The Ballad of Greg Cook

Al Bello

A thought-provoking tweet has Tom Garrett contemplating Robert Griffin III's career and wondering whether RGIII might end up as a latter-day version of another storied rookie superstar - thanks to a poor decision by the Redskins.

I was fully prepared to add my own shovelful of dirt on the Redskins' coffin after Sunday's debacle.  I assumed I would be writing a bitter, frustrated piece about how atrocious the 2013 campaign.  Instead, a particular tweet got my mind moving in a different direction.

The tweet came courtesy of D.C.-born actor Jeffrey Wright (Boardwalk Empire, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Casino Royale, many others), a lifelong Washington Redskins fan.  In it, he opined that leaving Robert Griffin III in the Seattle playoff game last season is looking like the biggest mistake in Redskins history.

I don't need to rehash the facts of RGIII's injury here.  Anyone who's reading this knows (and probably laments) those details well.  But, for the first time, Wright's tweet caused me to wonder whether Griffin may ultimately have a career arc that was the latter-day equivalent of the late Greg Cook's.

Pro football history buffs are familiar with Cook's tale.  However, even many dedicated NFL fans (outside of Cincinnati) probably haven't heard of him.

If you're in the latter camp, this may be all you need to know: Bill Walsh said that Greg Cook was the most talented quarterback he ever coached, adding that he could have been the greatest quarterback of all time had things not gone so wrong.

Walsh was an assistant coach for the Bengals under Paul Brown in the late 60s and early 70s.  Cook looked as if he were assembled in a laboratory for the specific purpose of running a pro football offense.  Six-foot-four with a cliched-firearm-metaphor-of-your-choice for an arm, Cook entered the league in 1969 as the fifth overall pick in the draft after playing college ball at the University of Cincinnati.  Brown immediately installed the local kid as the starting quarterback.  And Cook was superb.

The Bengals got off to a 3-0 start with Cook at the controls.  However, it was during that third game of the season that Cook took a big hit from Chiefs linebacker Jim Lynch.  Cook knew something wasn't right in his shoulder, and he missed the next three weeks.

Unfortunately, and quite obviously, sports medicine was far more primitive in the 1960s than it is today.  Cook had actually suffered a torn rotator cuff that wouldn't be properly diagnosed or treated until after the season.

Incredibly, and I mean that in the worst way possible, Cook played the final nine games of 1969 without a fully-functional shoulder.

Come week seven, with the Bengals now 3-3, Cook was back.   He continued to play well, but it was clear something was wrong.  He posted good statistics, despite the fact that Cincinnati slumped to a 4-9-1 final record.

Cook was named AFL Rookie of the Year, leading the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt, quarterback rating, and yards per completion (with an absurd 17.5).  No one with at least 250 pass attempts in a season has surpassed that number in the years since Cook achieved it.  Cook's top three receivers each averaged over 20 yards per reception.

Unwittingly or not, playing through the injury proved very costly.  Not only was Cook's shoulder damaged further over those final two months, but, once doctors finally made an accurate diagnosis, Cook had to undergo surgery that employed the crude techniques of the era.  That meant slicing through muscle in order to get to the rotator cuff, which, for football purposes, destroyed Cook's shoulder to an even greater extent.

The sad conclusion is that Cook only threw three more passes in his NFL career.  Teammates and coaches (and, undoubtedly, Cook himself) were left to wonder what might have been.

That brings me back to RGIII, and a concern that this could be another verse of the same melancholy song that defined Cook's career.

Thankfully, Griffin lives in a time in which an athlete can keep playing after two major ligament tears in the same knee.

Even in 2013, though, there is an open question as to whether such a player will ever be "the same" again.

Just as Cook had magic in that tragically destroyed shoulder, what set Griffin apart from other good quarterbacks was his incredible speed and running ability.  To be sure, Griffin has also been a fine passer.  But what made him special was the fact that he could couple that NFL-caliber passing with the running of someone who seemed to have been plucked from a different position.

That unusual skill set led to a remarkable season in which he threw for 3,200 yards and ran for over 800.

What stands out this year isn't so much the numbers.  Yes, they're worse across-the-board than they were in his rookie season, with his quarterback rating having plummeted about 20 points.  His stats are far from terrible, but a disproportionate share of his production has come with the Redskins behind in the second half.

More troubling instead are the little things that may not show up in a box score.  The hesitation in passing at certain moments.  The indecision over whether to slide or dive.  The occasional wild overthrow.  Tossing balls up for grabs, especially along the sideline.  On top of that, there's the off-field rumblings and grumblings that can't be chalked up to the residual effects of a knee injury.

So, Jeffrey Wright's point remains: If Griffin is pulled for good before his knee buckles, do the 2013 Redskins pick up where they left off in 2012?

The bigger question regards the future.  Certainly, Griffin won't disappear the way Greg Cook did.  But, ten or twelve years from now, will we look back and speak of Griffin as we do Cook?  That is, will we think of Griffin as a rookie who could have been the best quarterback in modern franchise history - if not something even greater - but whose unnecessary injury permanently altered his career trajectory?

We can only answer that by watching and hoping for the best.  My heart says that this year will be an aberration - and an ultimately productive one at that.  Hell, he's still going to throw for more yards and touchdowns than he did last year.  If he goes on to have a Hall of Fame career, people a couple of decades from now will see those numbers and nothing will seem amiss.

Still, I worry.

I would prefer to show my (future, hypothetical) children clips of the amazing things Griffin did over the course of his career, not regale them with endless stories about how great he would have been, but for a short-sighted decision one fateful January evening . . .

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