ATLANTA – Brandin Cooks doesn’t remember much about Super Bowl LII.
But one by one, over the course of three days of press conferences this week, reporters asked the wide receiver varying questions about the Eagles’ 41-33 win over the Patriots a year ago, to which Cooks would often reply, “You know, I didn’t finish that game.”
The moment of his departure is imprinted on the minds of many fans from Philadelphia and New England. Cooks had just caught a downfield pass early in the second quarter, but as he circled in space and paused at the Eagles' 40-yard line, safety Malcolm Jenkins blindsided him.
Cooks suffered a concussion and never returned.
“I feel like, personally, I disappointed my team, not being able to be out there and finish the game,” Cooks said Tuesday. “But it also gave me that hunger, that motivation to have a better offseason, to work harder no matter what the circumstances are, and to understand that I’ll be back on this stage.”
It took only a year for Cooks to return to the Super Bowl, and coincidentally, it will be against his former team in Sunday’s title game. The Patriots traded him to the Rams during the offseason, but Cooks said he doesn’t seek revenge. Like the Jenkins hit, he said it’s just more kindling for the cooker.
“It’s fuel to the fire,” Cooks said. “I know that I can play this game at a high level, whether someone thinks it or not. For them to trade me, it’s part of the game, but it also gives me that motivation to keep going, too.”
Every player here has his own motivations, substantial or trivial, real or imagined, but Cooks’ are unique because of how last year’s game and last offseason played out. He’s had a journeyman’s career, playing for three teams in five seasons, even though he’s been one of the more productive receivers in the NFL over that span.
But Cooks said that he hasn’t dwelled much on his circumstances, and in some respects, he shouldn’t. In the past three seasons alone with the Saints, Patriots, and Rams, he’s caught passes from Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Jared Goff while playing for coaches Sean Payton, Bill Belichick, and Sean McVay.
“I guess I know how to pick them, right?” Cooks said.
He hasn’t done the picking, of course, but it’s not like Saints and Patriots were letting him walk without getting anything in return. Each team received a first-round draft choice in return. And Cooks, for his part, received a five-year, $80 million extension after the Rams acquired him last April.
“I can promise you this,” McVay said Tuesday, “we’re not trading him.”
The 25-year-old Oregon State product gave McVay the outside speed receiver he lacked in 2017, and he would go on to catch 80 passes for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns this season. In the NFC championship win over the Saints, Cooks caught seven of eight targets for 107 yards, and his lone drop was done on purpose.
In overtime, with the Rams on the Saints' 39-yard line, McVay called for a third-down screen. But New Orleans had numbers, and rather than catch the pass and likely be tackled for a loss, Cooks short-armed the throw.
“He dropped it because I put him in a terrible spot,” McVay said.
Cooks’ first two opportunities in Super Bowl LII were similar plays in which he had little chance at success. A first-quarter dump-off from Brady was thrown at his shoelaces. And on the first play of the second quarter, after the Patriots advanced to the Eagles' 9, Cooks got the handoff on a third-and-2 jet sweep.
Safety Rodney McLeod diagnosed the play and upended Cooks as he tried to hurdle him. The run netted only a yard and Belichick opted to attempt a 26-yard field goal that Stephen Gostkowski clanked off the left upright.
Brady went back to Cooks on the Patriots’ next offensive play, however, when he turned cornerback Ronald Darby around with a 23-yard “out” route. But as Cooks curled forward, the trailing Jenkins caught up and delivered a blow.
Jenkins led with his shoulder and had two feet planted, but his helmet caught the bottom part of Cooks’ helmet. The force jolted the receiver’s head back, he fell over and landed first on his helmet before the rest of his body.
The Patriots turned the ball over on downs four plays later, and on the ensuing possession, the Eagles scored a touchdown that expanded their lead to 15-3.
“Their fastest player was off the field,” Jenkins said Wednesday. “So from a secondary standpoint, there was a little more relief on us. We don’t have to worry about him running through the defense. But there were plenty of plays in that game that we needed to make, none bigger than Brandon Graham’s [strip-sack], obviously.”
In late July, when NFL officials visited the Eagles to explain that the league would further enforce the lowering-of-the-head on tackles, Jenkins’ hit was brought up. During the meeting, per several players, two officials offered different interpretations on the legality of the hit.
Cooks, a year later, said that it was “a great hit.”
“It’s a part of the game,” he said. “I got hit. It is what it is. The hit was the hit. I’m past that.”
He moved beyond the Saints trade, topping 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season with the Patriots, and did it again the following year after he was dealt to Los Angeles. But Cooks has unfinished business, even if he said that he doesn’t think he would have changed the outcome of last year’s Super Bowl had he not been injured.
“They were still in the game. They almost pulled it out,” Cooks said. “I’m not going to be that guy to say, ‘Well, if I was in it, it would be a different story.’”