Emblematic. That’s the word. Representing something that cannot be seen by itself. I struggled with the proper word to use for quite some time. Symbol carries too much epistemological baggage to be useful. Patient zero implies the subject in question is source to a contagion, which is both overdramatic and insensitive for my purposes. Even origin lacks proper nuance, and again regards the subject as some kind of beginning.
What I see in our final quarterback – our emblematic quarterback – is elements of all the triumphs and tribulations endured by those who followed over the next few decades. Like Jaworski, Anderson, Esiason, and Roethlisberger, there are moments of transcendent brilliance; like Thompson and Couch, the unfulfilled promise; like Swick, the devastating injury; like Quinn the pressure of carrying a franchise through difficult times; like Miller and Frye being a local star. And ultimately, like many on the list, a career that failed to live up to expectations. In one quarterback with a magnificent and tragic story, we see all of these tropes come together into one fascinating package.
Greg Cook, CIN (1st round, 5th pick, 1969, University of Cincinnati)
If you go and look up Cook’s career statistics at a resource like Pro Football Reference, the numbers on that page will look similar to many other quarterbacks mentioned previously in this series:
These numbers, objectively, give little indication of the player that Paul Brown called “the best quarterback prospect I’ve seen since Otto Graham.” Cook did more, though, to evoke such evaluations in only eleven games than most others in an entire career.
The above quote about Graham comes from an October 10, 1969 profile of Cook by John Pekkanen for Life Magazine, written just after the Bengals’ third game of the season, third victory, and third start behind center for the rookie from Chillicothe, OH. It stands as a surviving portrait of a lost talent at its zenith:
Today Cook is something of a sensation himself as a rookie pro quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals – and like [Joe] Namath he has long hair and sideburns and says just about anything on his mind. His team, pack of bright-eyed and bushy young enthusiasts (the oldest player is 29), won only three games last season, their first in the American Football League. But this year Cook led them to surprising victories in their final three exhibition and first two regular-season games, then casually predicted the Bengals would polish off the strong Kansas City Chiefs next. For boasting prophecy it was not quite in the Namath class, but close: Cincinnati won, Cook putting them into the lead with a 73-yard touchdown pass before he had to leave the game with a muscle pull.
The “muscle pull” that Cook suffered as a result of a sack from Chiefs linebacker Jim Lynch turned out to be a torn rotator cuff in his throwing arm. He returned after missing the next three games to finish out the season, but with severe pain that sapped his arm strength and altered his throwing mechanics. Cook had offseason surgery on the shoulder, but was unable to play the next year and didn’t return to game action until 1973. His final appearance, three pass attempts in the season opener against the Denver Broncos, came with none of the fanfare or success that greeted his presence four years earlier.
For the next forty years, testaments to “the prince who never became king” were a staple of Cincinnati sports culture, coming with a flurry in the wake of his 2012 death from pneumonia at the age of 65. They spoke of a man built like his era’s defensive linemen (6’4’’, 230) who captured the imaginations of those who follow profession football with all of nine healthy quarters of play that belie his spate of post-football problems. Nowhere is this melancholy nostalgia for Cook more prescient than in a short documentary released by NFL Films in 2013, an absolute must-watch for anyone remotely interested in the history of professional football. Former teammates like Bob Trophy and Sam Wyche join others in describing Cook, whose combination of skills has no complete equal in the modern game. What they described sounds like a fusion of Ben Roethlisberger’s size and strength, Aaron Rodgers’ pocket awareness and downfield vision, and Brett Favre’s unique mechanics and showmanship dropped into an era where defenses lacked the athleticism or the complex strategy of today. No less a personality than Bill Walsh is seen calling Cook the “greatest talent to ever play the position… while he played, he was the best there was.”
The late Walsh wasn’t one to speak hyperbolically. And in a way, perhaps no other quarterback was so important for the development of offensive tactics. Cook’s impact on the game began in college, where his unique combination of skills offset what Pekkanen had called “a line so weak it appeared to be manned by pacifists and Latin instructors.” Matt Opper, writing a piece about the late Cook for the Bearcats’ SB Nation website, details the revolutionary situation the quarterback found himself in during his time at the University of Cincinnati:
The unknown quantity was that at UC Cook had played for Homer Rice and his Offensive Coordinator Leeman Bennett. In the late 60’s the duo were one the cutting edge of Football strategy. At the time option Football was beginning to take hold of college football, particularly Bill Yeoman’s veer at Houston. What Rice and Bennett did in their time at UC was perfect and offense that married the option running attack sweeping the country with a complex passing game that stretched defenses vertically. Rice even wrote a book on the offense he ran with the Bearcats and in his later stops. The offense was ahead of it’s time and Cook put up monumental numbers in his final two seasons as a Bearcat. Cook’s time with Rice and Bennett, both of whom would go on to be NFL coaches, was the perfect training for what came next.
In 1968, Cook’s senior season, he became the instrument by which the offense employed by Rice and Bennett took off. Cook led the nation in total offense, including a then single-game record of 554 yards passing in a 60-48 loss to the seventeenth-ranked Ohio Bobcats. And despite being named Second Team All-American, he did so rather quietly as the Bearcats finished 5-4-1 in the second tier Missouri Valley Conference. This would prove advantageous for Brown, who was searching for a cornerstone quarterback to helm the Bengals after a rocky debut season. That one of Cook’s skill and pedigree was waiting right in his backyard would prove advantageous in an era when teams lacked modern tools to scout players at smaller schools with limited media exposure. Indeed, when Brown attended the Bearcats’ season finale against Miami (OH) to scout Cook personally, he walked away certain that he would have the same impact on the Bengals as Graham had on the Browns during the 1940s and 1950s.
