Knotty scouting problem of the year.
Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, who just finished playing in his last college football game, the Senior Bowl, is 48 days older than Aaron Rodgers -- both 28.
I watched Weeden play for the South team in the Senior Bowl Saturday. Impressive kid, particularly in the move from the Cowboys' spread offense to the more traditional pro-style look, mostly under center. His delivery was long, and he doesn't have the tightest spiral. But his accuracy was good, his confidence better, and he stepped into throws with good mechanics and a strong arm.
I'd heard he was the most impressive passer in the week of practice before the game. "He is absolutely lighting it up,'' one AFC scout, whose team is not in need of a quarterback, said after watching two days of practice. "I bet he's raised his stock significantly here. I wouldn't be surprised, even with the age question, if he's made himself into a second-rounder.''
Weeden, a 6-foot-4 pitcher, chose to play baseball out of high school. The Yankees paid him a $565,000 signing bonus as the 71st overall pick in the 2002 draft. (Number 44: Joey Votto. Number 64: Brian McCann. Number 80: Curtis Granderson.) He gave it five years, with the Yankees, Dodgers (New York sent him to L.A. as one of three players surrendered in the Kevin Brown trade) and Royals, and his 19-26 record with a 5.02 ERA just didn't cut it.
He had a partially torn labrum that didn't require surgery if he wanted to play football, so he enrolled at Oklahoma State in 2007. After a rehabbing redshirt year and two more on the bench, he took over as the quarterback in 2010, and in two starting seasons completed 69.7 percent of his throws with a +45 touchdown-to-interception differential.
And last week in Mobile, every team that talked to him was fixated -- rightfully -- on his age. "I'd say it's in the upper 20s, the teams that have talked to me,'' he said when we spoke on Friday. "And I'll tell you pretty much word for word what I told them about the age thing. There are pros and cons to being 28 and being an NFL prospect. The only con is I can't have a 20-year career, or as long a career as some of the younger guys at my position. The pros are maturity and experience ... I've already been a professional in one sport, and I grew tremendously from that. Nothing really fazes me. What you see is what you get.
"This week, I've transitioned to more of a West Coast system with [Washington] coach [Mike] Shanahan, and I think I've handled it well and proven I can do the things you need to do in the NFL to play the position. And then, I think my biggest plus is being even keeled, which all comes back to baseball.''
Failing in baseball being a big part of that. "Right out of high school,'' he said, "I was under a microscope, and I had adversity for the first time in my life. Throwing an interception is like giving up a home run. I've done it. It doesn't kill me. It bothers me, and I want to figure out why, but it's part of the game, and you'd better be able to overcome it.
"I remember once pitching against Ian Stewart [infielder with the Cubs now] in Asheville, N.C., and he hit a ball out over the trees, way over the fence. I think it's still going. I mean, a monster shot. I thought I threw a pretty good pitch, curveball low and in. And he just crushed it. It's a blow to your ego when you fail, obviously. But as I look back on it now, I see a period of my life that really helped me get where I want to be.''
I don't know enough about Weeden to hazard a guess, yet, where he'll go in the draft. But let's say you're a team with a quarterback need in the second round. Washington, Miami and Seattle all pick between 39 and 45, and all could be sniffing for a passer. Let's say you do all your physical and mental work on the quarterbacks in the draft, and you're convinced that, mentally and physically, Weeden is healthy and bright and as ready to play in the NFL as Mark Sanchez, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton have been in recent years, or nearly as ready. Will you take a shot at a guy who might be able to give you eight starting seasons? Or will you say you can't take that risk for a player who's older than Aaron Rodgers right now? That'll be the dilemma of this draft for teams that don't get a quarterback in free agency or at the top of the first round.
The best player you never knew: Greg Cook.
