there is only so much time that a team can practice kickoff coverage with their full complement of 11 starting kickoff coverage unit members, the key to the successful “mortar” kick begins with the kick itself. And a kicker can practice as many “mortar” kickoffs on an empty field that he wants. Give him a ball boy and let the kicker master the skill of the “mortar” kick. Weather conditions make the kick more difficult, but game day adjustments and intentional touchbacks in windy weather are certainly fair audibles to a plan which is intentional “mortar” kickoffs in all other conditions.

This offseason, kickers must be trained in the art of the “mortar” kick and coaches must coach it. While the downfall of this strategy is a kick caught at the one yard line which is returned for a touchdown, plenty of attempted touchbacks caught at the -1 to -5 yard line have likewise been returned for touchdowns. Giving your team the most strategic advantage in the long run is the key to winning in the NFL, even with short term variance. Coaches who don’t focus on this huge advantage this rule change has presented will not maximize their ability to win football games.

It won’t shock me at all to see most coaches ignore math and efficiency and still try to kick the ball through or into the end zone for a touchback. But just because most try that antiquated strategy does not make them right.  The math says even a 60% success rate (3 out of 5) on “mortar” kicks gives a better chance to win games than 100% touchbacks.  And the math says the difference between just one “mortar” kick that pins the opponent at their 5 yard line and one regular touchback to the 25 yard line is worth almost one full point on the scoreboard.

Time will tell which coaches are educated enough to grasp the math and the concept of the “mortar” kickoff.  Those that do will give their team a better opportunity to maximize points and win games.  Those that don’t will continue to succeed in dodging yet another mathematical edge the game throws at them, and can instead blame the players for negative outcomes instead of their own failure to embrace progressive, educated football.