Whispers at the bus stop
I heard about nights out in the school yard
I found out about you
I found out about you
Rumors follow everywhere you go
When you left and I was last to know
Famous now and there’s no doubt, all the places you hang out
They know your name and know what you’re about
– Gin Blossoms
This will not be an impassioned defense of Connor Cook and how it’s incomprehensible that 99 players were selected before his name was called at the NFL Draft. This will not be a laundry list of his accomplishments at Michigan State. This will not be an angry screed comparing his upside to those of Christian Hackenberg, Cody Kessler or even Paxton Lynch.
His past exploits and future endeavors are murky. Unparalleled success dances in close proximity to ugly innuendo on the dance floor of the former. Prolonged purgatory behind Derek Carr seems inevitable on the latter.
I want to know how we got to this place. I want to understand what was accomplished and by whom. Most importantly, I want the truth.
Even though it’s been proven that the truth—whatever that may be–didn’t matter in this situation once a narrative had been established.
Cook turned out to be the most polarizing figure playing the most prominent position at the most important league’s made-for-television livestock auction. It was the conclusion of a seven-month-long silly season that turned serious.
And you know what? He never stood a chance. He was a square peg being fed into a mighty machine that rounds off square edges until they fit into round holes.
It started innocently enough in August when the Michigan State football team voted on team captains. Twelve members of the Eagles leadership council, including senior quarterback Cook, were eligible. When the votes were tallied, Shilique Calhoun, Darien Harris and Jack Allen walked away with the honors.
The 6-foot-4 pocket passer entered the regular season as a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate with Rose and Cotton Bowl victories under his belt — overcoming double-digit deficits in each. He and the rest of his senior teammates had a chance to become the winningest class in school history.
The fact that he wasn’t a captain was a molehill. It would soon become a mountain, even as the Spartans earned their second Big Ten championship in three years and made the College Football Playoff.
Despite the team success, Cook did not light the world on fire stat-wise. He racked up 3,131 yards passing and 24 touchdowns against seven interceptions. He was unremarkable in the final two games against Iowa and Alabama, thanks to a shoulder injury.
He left MSU with a 34-5 record, the most accomplished quarterback by that metric in this year’s draft. His faults were obvious. At times, he struggled with his footwork. In 2015, he completed just 56 percent of his passes.
There were performance-based red flags. Even the most strident Cook defender would admit as much. But the public rarely heard about the football reasons he might not be the first or second or even third quarterback selected. Those flaws were buried under a mountain of vague question marks about Cook’s character, leadership and rapport with teammates.
After the Spartans defeated Iowa, Cook had an awkward interaction with two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin on the podium. He snatched the MVP award (which, by the way, he didn’t deserve to win) from the former Ohio State great. It looked bad.
Cook apologized almost immediately and offered a reasonable explanation. But the fuel had already been poured onto the fire. Now there was B-roll to prove a point.
It’s impossible for me to be purely objective about Michigan State. I try my best but realize my bias. It’s where I spent the best four years of my life and met my wife. It holds a special place in my heart and I openly root for the team. So perhaps my blind spot when surveying the Cook landscape was larger than I thought.
That said, I was not alone in my belief that the relentless, clandestinely-sourced speculation about his lack of captaincy was overblown. If there was a single mock draft out there suggesting he’d go later than the second round, it escaped notice. If anything, there was more chatter about Cook going late in the first round than sliding into the third.
I was wrong. So was everyone else.
Why was Cook still available on Saturday when the Oakland Raiders traded up to get him?
Because quarterbacks are the faces of NFL franchises and it’s not enough for them to be productive players. Organizations yearn for a quarterback who is either beyond reproach in the character department or has the transcendent skills to obscure it from the public.
It’s not fair and it’s not entirely logical. Look at the non-quarterbacks selected before Cook. It’s not difficult to find checkered pasts and future uncertainty.
Quarterbacks need to be different. Quarterbacks are special in the National Football League. They need to play the game of good little signal caller. Cook most certainly did not play that role well in college. His decision to be himself hurt in the court of public opinion and at the bank.
Is Cook a good guy? Is he a jerk?
It’s a question to which I have no insight. Only those who know him can have an informed opinion. When McShay and others declined to go into specifics it meant one of two things. There either were none or they couldn’t share the damning details.
Cook had no shortage of public support from his teammates. They may very well have been singing a different tune behind his back. Mark Dantonio, for all the good he’s done in East Lansing, will not soon be confused with John Calipari when it comes to hyping his players.
When there’s this much smoke, there’s likely some fire. Not voting your senior quarterback a captain is a conscious choice.
It became harder to defend Cook after Charles Davis’ appearance on the Dan Patrick Show Monday morning. The Fox analyst said he’d been told by multiple teams that they’d had “lousy” interactions with the polarizing passer.
If true, Cook showed a damaging lack of self-awareness. To further the bad-egg perception after feeling its effects is both a baffling and counterproductive personal move. Could he really not be polite and charming for a job interview? Isn’t that a basic skill to master?
Davis also said he couldn’t repeat how one team categorized the interaction, presumably because it was off-color.
That’s not an encouraging anecdote. Affability shouldn’t be the primary factor in making a draft pick. In Cook’s case, it could be argued that his teams have excelled in spite of whatever is going between his ears. It clearly had no tangible negative impact on the team’s performance during his three years as the Spartans starter. Anyone asking how Cook the person impacts Cook the quarterback has their real world proof.
Alas, the culture of the NFL is not steeped in reality. It’s a place where coaches sleep at the team facility to show how hard they work. It’s a place where robotic-like behavior is rewarded. Cook is not Russell Wilson or J.J. Watt. He’s more Jay Cutler than Peyton Manning.
Franchises are well within their rights to overanalyze every piece of the puzzle before entrusting a quarterback with the keys to the bus. None of them owed Cook anything and I’m not suggesting they were wrong in repeatedly passing on the opportunity to draft him.
What is, however, unsettling is the bizarre power trip scouts and teams seem to work in concert to create. Listen to Jay Glazer highlight the ridiculous of it all.
So teams actually held writing thank-you notes against Cook. With that in mind, is there anything he could have done to push back the tide of negative baggage slowly drowning his draft stock?
People write follow-up notes after job interviews for one reason and it’s not because they genuinely enjoy speaking about the widget industry. It’s because they want the job and understand it’s an ends to a mean. Cook is no different.
Cook’s immediate prospects don’t look great. The Raiders took him because of his value, not because he’s needed. His only hope appears to be to improve his game, show some flashes in preseason or fill-in duty, and get traded to a team where he can compete for a starting job.
Moving on from the green and white means greener pastures financially and, thankfully, closes the final chapter on a collegiate career full of sky-high peaks and trolling valleys. The last few months have been trying for Cook. Whether that’s a bed he made for himself or was forced into by a suffocating narrative is unclear.
In the end, the truth doesn’t really matter. Perception is always reality. Once the gossip-flavored toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s impossible to put it back. Depending on who you ask, Cook either tried to clean up the mess or added to it.
We found out all the whispers mattered, even if we never got the juicy details. If there were were ever any to begin.
[Images via USA Today Sports]
One last thing. Another former Michigan State athlete is in the news today. Keith Appling was arrested for allegedly bringing a loaded gun to a Dearborn strip club. During his time in East Lansing he was voted a captain.