GREEN BAY — Nobody on the Packers’ sideline wanted to see Jared Cook exit in the second quarter of an eventual 34-27 win over Detroit two weeks ago.
At the same time, no one in the offensive huddle blinked when Richard Rodgers jogged onto the field to replace the eighth-year veteran tight end.
After all, the Packers have been in this position before.
A year earlier, Rodgers was pressed into action after Andrew Quarless injured his knee against Kansas City in Week 3 and remained a focal point in the offense for the rest of the season.
So while Cook’s status remains uncertain due to an ankle injury, the Packers remain confident in Rodgers – and third-year tight end Justin Perillo – to carry the weight of the position in his absence.
“We have all the confidence in the world in Rich,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “There’s not a person who second-guessed anything when Jared went down, which obviously we don’t want. But it’s part of the game and we expect Rich to do what he does. He has great hands, can create separation and make some great plays that we need him to make.”
Rodgers, a third-round pick in 2014, has proven to be one of the best pass-catchers on the roster in nabbing 83 passes for 791 yards and 11 touchdowns in 35 regular-season games with 18 starts.
For that reason, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Rodgers promptly caught the first pass following Cook’s injury for a 7-yard gain to continue the Packers’ drive.
As much production as he’s had, Rodgers made a significant change in his body this offseason in losing about 15-20 pounds in order to improve his quickness, route-running ability and yards after catch.
To make that happen, he reported to training camp at 257 after playing much of last season in the 270-275 range. The lighter weight has lessened the stress on his joints and boosted his stamina in the no-huddle.
Packers receiver Davante Adams, who trained with Rodgers in California this offseason, believes it has made a difference in the tight end’s game this season.
“He looks faster,” Adams said. “He’s not 4.3 now because he lost 15, 20 pounds, but being able to continue to go in our two-minute offense and not feeling like you’re carrying as much weight, literally and figuratively speaking.”
A timeshare at tight end has resulted in Rodgers’ offensive snaps dipping this year – he’s played 104 of 189 snaps (55.0 percent) – but he’s been effective with the reps he has been given.
Rodgers sprawled out for a 22-yard completion in the Packers’ opener in Jacksonville and caught a 2-yard touchdown pass for the third of four first-half TDs against the Lions.
Perillo, who served as the No. 2 tight end to Rodgers through most of last season, later added a 13-yard reception on the Packers’ final scoring drive in the third quarter.
“It’s always good to have two tight ends,” Rodgers said. “It’s not only Jared; it’s Justin, as well. We all spell each other when we get tired or things like that, so it’s obviously nice to have somebody else helping you out.”
Cook, a 6-foot-5, 254-pound physical specimen, brought a “different flavor” to the offense, according to Adams. Still, that’s doesn’t mean his absence will force the offense to overhaul its plans.
That message was clear when Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday that team plans to stick with Rodgers and Perillo as its primary tight ends going forward.
Rodgers possesses a different skill set than Cook, but he has a deep understanding of the offense after getting thrown into the fire as a rookie when he started five games and played nearly 500 snaps.
The same could be said of Perillo, who quickly earned the respect of Aaron Rodgers soon after his arrival as an undrafted free agent out of Maine in 2014.
“The thing is it’s going to open up opportunities for Justin,” the QB said. “He does it the right way. He works really hard. He takes a great approach to the game. He has a great preparation schedule obviously because he’s out there and you don’t worry about him at all. He just catches the ball and makes plays.”
All of Cook’s responsibilities don’t have to fall completely on the shoulders of Rodgers and Perillo, either.
With the Packers taking seven receivers into the season, they could incorporate more four-receiver packages to stress the secondary downfield.
Although Cook only had six catches for 53 yards in the first three games, it appeared the Packers were making it a point to get him more involved in the offense at the time of his injury against the Lions.
Cook hasn’t practiced this week, but the hope remains that he could factor into the offense again at some point this season.
Until that day, Rodgers is comfortable jumping back into the driver’s seat at tight end. It’s a role Rodgers has filled in the past and a job he doesn’t shy away from now.
“I’ve been in this situation before,” Rodgers said. “Justin and I are going to step in and do what we can to help the team.”