Brown made Cook the first quarterback taken in the combined 1969 NFL-AFL draft that saw O.J. Simpson taken with the first pick. One spot ahead of Cook, the equally quarterback-starved Pittsburgh Steelers opted to take a defensive lineman from a North Texas squad that had beaten the Bearcats during the 1968 season: Joe Greene, first piece of the Steel Curtain.
From day one, Cook was intended as the centerpiece of an aggressive vertical passing game designed by Walsh, at that time a young offensive coordinator fresh from a stint on Al Davis’ staff in Oakland. In many respects, Cook was the perfect quarterback for the scheme, possessing the physical skills (strong arm, mobility) and the mental ones (acute field vision from the pocket, quick decision making) Walsh was looking for to open up the passing game. And in the few games that he was healthy, the film shows exactly what Cook could do. Walsh knew this capability all too well when he spoke of Cook’s potential to command the passing game. “[The offense] would have started with the deep strike, and everything would have played off that,” he told NFL Films in 1986. “It would have set records that never would have been broken.”
Perhaps the best demonstration of these abilities can be found in the documentary short, which features segments where Jaworski and Wyche – both former NFL quarterbacks – watch the footage and simply marvel at the mature talent on display. “This is like a masters’ degree in quarterbacking, yet this guy is a rookie,” raves Jaworski, who just moments earlier seemed slightly skeptical upon considering Walsh’s opinion of Cook. There manifests a similar sense of disbelief amongst the defensive backs on opposing teams. Wyche points out a moment where a now-injured Cook throws a touchdown pass against Oakland into the narrowest of windows, prompting future Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown to throw the ball and his helmet in disgust. In another, two Broncos defenders simply sit on the ground and look at each other in amazement after Cook drops a ball between their double coverage for a Cincinnati touchdown.
Such thinking lies at the heart of Cook’s legacy on the Bengals, on professional football in Ohio, and on the NFL as a whole – what was and what might have been. What was came to pass when Cook couldn’t recover to start the 1970. The Bengals, desperate for a quarterback, traded for Virgil Carter – a cerebral player with good mobility but limited arm strength. Forced to create an offense more suited to Carter’s strengths, Walsh inverted his passing strategy to emphasize short passes to the running backs and tight ends that would open up opportunities down the field as the defense adjusted. Over the next ten years, Walsh would polish his scheme with a succession of quarterbacks– first with Ken Anderson, then with Steve DeBerg and Joe Montana in San Francisco where it took on the popular moniker “West Coast Offense” that it carries to this day. And per Walsh’s admission, none of that happens if Cook is healthy and able to execute his version of a Sid Gillman/Davis-inspired vertical scheme we see flashes of in the footage.
As for what might have been, that’s something more difficult and fascinating to speculate. The Bengals appeared in the playoffs three times during the 1970s, losing in the divisional round each time (1970 to Baltimore, 1973 to Miami, 1975 to Oakland). Furthermore, they finished with a winning record and just missed the playoffs in three further seasons (1972, 1976, and 1977) before tailing off at the end of the decade. With Cook at the helm, healthy and with a few seasons of experience in Walsh’s offense, it’s not hard to imagine Cincinnati taking the next step and winning a Super Bowl in at least one of those seasons. Perhaps the Bengals become the AFC team of the 1970s instead of Pittsburgh, establishing an institutional culture that could better weather or even avoid the tumultuous 1990s and early 2000s and mitigate the problematic handling of success that currently plagues the franchise. Moreover, Anderson would have had a completely different career outside of the Bengals. He never works with Walsh in an offense that suits his strengths, and possibly never gets drafted considering there was almost no usable film from Augustana College with which to scout him. More than likely, Anderson goes from 1981 NFL MVP to historical footnote along the lines of Swick, Miller, and others.
The most lasting legacy of Cook, though, may have been in the mentality dictating the ways in which both the Bengals and the Browns, two franchises tied together by the legacy of Paul Brown, drafted and developed quarterbacks. I can’t help but think that specter of Cook manifested when Mike Phipps – another “best quarterback I’ve ever seen” (from Northwestern head coach Alex Agase in 1969) – failed to become the franchise savior for the Browns in the early 1970s. And again when local legend Gene Swick injured his arm in 1976. And when Jack Thompson, David Klinger, Akili Smith, and Tim Couch all failed to live up to expectations. I most definitely see the legacy of Cook in the 2004 Draft, when the Browns entertained the possibility of drafting Ben Roethlisberger with the sixth pick before settling on Miami (FL) tight end Kellen Winslow. Instead, the Miami (OH) quarterback with the Cook-like stature and skills fell to the Steelers at eleven, inverting the events of the 1969 once again to Pittsburgh’s benefit.
As for Cook himself, life after football was tumultuous at best. I won’t tell you more in hopes that you’ll watch the fifteen-minute NFL Films segment posted above. But I do want to mention that his devoted his time to painting for much of his life (he was an art major in college). One of his few finished works is a watercolor self-portrait capturing the hit that effectively ruined his career.
The absence of solid borders amongst the vibrant colors captures the spirit of Greg Cook in life. On the field, his play evoked a dreamlike haze that has proven difficult to recapture. Off the field, the borders remained blurry and indistinct for him, hoping for cohesion but never quite accomplishing it.