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The Best That Briefly Was

Greg Cook may be the most talented football player you never heard of. The reason for that is pretty simple — he only played one year in the pros.

AS was made obvious in my piece on The U, I’m a big fan of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. Some of my favorite documentaries are the ones that highlight forgotten players of old, legends once lost to the sands of time but uncovered by creative minds in a musty studio or at the pen of an enlightened writer, and none were told better than Marcus Dupree’s tale in The Best That Never Was.

Dupree is presented in it as a seminal talent who was probably the most sought-after recruit up to that point in history, and he eventually committed to Oklahoma after Barry Switzer famously sent former Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims on a private plane to woo the young tailback. His impact on college football was immediately felt when he ran for 1,393 yards and 12 touchdowns on a remarkable 8.5 yards-per-carry, including a still-standing Fiesta Bowl-record 249 yards against Arizona State as a freshman, and Dupree seemed guaranteed to win a Heisman of his own before pursuing sure NFL stardom.

The rest is history. Dupree battled injuries and unattainable expectations as a sophomore in 1983, eventually leaving Oklahoma mid-season to transfer close to home at Southern Miss. But he left town again when told by the NCAA that he’d have to sit out of the ’84 season, instead deciding to turn pro by signing with the New Orleans Breakers of the USFL. Dupree had a successful rookie year but blew out his knee in ’85, assumedly ending his football career at the frighteningly young age of 21.

He actually made a comeback in 1990 with the Los Angeles Rams, the team that took a gamble on his rights in the twelfth round of the ’86 draft, and he ran for 251 yards over two uneventful seasons before being cut in ’92. Now his career was over, but it took a hell of a talent to even make an NFL roster after being away from the sport for a half-decade.

While sobering, Dupree’s story is a fun one to extrapolate from. Since he only played one year of football in the national spotlight — his freshman season in Norman — Dupree’s potential can be narrated to heights that rival Paul Bunyan or John Henry, stretched to a decade of dominance that entails Heismans, national championships, million-dollar contracts, and Super Bowl rings. He was cut down at such a young age that we never got to see him disappoint.

But he is not football’s version of Penny Hardaway, or Kerry Wood, or (to a lesser extent) Eric Lindros. Neither is Bo Jackson, since his decisions to focus heavily on baseball and never attend an NFL training camp lie squarely on his shoulders.

No, I believe the real tragic hero in football lore — that unfortunate soul who so rightfully deserves the “Best There Never Was” label for momentarily reaching the peak of his sport — is former Cincinnati Bengal and Cincinnati Bearcat Greg Cook, the No. 5 pick in the 1969 draft who lit the league on fire for one brilliant season.

walsh

 “Greg Cook could very well have been remembered or noted as the greatest quarterback of all time.”

 Bill Walsh

WE all know Walsh as the strategic mastermind who revolutionized passing offenses with his West Coast offense while molding two of the best quarterbacks of all time in Joe Montana and Steve Young, but the three-time Super Bowl-winning coach saw his first important action in professional football as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator from 1968-1975. The sport’s most celebrated genius was given a preeminent talent to work with long before Montana had even committed to Notre Dame, and it was to the surprise of no one that Cook bucked rookie tradition and won the starting job in training camp.

He had secured it in while still in college, really. After watching the film of Cook’s 23-21 upset over Bo Schembechler’s Miami of Ohio squad in the last game of his senior year, one week after setting an NCAA record with 554 yards passing against the Ohio Bobcats, Hall-of-Fame head coach Paul Brown said simply, “That quarterback. That’s our draft choice.”

Under Brown’s stewardship and Walsh’s tutelage, Cook was a hit in ‘69. A sensation. A phenom. A revolution. The hometown hero led the AFL in completion percentage and topped both leagues in Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Yards per Attempt, Yards per Completion, Net Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, and good old fashioned passer rating*. Cook’s 9.4 Y/A and 17.5 Y/C outclass any other rookie in history by wide margins; the former is the eighth-best single-season mark in football history, while the latter has since only been surpassed once (in the very next year).