In 1969, the Bengals had the fifth pick in the common draft between the NFL and American Football League -- the final season before the 1970 merger of the two leagues. Defensive tackle Joe Greene of North Texas went No. 4 to Pittsburgh and became the cornerstone defensive player for the four-time Super Bowl champion Steelers of the '70s. Quarterback Greg Cook of the University of Cincinnati went No. 5 to the Bengals and became the symbol of why the Bengals could never dethrone the Steelers for the next 10 years.
Cook, possibly the single biggest lost talent in NFL history, died Friday of pneumonia. Cincinnati assistant Bill Walsh said in 1997 that Cook was the best quarterback he ever saw. And Bengals owner Mike Brown said Friday: "Greg was the single most talented player we've ever had with the Bengals. Had he been able to stay healthy, I believe he would have been the player of his era in the NFL."
My first sportswriting job out of college was at the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, and when I got there, the name "Greg Cook'' was like "Sidd Finch." Cook had been out of football for seven years (really, for a decade by then; he had only a cameo in 1973 after his 1969 injury disaster), and he was a shadowy, almost mythic figure around the Bengals by the time I covered them in 1984. I'd heard of Cook, of course, and when I once mentioned him to Brown, who'd coached him and watched his horrible disappearance, he shook his head and said something like, "A shame.''
Here's what happened, as told by his rookie-year roommate Sam Wyche, to me on Saturday:
"Greg came in as a rookie and you could see he was a marketer's dream. Tall, handsome, confident, great-looking. First guy I ever saw who used a hairdryer. All the rest of us were slicking our hair back with Brylcreem, and Greg's in there using a hairdryer. All the guys made fun of him, but he took it fine. He could have been from Manhattan Beach, Calif., instead of Chillicothe, Ohio, and no one would have been surprised.
"As soon as you saw him on the practice field, we were all like, 'This guy's going to take us a long way.' Six-four, 220, the quickness of a smaller guy, with a Terry Bradshaw arm and such great touch. With Joe Montana, the ball arrived. But Bill Walsh used to say, 'Don't throw it to him. Throw it through him.' And when Greg threw it, the ball was still carrying.
"The thing about football in those days, it wasn't as complex as it is now, obviously. No fire zones, no complicated blitz packages. And Greg came in, and he was so obviously the best quarterback that he started right way for us. Here's how good Greg Cook was: We were an expansion team the year before [the Bengals went 3-11] and when he came in the next year, he turned us around.''
In the first two games of the season, Cook beat the Dolphins and Chargers by a combined 20 points, throwing five touchdown passes and setting the Reds-crazy town on fire. In the second quarter of Week 3, the Kansas City Chiefs came to Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati campus, the same stadium where Cook set school records in college. The Chiefs were really good, the team that would go on to win Super Bowl IV four months later. Cook threw a 17-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to give the Bengals a 7-6 lead.
Soon after that, Cook dropped back to pass, set up, and as he threw, got blasted -- cleanly -- by linebacker Bobby Bell. Cook was driven into the ground, and his right arm got wedged awkwardly against the ground. Immediately Cook began writhing in pain. When he came to the sideline, he walked with his right arm hanging low, in intense pain. Wyche relieved him and, incredibly, led the Bengals to a stunning upset over the future Super Bowl champs, throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass to Bob Trumpy for the win.
But Cook was seriously injured. Doctors examined the shoulder and didn't know exactly what was wrong. Wyche thinks they shot dye in there to study the structure of the shoulder, and the study was inconclusive. As a friend of Cook's, he remembers how frustrated Cook was, especially to hear the football bromide over and over: "You've just got to fight through the pain.'' The best guess is Cook had a torn rotator cuff, but that's still a matter of debate in Cincinnati. Whatever it was, it never healed properly.
He started eight games the rest of the year and won AFL Rookie of the Year, but he was never right. His personal life went to hell; he separated from his wife, got hurt and had his dad died -- all within a month. Wyche remembers him having surgery and aggravating the shoulder in an offseason charity basketball game, but he never was right again.
