Monday, July 19, 2021

Fred Cook—The Next Deacon Jones?

 By John Turney 
Fred Cook

Fred Cook entered Southern Miss in 1970 and from 1971-73 was one of the school's best-ever players. He also began as one of the school's first four Black students. By the time he graduated there were "about 150" Cook told the Baltimore Sun. Cook is proud of being on the leading edge of integrating his alma mater. 

As a soph, he finished among the team's leaders in tackles with 68 and a school-record 18 quarterback sacks. As a junior, he recorded 19 quarterback sacks while finishing second on the team in tackles with 122 (81 solo, 41 assists). 

In 1973 his senior year, Cook finished fourth on the team in tackles with 67 and was once more the team leader in quarterback sacks with 16 despite being a marked man, drawing the attention of extra blockers seemingly every play. He earned Third-team All-American honors in addition to being named First-team All-South Independent. (An honor he repeated from 1972).

In his three seasons at Southern Miss, Cook was credited with 271 tackles (163 solo) and 53 sacks. One note—college statistics of that era are not really reliable especially in terms of sacks. They probably contain tackles for loss on running plays and also don't separate out solo and assisted tackles for loss/sacks. Regardless, it's clear he was a tremendous player who was in the backfield often and the NFL scouts noticed.

The Baltimore Colts were considering taking Cook with the second of their two first-round picks in 1974 but after some debate decided that there was a higher likelihood that Cook would be available in the second round than Roger Carr, a wide receiver they coveted, so they took Carr.

Cook was considered undersized for an NFL defensive end and had played the position from a two-point stance in college, so they rolled the dice and won and grabbed him with the 32nd overall pick in the 1974 NFL draft. And they were glad they did because they were able to secure Cook as well, filling out their wish list—John Dutton, Carr, and Cook.

But there is a story behind why Cook was undersized. He'd grown to around 250 pounds as a senior in college, but after the season, in December, he had a wisdom tooth growing in and he hated dentists and avoided going in and having it extracted. He didn't eat properly, avoiding solid foods and started losing weight. 

Pro scouts coming around, they thought he was much larger, and by the time he got to the Senior Bowl he was down to about 230 pounds but he wouldn't 'fess up as to why he was so light. So, teams were not sure what kind of player he'd be on the NFL level and the lower wight.

He was running 4.6 forties but was he going to be a defensive end? A linebacker? The weight issue likely caused him to drop enough slots for the Colts to grab him.

Howard Schnellenberger, his coach, compared his quickness to Deacon Jones. Schnellenberger had been on George Allen's staff in Los Angeles and saw Jones up close. Though Cook was a bit smaller (Jones was 250-260ish) he saw the quick first step, the explosion, and the pursuit speed Cook possessed. 

Cook won the left defensive end position opposite fellow rookie end John Dutton and they both were voted All-Rookie and the Colts were definitely pleased. 

The next season Mike Barnes, who was the left defensive end in 1973—his rookie year, and a backup in 1974, and Joe Ehrmann, who'd been the right tackle for two years began their three-year run as the best pass-rushing unit in football—The Sack Pack. 

Cook in 1975
However, that term—Sack Pack, didn't appear in print until late in the season. Ehrmann's nickname for the foursome was "The Looney Tunes". In fact, a Washington Post writer, Dave Brady, in early December of 1975, opined that all the unit need was a nickname to boost their fame and then jokingly (we hope) calling them the "Hard Shells". 

Within two weeks the term "Sack Pack" appeared all over the wire services prior to the Week 14 matchup against the Patriots. 

The '75 Colts sacked the quarterback 59 times, in '76 the total was 56 and in 1977 it was 47—a three-year total of 162, nineteen more than the next closest NFL club, and Cook had the most with 36½ (Dutton right on his heels with 36). 

Of course, there is something that need to be unpacked about that. 

First, of course, sacks are not the be-all, end-all, pressure is the most important, however, we've found that where they are sacks this is pressure. Second, when you watch the Colts of that era there are a lot of times it is hard to tell who got the sack since all four of the linemen were so good at getting pressure. We feel for the scorekeeper who had to sort that out without a lot of time to do it. Really, all four of the defensive linemen were stars.

Cook and Stand White (53)

Third, Stan White was a big part of the pressure. In a George Allen defense, which is what defense Coordinator Maxie Baughan was running the right-side linebacker dogs quite often—taking the outside rush, either on green dog (based on what the halfback does) or by huddle call, and even gets involved in stunts, one common one was called "Ox" when White would charge the A-Gap and the right end would take the outside. From 1975-77 White average just over six sacks a year in the role Larry Morris filled in Chicago for Allen, Baughen himself did for Allen, and that Hanburger was still doing for Allen at the time. Like the fifth Beatle, Stan White was part of the Sack Pack's success.

