While we all chew our fingernails in eager anticipation of the Bengals' first preseason game of 2011 and rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's professional debut, we might stop to reflect on how we've gotten here. Barring an injury or a meltdown over the next few weeks, Dalton will be taking the first snap at QB not only tonight but when the Bengals open up the season on September 11 at Cleveland. Ostensibly, Dalton's spot on the Bengal roster is the result of former blue-chip quarterback prospect and franchise hope Carson Palmer's ignominious slinking away from the organization, but the real daisy chain of events that have led up to Dalton being tabbed as the new hero of Cincinnati began all the way back in 1969 when the first rookie quarterback to open a season started for the team: Greg Cook.
After a lousy inaugural season in 1968, where they finished 3-11 while being led primarily by quarterback John Stofa, the organization used the fifth pick during the 1969 NFL Draft to select Cook, a native of Dayton, Ohio. A standout at the University of Cincinnati, Cook once threw for 554 yards in a game. The next week he led the Bearcats back from a 21-6 half-time deficit by throwing for 406 yards -- a game where he was personally scouted by Paul Brown, Bengal coach Bill "Tiger" Johnson, and assistant coach Bill Walsh, who all agreed that Cook was their guy going forward.During the team's inaugural 1968 season, the Bengals actually played two rookie quarterbacks, one of them being Sam Wyche who would go on to coach the Bengals to the Super Bowl during the 1988 season. But Cook was the first rookie to begin a season under center for the team, and he was pure sexyness, both on and off the field. In his first three games, Cook was 30 of 52 for 581 yards and six TDs. In a ball control era that foregrounded the running game, Cook was a revelation. Supposedly he could throw the ball the length of the field in practice, and during games he would rocket passes downfield to wideouts Eric Crabtree, "Speedy" Thomas, and tight end Bob Trumpy. Bill Walsh, the architect of the team's offense, began designing a system based around Cook's ability to evade the rush and then fire the ball deep. And Cook loved it, later saying of Walsh:
His philosophy was based on stretching the field, which would force the linebackers deeper and open things up underneath. Then he'd go deep again. He always liked deep receivers. He liked to force the cornerbacks downfield, then go short to bring 'em up, then go deep again. It was like the horse on the merry-go-round, up and down, up and down. With the DBs, it was up and back, up and back. It was merciless. He had people worn out by halftime. By the end of the half, they didn't know what they were doing.
All of this worked to Cook's strengths. The 10 October 1969 issue of Life magazine called him "the hottest rookie pro quarterback since Joe Namath." Cook was also confident (bordering on cocky), saying that he would go back to U of C to finish his art degree at the end of the '69 season, after the Bengals won the Super Bowl. Cook even had the dashing good looks to drive the ladies wild.
|* Women removed from picture due to FCC regulations.|
It was definitely Peanut Butter Jelly Time in Cincinnati, but it didn't last long. He was all setup to be the Tom Brady of the 70s, but Cook's throwing shoulder was damaged after a tackle during the third game of the season against the Kansas City Chiefs Without the aid of the yet-to-be-invented MRI machine, Cook's torn rotator cuff was misdiagnosed as a separated shoulder. After a series of cortisone shots and three weeks on the mend, Cook returned (knocking an impressive Wyche back to second-string) and ultimately finished the season leading the AFL with a passer rating of 88.3 and a completion percentage of 53.8%. He also led the league in yards per attempt (9.4) and yards per completion at 17.5 (gah...leading the AFL in accuracy and distance!). In the end, he finished his 11-game season with 1.854 yards, 15 TDs, and 11 INTs. He also ran for 148 yards and a touchdown.
But playing out the rest of that '69 season permanently destroyed Cook's shoulder. He never made it back for the following year, eventually undergoing surgery. Before retiring he attempted a comeback in 1973, leaving many to speculate of what could have been. A few years ago, NFL.com even ranked Cook as its number one "One Shot Wonder."
What does all this have to do with Dalton you ask? Well, Cook's injury prompted the Bengals to trade for QB Virgil Carter from the Chicago Bears. Unlike the cannon-armed Cook, Carter was kind of a Chad Pennington type, far more accurate on short-to-intermediate passes. Working with Carter's strengths, Walsh retooled his offensive system into what would later be known as the West Coast Offense when he took it with him to San Fransisco, coaching the 49ers to three Super Bowls championships with the credit of revolutionizing offensive strategy in the NFL. As SI's eminent football writer Paul Zimmerman has suggested, Cook's injury changed the face of football forever:
Once not too long ago I asked Walsh what would his offense have been like if Greg Cook had been his quarterback for 14 or 15 years.
"Completely different," he said. "It would have started with the deep strike, and everything would have played off that. It would have set records that never would be broken.
"Greg Cook," he said nostalgically, his eyes getting a little misty. "What a great, great talent. What a terrible shame."
So the Bengals' first true quarterback prospect and hope for the future, Greg Cook, shreds his shoulder, which leads the team to trade for Carter, which leads Walsh to develop the prototype of the West Coast Offense, which is then implemented to great success by the Bengals' first great quarterback Ken Anderson, which Walsh later refines while head coach of the 49ers, which enables Joe Montana and Co. to defeat the Bengals in Super Bowls XVI (beating Anderson) and XXIII (when the Bengals were coached by Cook's former backup Wyche), which somehow leads into years of Bengals futility and poor quarterback play (you can connect all the dots there on your own), which led to the team drafting Carson Palmer as its hope for the future, who then unexpectedly walks away after the offense tanks, which motivates the team to decide on employing a version of the WCO under new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden (brother of Jon, who was once a coach under Paul Hackett, who was once a coach under Bill Walsh), which subsequently leads the team to scout quarterbacks with the skill set to run a WCO, which leads them to drafting Dalton and starting him in their preseason game tonight.
That, my friends, is the circle of life.
There aren't a great deal of comparisons to make between Dalton and Cook. They're players with very different styles, and I don't expect people to be comparing Dalton with Joe Namath any time soon. And while he may never lead the league in deep balls, if Dalton shows tonight that he can manage the offensive system that had its painful genesis in the wake of Cook's devastating fall from stardom, I imagine we'll all have a little more hope for the future.