Greg Cook could have been the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
The Cincinnati Bengals joined the AFL as an expansion team for the 1968 season. Led by legendary head coach Paul Brown [Daily Dose, 9/6/16], they finished their inaugural season 3-11 and in last place. The Bengals played their home games at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, where quarterback Greg Cook lit up the college football landscape for the UC Bearcats on Saturday afternoons. Cook led the nation in passing in 1968, throwing for 3,272 yards and 25 touchdowns. In the next-to-the-last game of his senior year, Cook threw for 554 yards. The following week, UC faced Miami of Ohio in their annual season-ending rivalry game. Miami was led by Bo Schembechler [Daily Dose, 4/1/16], who was coaching in his final game before taking over at the University of Michigan the following season. Pro scouts and coaches filled the Nippert Stadium stands to get a first-hand look at Cook, who was 6’4”, 220 pounds and had a cannon for an arm. Brown and his offensive coordinator, Bill Walsh, were among them. Down 21-6 at halftime, Cook threw for over 400 yards to lead the Bearcats to a 23-21 victory. Afterward, Brown said to Walsh, “That quarterback. That’s our draft choice.”
The Bengals selected Greg Cook with the 5th pick of the 1969 draft, behind future hall of famers O.J. Simpson and Joe Greene. Cook was a hometown hero, having played three sports at nearby Chillicothe High School before setting over a dozen passing records at the University of Cincinnati. Cook could make all the throws—especially the deep ball—with timing and accuracy. Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman called him a “blond haired God.” Mike Brown, who was then a Bengal’s scout and is now the team’s owner, said Cook possessed talent on the level of John Elway [Daily Dose, 6/26/15]. He was Joe Namath with good knees. The Bengals released John Stofa, their starting signal caller in 1968 and named Cook as the week one starter against the Miami Dolphins right out of training camp. He started spectacularly, leading the Bengals victories in their first two games of the season. In a Week Three win over the Kansas City Chiefs [who would go on to win the Super Bowl that season], Chiefs linebacker Jim Lynch fell on Cook’s right shoulder. He had torn the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder but due to the limitations of sports medicine at the time, the injury went undiagnosed and untreated. After missing starts in Weeks Four, Six and Seven, Cook returned in Week Eight, handing the Oakland Raiders their only loss of the season, 31-17. “I took cortisone shots and played in pain, but the shoulder hadn’t started to deteriorate yet, so I could still function. I still had the strength.”
Cook led the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt, quarterback rating, and yards per completion in 1969. Last season, Cam Newton led the NFL in yards per completion, with 12.7. Aaron Rodgers averaged 12.3 yards per completion and Tom Brady’s average was 11.7. In his first year, Greg Cook averaged 17.5 yards per reception, still a rookie record. In 2015, neither Amari Cooper, A.J. Green nor Julio Jones averaged 20 yards per catch. In 1969, four Cincinnati receivers averaged over 20 yards per reception, including all three tight ends. Greg Cook could throw the ball down the field with touch and accuracy. He played the final nine games of the season without a fully functional shoulder, yet still won the passing title. “I felt obligated to finish the season. I’d gotten off to a good start. I didn’t want to relinquish that.” After throwing 15 touchdowns and going 4-6-1 in 11 games with the Bengals, Cook was named AFL Rookie of the Year.
Greg Cook underwent off-season surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, the same injury from which Drew Brees successfully came back after 2005. He also suffered a partially detached right biceps muscle. Curiously, Cook’s injuries gave birth to an offensive revolution. Without Cook, Bill Walsh had to go with nimble-footed, weak-armed Virgil Carter at quarterback. An accurate passer, Carter relied on short-to-medium-range throws from a moving pocket. The West Coast Offense was born, later to be run to perfection for Walsh by Joe Montana in San Francisco.
After three unsuccessful surgeries, Cook attempted a comeback in 1973. He could no longer throw the football as he once had, and retired at 27. “He could very well have been remembered or noted as the greatest quarterback of all time,” said Walsh. NFL Films rated Cook as the “# 1 One Shot Wonder in NFL History” while former teammate Bob Johnson said, “He was a prince that never got to be king.”
Following retirement, Gregory Lynn Cook lived in Cincinnati, where he did some color commentary for University of Cincinnati football broadcasts in the mid-1980s. Mr. Cook died of pneumonia January 27, 2012. He was 65 years old.