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Forgotten: Greg Cook and the '69 Bengals

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[b][size="5"]Forgotten: Greg Cook and the '69 Bengals[/size][/b]
Posted Sept. 25, 2009 @ 9:33 a.m.
By Mike Beacom

Just two weeks into his NFL career, Mark Sanchez is beginning to take the league by storm. His Jets are 2-0, fresh off a convincing win over popular preseason Super Bowl pick New England, and he has shown promise in the pocket (60.4 completion percentage, 435 yards, two touchdowns, one interception).

Sanchez's fast start is reminiscent of another No. 5 overall pick who entered pro football 40 years ago — Bengals QB Greg Cook.

If Peyton Manning is the ultimate slam dunk quarterback pick of all-time, and Ryan Leaf the prototypical bust, then Cook would be classified in the deep file of NFL "woulda, coulda, shoulda" players.

Cook began that 1969 campaign with a pair of touchdown tosses in the Bengals' 27-21 win over Miami. The next week he took the club to a 2-0 start with three TD passes and a nine-yard rushing score in a 34-20 win over San Diego. Against Kansas City the next week Cook took a shot to his throwing shoulder that ultimately ended his career. He returned midway through the '69 season, though, and in a Week Nine tie against Houston, Cook had his best day as a pro — 298 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 141.3 passer rating.

Fans are pleasantly surprised when Sanchez or Matt Ryan show rare maturity in their debut seasons, but no rookie quarterback is supposed to do what Cook did for a team as lousy as Cincinnati was supposed to be that season.

Wrote legendary pro football writer Paul Zimmerman on the topic nearly a decade ago, Cook was "a 6-foot-4, 220-pound, blond-haired football god who was going to rewrite all the records, whose future was unlimited …"

Led by a pair of offensive geniuses — head coach Paul Brown and his young apprentice, wide receivers coach/offensive assistant Bill Walsh — the Bengals got off to an unlikely 3-0 start in the second year of the franchise. Walsh was rethinking the passing game, and Cincinnati became his playground (his success in Cincinnati would later help to fuel his well-documented feud with Brown). The Bengals took advantage of long strikes, much the same as other passing innovators of the day were doing in other AFL towns, only, in 1969, the Gillmans and Davises of the league weren't doing it quite as well as Cincinnati.

Cook was the perfect artist to operate Brown's new system. Consider that, of the 15 touchdown passes he threw that season, four went for at least 69 yards, and three others were more than 35 yards in length. Three Bengals receivers — Eric Crabtree (40 catches, 855 yards), Bob Trumpy (37 catches, 835 yards) and Chip Myers (10 catches, 205 yards) — averaged more than 20 yards per catch; Speedy Thomas averaged 14.6 yards on his 33 receptions.

Hard to imagine now, but the homegrown rookie quarterback out of the University of Cincinnati led the AFL that year in passer rating (88.3), completion percentage (53.8), and, of course, yards per attempt (9.4) and yards per completion (17.5). Hmmm … the league's most accurate passer averaging 17.5 yards every time he completed one of those passes.

Since 1991, only one quarterback — Chris Chandler — has managed to average better than 15 yards per completion (Chandler averaged 16.6 in Atlanta's NFC title season of 1998).

Few offenses before or since have boasted vertical numbers like those. It was Cincinnati's anomaly — a season that helped to stimulate ideas in the greatest offensive mind the 1980s would know, and another season of offensive ingenuity for Brown to claim.

As much as we can look at Cook's numbers in awe, we should also be reminded of how great the offense was. Sam Wyche backed up Cook that season, and though not as good, his vertical numbers were nonetheless impressive — 7.8 yards per attempt, 15.5 yards per completion. While Cook missed most of the snaps during Weeks 3-7 due to injury, Wyche was tearing the league apart.

"I moved to the No. 1 passer in the AFL," Wyche recalled. "I still have the clipping … boy, how proud I was until I walked into the training-camp facility that Monday morning after I got through reading the morning paper and Paul Brown said to me, 'Well, Greg Cook's healthy again, he'll be starting this week.'

"It was the system that made that offense go, because I wasn't anywhere near close to the quarterback that Greg Cook was."

Unfortunately for Cook, 1969 was the beginning and the end. A bum shoulder and a torn biceps muscle ruined his career. His comeback attempt in 1973 was brief — three attempts, one 11-yard completion. In all, that would-be football god threw a total of just 200 passes.

Zimmerman has made a point of never forgetting Cook, or allowing his readers to, but short-lived football legends fade … even those as promising and brilliant in their time on stage as Greg Cook was.


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