With all due respect to Dan Marino, Cam Newton, and Ben Roethlisberger (among others), Cook’s 1969 campaign is without a doubt the best rookie season for a quarterback in the history of the sport. I thought it would be fun to translate his statistics into 2013 terms for your viewing pleasure, and I did so by taking the percentages in which he was above the 1969 AFL average in each category and converted them into last year’s margins.

Here was how much better (or worse, in terms of sack rate) Cook was than the league average that season in key efficiency metrics:

Comp% TD% INT% Y/A Sk%
Cook 53.8 7.6 5.6 9.41 12.8
% > League Average 8.03 58.33 3.45 34.29 -64.10

And assuming Cook would be healthy enough to play a 16-game slate and attempt the league-average amount of passes (566), this is what his 2013 stat line would come out to be — and with his league placement in the bottom row:

Comp% TD INT Yards Y/C Y/A AY/A NY/A ANY/A Rating
66.1 39 15 5,394 14.4 9.53 9.72 7.93 8.10 108.8
7 2 9 2 1 1 2 1 4 4

Obviously, these numbers would not only lap those in Cook’s draft class, they would bestow him with All-Pro honors and probably place him on the short list for MVP. Calling him the “Next Big Thing” would be misleading, too, since he would already be one of the three-best quarterbacks in the league. Cook would lead the NFL in jersey sales, endorsement deals, and Wheaties box appearances, along with probably being expected to win a minimum of five Super Bowls before his career had concluded.

A few things need to be qualified to provide a clearer context, though, the first being that most rookies attempt less than the league-average amount of passes. However, I feel that if healthy — and operating under the assumption that his coaches would immediately recognize his effectiveness — Cook would be able to maintain at least a league-average workload. Brandon Weeden did so in 2012 while Andrew Luck attempted the fifth-most passes in the NFL that same year, and Sam Bradford was third in attempts in 2010. Cook’s rate statistics calculate to be ridiculous and would all be rookie records, and the gross numbers in touchdowns and yardage may seem to exceed the point of plausibility, but that’s simply how good he was in 1969 on a pass-by-pass basis. The only flaw in his game as a rookie was a propensity to take sacks; he would have averaged 62 in 2013 over a full-season workload, which would tie him for fifth-most ever in a single year.

The biggest caveat to this little exercise is a glaring one — Cook wasn’t healthy as a rookie. He missed three full games in ’69 and the better part of three more thanks to the injury that would soon cost him his career, and that’s where this commemoration becomes more of a eulogy.

In the third game of the season against the eventual Super Bowl champions, a blitzing Kansas City Chief flattened Cook and knocked him out of the game in the first half. The rookie had torn his rotator cuff, but it went undiagnosed and untreated; he was back throwing on it in week five and returned to the Bengals’ starting lineup in week eight. That’s right, y’all — most of Cook’s league-leading statistics were compiled while he was throwing on an unhinged appendage. It’s something straight out of a movie script, but instead of the star quarterback playing hurt in a fourth-quarter comeback he’s grinding through another half-season on that fucker.**

As soon as Cincinnati concluded its 4-9-1 season (with five of those losses coming in games Cook threw less than ten passes in), they suddenly found themselves going from the best quarterback situation in football to needing a new signal-caller. Cook’s surgery went disastrously — he’d undoubtedly exacerbated the injury by throwing another 145 passes on it — and he wouldn’t play a single NFL snap over the next three seasons thanks to the primitive medical capabilities of his time***. The three passes he attempted in the 1973 season opener would be his last.

