Veteran Jared Cook establishing himself as key target for Justin Herbert, Chargers

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- It was fourth-and-2 and the Los Angeles Chargers had the ball at midfield on Monday night. Just over nine minutes remained on the clock and the Las Vegas Raiders had just missed a 52-yard field goal which would have cut the Chargers' lead to four points.

The Chargers, like everyone else, knew the Raiders were a second-half team, a team that had already cut a 21-point Chargers lead to seven. At halftime, Chargers defensive lineman Joey Bosa even said he was thinking about years past and stated, "Oh, you'd come in at half with a lead and think 'What are we going to do this time to screw this up?' ... nobody's fault (laughs) it's all our fault, but it just happened so many times."

But in past years they didn't have tight end Jared Cook, armed with confidence, leaping ability (he was a high jumper in high school) and experience. Cook made the big play, securing the fourth-down pass from Justin Herbert that led to the game-sealing touchdown for the Chargers (3-1), who hope to stay hot Sunday when they host the Cleveland Browns (3-1) at SoFi Stadium (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).

Losing Hunter Henry to the New England Patriots in the offseason seemed like a huge blow, but enter the 34-year-old Cook, who played on five teams before signing with the Chargers in free agency.

He's 6-foot-5, 246 pounds and has the deepest voice on the team, often sounding like the seasoned vet that he is. He's also provided the Chargers another receiving threat, with 16 catches for 181 yards and a touchdown reception in his first four games.

The Chargers won the race for Cook because of his relationships with offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi (whom he was with in New Orleans) and offensive line coach Frank Smith, who coached him with the Oakland Raiders. Cook had 22 touchdown catches over the previous three seasons, including a career-high nine in 2019. He added his first of 2021 against the Raiders in Monday's win, one of his six receptions for 70 yards.

But those coaches and Herbert are a big part of why Cook said he chose the Chargers.

And it was Herbert who stood in the scrum on that fourth-quarter fourth down and recognized the Raiders' defense. Cook did, too. Across from him was Las Vegas middle linebacker Denzel Perryman, who played for the Chargers last year.

"As soon as he lined up, he lined up outside the box and had inside leverage on me," Cook said. "We knew what it was immediately and that we had the perfect play on. I knew Justin probably was going to come to me."

The height difference figured in as well. Perryman is 5-11. Cook is six inches taller. You do the math.

Cook caught it for a critical first down, jumping straight up over Perryman to haul in a 13-yard-pass. But the road to that pass started many years before.

Cook was raised in Suwanee, Georgia, and was considered one of the country's best receivers coming out of high school in 2005. He signed with the University of South Carolina and Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, who changed Cook's career track.

Spurrier switched Cook's position to tight end, wanting to revolutionize the position to make it a bigger, stronger, more athletic weapon. Cook was his man.

By the end of his college career as a tight end (technically he was listed as a wide receiver but mostly played the tight-end role) Cook had caught 73 passes for 1,107 yards (a 15.2 yards-per-catch average) and became a third-round pick (No. 87 overall) by the Tennessee Titans in 2009. In the 12-plus seasons since, Cook has caught 521 passes for 6,854 yards (13.2 ypc) and 42 touchdowns.

But back to the fourth-and-2.

"I was just thinking about the placement of the ball," he said. "I didn't know if it was going to be high over like the top of [Perryman's head] or over the shoulder ... but it was just perfect (placement) and I was able to secure it."

Even though the fourth-down call was gutsy, Chargers coach Brandon Staley didn't think he was gambling, though having a player like Cook to throw to reduces the risk.

"What we're trying to do is treat every decision like it has a life of its own," Staley said. "Just because we hit one fourth down doesn't mean i feel like I'm playing with house money. That's not what we’re doing. If I feel like its an advantage situation from a data standpoint, modeling standpoint, timin, rhythm of the game, if I feel like what's what gets for us then we're going."

And you thought it was just a quarterback flinging it to a tight end.

Austin Ekeler, who had a career rushing night with 117 yards on 15 carries, scored on a touchdown run six plays later to seal the game. He got a game ball, as did Cook -- his first with the Chargers.

"We believe in each other," Cook said. "We believe in ourselves so we have that continuity and we have that together."