September 14, 2010
The September 14, 1969 season-opening game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium achieved a couple of milestones – one highlighting the long-term achievement of a head coach and the other marking the arrival of a talented player whose career would flame out all too quickly.
Paul Brown (pictured above) had returned to pro football coaching in 1968 after an absence of five years. The architect of the Cleveland Browns team that dominated the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) from 1946-49 and then appeared in six consecutive title games in the NFL had been summarily dismissed by young owner Art Modell following the 1962 season. Brown returned with the AFL expansion Cincinnati Bengals, where he was not only the general manager (as he had been in Cleveland) but had a part ownership in the franchise (all the better for job security).
Brown was a winning coach at every level, starting at Severn School, a prep school in Maryland where he began his coaching career (16-1-1) before returning to his native Ohio and Massillon Washington High School, where he first gained notoriety by leading the team to six consecutive state high school championships during his nine years there (80-8-2). It was on to the college level at Ohio State (18-8-1, including a national championship in 1942) and then service football at Great Lakes Naval Station (15-5-2). Entering the ranks of pro coaches with the Cleveland Browns, first in the AAFC (52-4-3, including postseason) and NFL (115-49-5, also including postseason), he had gone through a typically difficult 3-11 expansion season in ’68 with the Bengals. When added together, Brown entered the 1969 AFL season with 299 career wins as a head coach at all levels.
During 1968, Brown had personally scouted Greg Cook, a quarterback at the University of Cincinnati. The legendary coach liked what he saw and the Bengals made Cook their first choice in the ’69 draft. From the beginning, it seemed as though Cook had all the ingredients for greatness. He was tall, at 6’4”, weighed in at 220, had a strong and accurate throwing arm, a quick release, and good mobility. Moreover, he was intelligent, confident, and had the right emotional makeup – all in all, an excellent blend of physical ability and intangibles.
Cook threw three touchdown passes to nearly lead the College All-Stars to an upset of the defending AFL champion Jets. Even though his All-Star game participation caused him to get a late start in training camp, he became the sensation of the preseason and was the starting quarterback for Cincinnati in the opening game. He did not disappoint.
After the Dolphins took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 10-yard touchdown pass from QB Bob Griese to WR Karl Noonan, HB Paul Robinson (the AFL’s leading rusher as a rookie in ’68) scored at the end of the period on a four-yard run. The game didn’t remain tied for long as HB Mercury Morris of the Dolphins returned the ensuing kickoff 105 yards. But Cook (pictured at left) showed off his passing skill as he threw two touchdown passes to split end Eric Crabtree, of 69 and 25 yards, to put Cincinnati ahead by 21-14 at halftime.
Horst Muhlmann booted two third quarter field goals, and while HB Jim Kiick ran for a fourth quarter TD, the Bengals held on to win, 27-21. Paul Brown had the 300th win of his illustrious coaching career.
Miami’s third-year quarterback, Bob Griese, threw for 327 yards and a TD, but also gave up two interceptions. Greg Cook completed 11 of 21 passes for 155 yards with the two touchdowns and had one picked off. Eric Crabtree, thanks to the two long scoring receptions, gained 113 yards on three catches. The Bengals also outran the Dolphins, 101 yards to 79, with FB Jess Phillips leading the way at 62 yards on 11 attempts.
It was a good beginning for Cincinnati, and Cook and the Bengals became the talk of the league as they improved to 3-0 with wins over the Chargers and Chiefs. However, the Kansas City game marked the beginning of the end for the rookie phenom. While rolling out on a pass play, Cook was hit hard and came down on his throwing shoulder. In the days before MRIs, it wasn’t recognized that Cook had severely damaged his rotator cuff (it was misdiagnosed as a shoulder separation).
Cook was rested for four weeks – all games that Cincinnati lost with backup Sam Wyche at quarterback – and returned to lead the Bengals to an upset of the Oakland Raiders by a score of 31-17. Cook threw two touchdown passes despite his damaged shoulder (and greatly impressed Oakland’s first-year head coach, John Madden). He threw four touchdown passes and accumulated 298 yards through the air the following week in a 31-31 tie with Houston. But the next week Cook was intercepted three times as the Bengals lost to the Patriots.
There were further injuries in addition to the rotator cuff, causing Cook’s performance to suffer in the remaining games. Cincinnati lost five straight to close out the season and ended up with a 4-9-1 record. The rookie threw for 291 yards and a TD in the finale at Denver, which was effectively the last game of his career. Cook appeared in a contest for the Bengals in 1973, in which he completed one of three passes, and that was it. Playing through the rotator cuff injury – and not having modern diagnostic and surgical techniques available to him – proved disastrous.
Nevertheless, Cook made an impression in 1969. He led the AFL in passing (88.3 rating), completion percentage (53.8), yards per attempt (9.4, still the record for a rookie quarterback), and yards per completion (an excellent 17.5); his 15 touchdown passes resulted in a TD percentage of 7.6, which ranked second. Perhaps tellingly, despite missing significant time to injury, he was ranked second in the league in times sacked (29, tied with Denver’s Steve Tensi).
Perhaps John Madden best summed up the impact of Cook’s performance in ’69: “That was the year that Daryle Lamonica had his best year and the year that Len Dawson led the Chiefs to the Super Bowl. But Cook looked like the best quarterback in the league – better than Lamonica, better than Dawson, better than Namath, Hadl, or Griese. I thought that this kid was going to be better than anyone I had ever seen.”
As for Paul Brown, he remained coach until his retirement following the 1975 season and led the Bengals to the postseason three times (including 1970, in just the third year of the franchise’s existence). He accumulated another 51 wins beyond the 300th in the victory over Miami and ended up with 222 (counting the postseason) as a pro coach alone (AAFC, AFL, NFL).