Wyche's crystal-clear memory, an agonizing one to hear 42 years later, came from early in training camp in the 1970 season, at dry and dusty Wilmington College, an hour northeast of Cincinnati.
"Greg was warming up, trying to throw, and he just couldn't,'' Wyche said. "He unsnapped his chin strap, yanked off his helmet, threw it to the ground and yelled: 'I can't do it! I can't throw anymore!''
He threw three passes the rest of his life -- in a 1973 game against Denver. He was finished.
"His life just fell apart,'' said Wyche. "He tried to find something to do. He was a chef. He was a really good artist. In fact, I've got one of his oil paintings, of a landscape. I think it's in Ohio. But it's hanging in my house. The other night, Bob Trumpy was on a talk show and they asked him what was [Greg's] life like after football. He said, 'Greg was like a stray cat.'
"A shame. Just a shame. We knew he was the golden goose, and we just imagined all the golden eggs he would have laid if he'd had a normal career. And he still was really popular in Cincinnati. I remember a few years ago, maybe around 2000, going to a banquet in Western Hills [a Cincinnati neighborhood; Pete Rose grew up there]. He was the most popular guy in the room. People loved him. They remembered him from his great college career too.''
And that's the story of Greg Cook. Had he been born 30 years later, when someone like James Andrews could have fixed his shoulder, we'd have seen the greatness. In 2005, Drew Brees had his shoulder ruined in the final game of the season. It was reconstructed by Andrews. Ten months later, he was playing like a Pro Bowler and led the Saints to the NFC Championship Game. Cook was just born too soon.
Greg Schiano wants Butch Davis on his staff.
Not sure whether Davis would be defensive coordinator or an assistant head coach, but Schiano's interested in adding him to the staff at Tampa Bay. Schiano was Davis' defensive coordinator at the University of Miami in 1999 and 2000, and they have remained close. Davis hasn't coached in the NFL since he was dismissed by the Browns after the 2004 season. He'd be a good sounding board for Schiano.
I like the Schiano hire. Not to ignore the others, but having lived in New Jersey when Schiano took over one of the worst teams in any sport in the country (that's no exaggeration), I witnessed the job he did making Rutgers competitive nationally. In the last few days, I've heard people say, "Well, he never won the Big East at Rutgers. Dumb hire.'' Time will tell.
Only two of the eight coaches hired in 2009 are still with their teams. You know there are no such things as long-term locks in the NFL, but I like this hire because the Bucs needed a coach to instill discipline. This is a team, and a defense in particular, that didn't respond to Raheem Morris anymore. It's shocking how quickly they tuned him out -- as if they lost interest in everything that came out of his mouth. They won't miss what Schiano says. He'll bench or cut guys if they're lazy or poor workers or unproductive.
"Whatever you decide to do, on any level of football, you have to have rules, and we'll have them,'' Schiano said over the phone from Tampa. "I'm not looking to reinvent the wheel. I'm just looking to coach the players we have the right way.''
He's not sure how he got so close to Bill Belichick, but Belichick helped him get this job. He called Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik, who led the Bucs' long search, and told Dominik how NFL-ready he thought Schiano was. "We trust one another,'' said Schiano. "I think we see things the same way -- not schematically, necessarily, but principally.''
Two other notes from Schiano: Getting hired by the Bucs made him miss the memorial service for his mentor, Joe Paterno. Schiano and his wife, though, went to State College Tuesday to pay their respects to the Paterno family.
"Thursday was one of the most exciting days of my life, getting this job, and also one of the saddest, because I missed Joe's service,'' he said. "I learned so much from Joe. Like, 'The only bad decision is indecision.' I can't tell you how significant a statement that is.''
Schiano has four children. He told them about the new job Thursday evening, and one of the kids said, "What about Eric?'' Eric LeGrand, the paralyzed Rutgers player. The Schiano family has become like a second family to LeGrand. "I told the kid we'd bring Eric down to Tampa, he'll stay at the house and we'll turn him into a Bucs fan.''
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