The NFL as we know it owes its existence to a series of innovations that took place decades ago in Cincinnati. So why aren't the Bengals widely revered for their role in the history of the game? The answer reveals some essential truths about how new ideas shape (and are accepted by) the league -- and it begins with a story of painfully unfulfilled potential.
By Chris Wesseling | Published May 21, 2015
A prince who never became king
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
-- John Greenleaf Whittier
The most fortunate NFL franchises are blessed with the halcyon days of a luminary like Tom Brady, Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas. The Bengals are cursed with the myth of Greg Cook, the kind of transcendent talent every offensive mastermind hopes to find once in a lifetime.
A local hero drafted No. 5 overall out of the University of Cincinnati in 1969, Cook shook off a Week 3 muscle tear in his throwing arm to author the greatest rookie quarterback season in pro football history, leading the AFL in completion percentage, passer rating and yards per attempt -- while playing for an expansion team in its second year of existence. His 9.411 yards-per-attempt figure and 17.5 yards-per-completion mark are rookie records that remain unsurpassed in the NFL. In fact, among veteran quarterbacks since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, only Kurt Warner (9.9, 2000) and Chris Chandler (9.6, 1998) have bested Cook in yards per attempt, and only Craig Morton (17.8, 1970) has topped him in yards per completion.
Driven by the swashbuckling young quarterback, Cincinnati knocked off the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in that Week 3 game and handed the Oakland Raiders their only defeat of the regular season a couple of months later. The newly founded Bengals were off and running -- until Cook was struck down by the football gods.
It turned out Cook had played most of that year with a rotator-cuff injury suffered against the Chiefs. Though it was similar to what Drew Brees overcame in 2006, early-1970s medical technology had no answer for it, and Cook attempted just three more passes after his rookie season.
"I think Greg Cook would have been mentioned, had he had a full career, with the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the league," said Sam Wyche, Cook's backup and eventually the Bengals' head coach. "He had everything. He had size, a rifle arm, he had a Terry Bradshaw kind or release. ... He had running ability, he was good-looking. He would have had the endorsements."
Wyche might actually be underselling that unique talent. Cook was viewed as Football Adonis. Sports Illustrated's Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman once described him as a "blond-haired football god." Legendary Dallas Cowboys talent scout Gil Brandt casually refers to Cook as "the golden boy from Chillicothe, Ohio."
"Greg Cook was, I believe, the greatest talent to play the position," Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh once said. "He was Steve Young, but bigger."
Bengals owner Mike Brown -- Paul's son -- believes his organization, and not the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, would have been the team of the '70s if not for Cook's tragic injury.
Cook's success had contributed to a palpable sense of excitement. The Bengals could boast back-to-back AFL Offensive Rookies of the Year (Paul Robinson and Cook), the AFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (Bill Bergey) and the reigning AFL Coach of the Year (Paul Brown). Baseball's Reds were set to open the sparkling new Riverfront Stadium and host the 1970 MLB All-Star Game. The "Big Red Machine" would go on to dominate the National League just as "WKRP in Cincinnati" ruled television's airwaves.
"He gave us hope -- we went from the expansion team to a team that could beat anybody," Brown told Cincinnati's City Beat after Cook's death in 2012. "Then you had the story of recovery, getting better and not getting better. He was prominent in the news for four or five years and then it faded it away, and the myth never faded away. People still had him in their minds.
"He was the prince who never became king."
Former Bengals teammate Bob Trumpy, a four-time Pro Bowl tight end, captured the lost opportunity on NFL Network's "Top 10 One-Shot Wonders": "I don't know what he would have done if he'd have played 10 or 12 years. I think my fingers would have been filled with Super Bowl rings."
There are moments when the fortunes of an NFL franchise can pivot on one play. The Bengals had tied their future to a generational player, only to see their window for greatness slammed shut on a routine quarterback sack.
"What a great, great talent," a nostalgic Walsh expressed to Zimmerman in 2001. "What a terrible shame."
But Cook's legacy isn't limited to his unofficial status as the best there never was. He is forever intertwined with Walsh, with his fate serving as the impetus for the misnamed West Coast offense.