Updated: 10:50 p.m. Like just about everyone else, the news that pneumonia suddenly had taken Greg Cook knocked Ken Riley flat Friday night.
"I can't believe it. I didn't even know he was sick," said a stunned Riley from Florida. "Greg and I were tight. I liked him. Everybody liked him. Paul Brown. Bill Walsh. He was something else."
Cook, 65, who had one of greatest seasons ever by a rookie quarterback, died Thursday night, three days before Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Carolina's Cam Newton became the first rookie quarterbacks to oppose each other in the Pro Bowl. But a torn rotator cuff Cook suffered that season ended his career, leaving him with one AFL passing title and an infinite string of what-ifs.
"I don't think there's any question we would have won a Super Bowl and maybe a couple," Riley said. "He was that good. We were quarterbacks in the same class; he came out in the first round and I came out in the sixth and, of course, I felt like I was better than anyone we had. Except Greg. He was good."
On Friday, Bengals president Mike Brown said Cook was "John Elway before John Elway." Walsh, who coached Cook during that 1969 season before he quarterbacked Joe Montana to three Super Bowl titles in San Francisco, said before his own death three years ago that Cook would have been the greatest of all time.
But Riley compared Cook to somebody else Friday.
"Joe Namath," Riley said. "He was cocky, but he was good. Real good. We won games because of the way Greg Cook could throw the ball. He had that quick release and he was confident."
The Bengals won just four games that year and Cook missed three games in the middle after he got sacked in Kansas City on a rollout his shoulder got pinned. He came back and still won the league's passing title with 15 touchdown passes in 11 games on a whopping 9.4 yards per throw for an 88.3 passer rating.
That's the one rookie club record Dalton didn't get since his rating was 80.4.
"Strength of arm," is what his Pro Bowl tight end Bob Trumpy said Friday of Cook's greatest strength.
Indeed, center Bob Johnson recalled the touch football games they played the day after games on Monday and how Cook would warm up by standing 15 yards deeper than the other quarterbacks and throw long strikes.
"That's the thing he even had over Kenny Anderson," Johnson said. "He was so accurate with the deep ball and it was easy for him. Our wide receivers were short and not very fast. I could run with them, but when Trumpy had a guy like Greg throwing to him they just took off together. The games we won were because Cook and Trumpy were making plays over 40 yards."
Riley remembered how teammates called Cook "The Cincinnati Kid," and he was Cincy all the way. Born in Dayton, Cook emerged from Chillicothe, Ohio, and came out of the University of Cincinnati as the fifth pick in the '69 draft.
"Everything was easy for him," Johnson said. "He was one of those guys with such a free spirit. I think sometimes it worked for him and against him. It wasn't in his nature to stay disciplined. He was just so carefree. He was always happy. He had an easy way with everybody. He had it all."
Johnson said Cook pretty much maintained that outlook even though so many of his comebacks failed and he ended up playing in only one game the rest of his career four seasons after he got hurt. Cook was an excellent painter of sports figures and when someone saw one of his pieces and offered to pay him $1,000-$1,500 for a request, Johnson was shocked to hear Cook be so nonchalant.
"This was back when we were making $25-30,000 a year," Johnson said. "And Greg said, 'If I get around to it.' He said it only took him three to four hours, but that was Greg. A different drummer. And a great guy."
Both Riley and Johnson remember the bell-bottomed Cook famously telling Paul Brown, the consummate conservative coach, something like, "We're going to fix you up and get you some nice new clothes to get you with it."
"I don't know how many guys could get away with that; not very many," Riley said. "But Paul loved him."
And the spark carried over to Paul's son, current Bengals president Mike Brown, the man that on Friday called Cook the most talented Bengal ever.
"I've lost a good friend," Brown said Friday morning. "Greg had a good heart. He never lost his interest in quarterbacks and he would come into my office and visit with me and we would talk about prospects. He was a great quarterback. He could do it all. He was mobile, big, strong, accurate. It was the kind of injury that today could have been repaired just like that."
Cook was impressed with Dalton, the man who broke nearly all his rookie records this past season. As recently as last Friday he gave the thumbs-up.
"I like him. I think he's going to be a good one if he doesn't get killed," Cook said of Dalton's pass protection concerns.
That was just a week ago.
"He was good," Riley said. "Real good."