Cook’s career was over at 27-years-old. His only season he played in professional football was as the best quarterback in either league, winning Rookie of the Year and soundly outplaying AFL greats like Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Jack Kemp, Daryle Lamonica, and the legendary Joe Namath. Walsh had to move on from Cook’s big arm in 1970 and promptly tailored his offense to that of the physically limited but quick-witted backup Virgil Carter, and Cincinnati’s short-passing attack took on a new level of efficiency when Ken Anderson took over the starting job in ‘73. The seeds of the West Coast offense had officially been planted, but it came at the cost of a career that could have one day been placed among the very best … and perhaps without a rival.

When asked how his offense would have been different with Cook under center instead of the Carter-Anderson duo, Walsh doesn’t sugarcoat it.

“Completely different. It would have started with the deep strike, and everything would have played off that. It would have set records that would never be broken … What a great, great talent. What a terrible shame.”

xxxx, USA; FILE PHOTO;  Mandatory Credit: Manny Rubio-US PRESSWIRE

THE rest of Cook’s life completed the stage tragedy that defined his career. He retired in ’74 after getting cut in Kansas City’s training camp and worked for the United Parcel Service, taking up painting as a hobby to fill the void of an everyday activity to strive for and accomplish. He died from pneumonia at just 65-years-old.

The Tale of Greg Cook is saddening as a fan of the game’s history, but it also serves as a needed reminder for us to cherish sustained greatness from the legends we are lucky to watch. What if Peyton Manning was cut down in his rookie season? Or LaDainian Tomlinson, or Randy Moss, or Ray Lewis? So many indelible memories would have been lost that we grew up with — memories that those our age in the ‘70s and ‘80s were undoubtedly deprived of with Cook.

Maybe Cook transcends the Dead Ball Era of 1970s football and stands head-and-shoulders above a passing-challenged NFL, supplanting Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler, and Roger Staubach as his generation’s dominant signal-caller. Maybe the Bengals are the dynasty of the decade, annually riding the right arm of the best quarterback in the league and taming Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain. Or maybe Cook’s ’69 season is the fluke of all flukes and he never comes close to the standard he set as a rookie, leading Brown and Walsh to opt for installing the WCO forerunner with Anderson.

That’s the fun part of hypotheticals surrounding a shooting star like Cook — you can twist the scant shred of evidence we have available into whatever outcome you prefer. I lean towards the possibility that he would be really friggin’ good based on his unprecedented level of play for a passer his age, but there is no denying that Cook was fearless in the pocket and took a lot of sacks because of it; perhaps he was destined to play an abbreviated career.

No one knows and no one ever will know. I would just prefer it if Cook’s story didn’t slip through the cracks of history and be lost to a another generation of football fans.

* Cook’s passer rating is still seventh all-time among rookie quarterbacks that attempted at least 175 passes, a remarkable fact considering the league-average rate has risen over 23 points between 1969 and the present day.

** How many gallons would the average human being need in cortisone shots to play eight games with a torn rotator cuff? That’s a study for another day.

*** Chad Pennington and Drew Brees are famous examples of modern-day quarterbacks who tore their rotator cuffs and played at a Pro Bowl level after their return. Pennington certainly lost some zip on his passes, but Brees is better than ever in his mid-thirties.

Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.

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About Brandon Magner (27 Articles)
(@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the one-year MBA program at the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He is now enrolled in the University of Kentucky College of Law.

5 Comments on The Best That Briefly Was

  1. This is a really excellent piece. I touched on Cook a little in my own post (http://nflsgreatest.co.nf/2014/04/gaining-yards-through-the-air-pre-merger-edition/), but on more of a survey level than you have.

    It really is a shame that we weren’t able to see what could have been the greatest NFL career of all time. On top of his abilities, the guy even looked like a superstar. He could have probably ushered in the era of big advertising for football players decades before it actually happened.

    • Brandon Magner // April 23, 2014 at 2:38 PM // Reply

      Thank you, Bryan, and I agree re: Cook. I have actually stumbled on some of your recent pieces while researching and have enjoyed them a lot, so it’s cool to see you stumbling on one of mine.

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