The greatest QB you never heard of
While the football world tuned into the soap opera that has become Peyton Manning’s long goodbye to the Indianapolis Colts, the greatest quarterback you never saw died last week.
Greg Cook was the real deal, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound blue chipper with an arm as powerful as it was precise. Andrew Luck had nothing on Cook except the good fortune to be born after advancements were made in sports-injury diagnosis and treatment.
Cook’s NFL career essentially consisted of 21/2 games as a Cincinnati Bengals rookie. That’s all he got at full strength – 10 quarters – before Kansas City linebacker Jim Lynch tackled Cook out of the pocket, tearing his rotator cuff. This was in 1969, when an MRI was something a Scrabble player converted to RIM.
Cook knew he had a serious injury that impeded his throwing motion, but his options were limited: He either could continue at quarterback by taking pain-numbing injections of cortisone, or he could sit. He was 22. He wanted to play. He played.
“It got to the point that I could lie on the side of the bed and hang my arm off it, and when I’d try to lift it, the shoulder would go out,” Cook told Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman. “I’d get sick to my stomach. What’s going on?”
Cook played eight more games with the 1969 Bengals, and three operations later, he made a brief appearance with the 1973 Chiefs. No go. The shoulder damage was irreparable, turning Cook from somebody who “could very well have been remembered or noted as the greatest quarterback of all time” – Bill Walsh’s words – to an obscurity anywhere beyond Cincinnati.
Another Super Bowl is imminent, and the news of Cook’s death last Thursday was overshadowed by updates on the high ankle sprain of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the sore shoulder of Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, and, of course, the eternal-flame saga of Peyton Manning’s neck.
Greg Cook died? Who was Greg Cook?
Cook was this: A once-in-a-generation talent whose quick-strike capabilities foreshadowed pro football as we know it today. In an era when passers rarely completed 50 percent of their attempts – when interceptions were as commonplace as touchdowns – Cook was dropping deep throws on a dime.
In his second NFL start, Cook threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns against the Chargers. Tom Brady produces numbers like that every week, but as with the economy, you’ve got to consider inflation: Passing for 327 yards in a 1969 game was like passing for 500 yards in a 2011 game.
Cook’s death affects me because he was the first top-gun quarterback I watched from a stadium seat. My dad took me to the 1969 College All-Star Game – actually, the dear man took eight of his business clients, and allowed one of his teenaged kids to tag along – at Chicago’s Soldier Field, where the ex-collegians took on the New York Jets.
The concept of an annual exhibition between the defending world champions and a team of rookies a few months removed from school seems antiquated now, and in hindsight, it was becoming antiquated then.
Southern California running back O.J. Simpson, the first overall draft choice in 1969, had yet to agree to a deal with Buffalo and declined to participate, as did Purdue’s versatile Leroy Keyes. The advent of sophisticated contracts, along with the possibility of incurring an injury, meant the end was near for the summertime ritual. (It was discontinued after 1976.)
Cook, in any case, was No. 3 in the quarterback rotation assembled by All-Stars coach Otto Graham. Notre Dame’s Terry Hanratty was ineffective during the first half, and Kansas’ Bobby Douglass was no better. Enter Cook, from the University of Cincinnati.
On a night that was supposed to dwell on New York quarterback Joe Namath – a training camp holdout, Namath had practiced only 10 days – Cook stole the show. He threw for 241 yards on 12-of-23 accuracy in the second half, throwing TD passes to Stanford’s Gene Washington, USC’s Bob Klein and SMU’s Jerry Levias.
The Jets held on for a 26-24 victory, but the All-Stars made it close enough to require Namath’s presence on the field well into the fourth quarter.
I went to Soldier Field anticipating to be thrilled by the one and only Joe Namath, the living legend. I was thrilled, to be sure, except I was thrilled by Greg Cook.
Walsh, then the receivers coach and de-facto offensive coordinator for the Bengals, also was thrilled. The future Hall of Fame coach had spent a season as an assistant in Oakland, where Al Davis sold him on the virtues of throwing deep.
Cook might’ve been a rookie in 1969, when rookie quarterbacks were neither seen nor heard, but Walsh had a knack for identifying guys who could pass the ball.
So Cook started, then got hurt, and in 1970 Walsh was forced to return to the drawing board with replacement quarterback Virgil Carter, a Kellen Moore-type who made up for his physical flaws with smarts, savvy, and an arm that was accurate on short and medium routes.
Walsh retooled the Bengals playbook, adjusting from Cook’s vertical-strike passes to Carter’s high-percentage passes. The “Cincinnati Offense” created by Walsh would be emulated for years to come, only by another name: The West Coast Offense.
As for Cook, he seemingly eased into retirement with amazing grace, never bemoaning his fate as the superstar quarterback whose superstardom was denied. An art major in college, he continued to paint – some of his works are on the walls of the governor’s mansion in Ohio – and stayed busy as a motivational speaker for labor unions and as a color commentator for Cincinnati Bearcats football broadcasts during the 1980s.
Behind the don’t-cry-for-me faade? Who knows? Pneumonia was determined to be the official cause of his death, but don’t underestimate any man’s long-term struggle with heartbreak.
Greg Cook had every tool a quarterback needs to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame at Canton, Ohio, and then, three games into his career, his arm was shot.
The best quarterback you never saw took his last breath in Cincinnati.
He was 65, and 200 miles away from Canton.