Fourth, the Sack Pack didn't have a stellar secondary backing them up. It was okay but it's not like there was what is now called "sticky" coverage happening a lot, allowing the rushmen (an Allen term for d-line) an extra heartbeat to get to the passer. Allen himself rated them middle-of-the-pack in 1976, the only year we have Allen's grades.

Dutton unofficially led the NFL in bagging quarterbacks in 1975 with 17 and Cook was just a half-sack behind him. Dutton, however, made the Pro Bowl, Cook didn't. Dutton was a consensus Second-team All-Pro, Cook didn't make any of the major teams however the New York Daily News did name him All-Pro and All-AFC. 

The next year it was more of the same Dutton had 13 sacks and made All-Pro, the Pro Bowl and was All-AFC, Cook had 11 and was Second-team All-AFC but no Pro Bowl. In hindsight, Cook likely had a better year than L.C. Greenwood but then again Elvin Bethea was also worthy so perhaps that is a wash.

In 1977 Cook led the club in sacks with nine and was All-AFC and Dutton, too, was All-AFC with his six-sack total.

Cook played great, as did the whole unit, but it seemed others got the more of the limelight. However, it didn't bother Cook as long as the Colts were winning. He was a self-proclaimed "sore-loser" and from 1975-77 the Colts were 31-11 but also couldn't get past the Raiders or Steelers in the playoffs.

Those three years did show that Schnellenberger's Deacon Jones comparison was not as far-fetched as they seemed. Cook grew into a 244-pound man, and anyone who can, in the 1970s, record 16½ sacks in a season deserves to be noticed.

The success of the "Pack" led to the players wanting to be compensated fairly. John Dutton didn't think he was and he held out early in 1978. Several other Colts wanted to be paid better or traded, Cook's name was listed among them. Bert Jones got hurt and the 1978 season was a disaster.

Cook hung in there but it was not the stuff of Deacon Jones, either. 

Dutton help out again and forced a trade to the Cowboys in 1979 where he filled in for the retired-to-boxing Too Tall Jones (when Jones returned Dutton played defensive tackle for the next seven years but that is another story for another day). 

Cook, on the other hand, had a fine year, drawing praise from his coach Ted Marchibroda who thought this might be the year Cook may get his just due in terms of post-season honors, such as maybe going to a pro bowl. The Colts second consecutive 5-11 season could have helped but the Pro Bowl didn't happen, though he was an alternate—a player who was in line to go if one of the players named to the team were injured.

Looking back, which isn't really fair, but we'll do it anyway, Cook being in the Pro Bowl would have made sense. His year was certainly better than Elvin Bethea's season. But also, he'd have to have beaten out Art Still or maybe Vern Den Herder who also likely had better years than Bethea. 

Cook slumped in 1980, there is no other way to put it. When you are paid to get pressure on the quarterback and don't do it, then it's a sump—the same way if a home run hitter who is expected to hit 25-30 home runs hits 10 or 11. If that happens, coaches, fans, the media are going to talk.

Cook, though, wanted a raise based not on 1980, but on his recent body of work, which except for 1980, which he thought was unusual, an anomaly if you will. He asked that his $140,000 salary be doubled, to something on par with other defensives ends who were of his caliber. 

The Colts offered $169,000. Cook felt the Colts didn't come through he demanded a trade. It took s few months but it finally was consummated in July when he was sent to Washington for a pair of conditional draft picks (possibly a sixth and a ninth). 

Unfortunately, it didn't work out, rookie coach Joe Gibbs cut Cook in August, but said he felt by doing it early that Cook would have a chance to catch on with someone. That didn't happen.

The next Summer Cook gave it one more shot and signed a contract with the Chargers, but again the Turk visited him in August and that was all for Cook in the NFL.

We find it curious that Cook didn't find work in 1981 or 1982, even as a nickel rusher for a 3-4 team then used a 4-man line in passing downs. He'd seemingly have been ideal in that role. We'd guess that was what Gibbs saw his role, though, in Washington, though more so as a platoon situation for Karl Lorch and/or Mat Mendenhall since Washington was a 4-3 team. 

Washington, though, still had Coy Bacon and has picked up Mike Clark off of waivers from the Rams, a really fast rookie end, and had drafted a really, really fast rookie defense end named Dexter Manley who was waiting in the wings. So it is possible Gibbs and his staff thought those two would be better for the future than Cook.

Certainly, Cook's competitiveness had not diminished. He and rookie tackle Mark May scuffled in practice daily so his pride was still there, not about to let a rook show him up. 

The Chargers situation may have been similar. The starting left end was Leroy Jones but they had a younger named Keith Ferguson who showed potential in 1981 and they had John Woodcock who took over for Fred Dean in 1981 so they perhaps thought one of those two would be the right end and the other would be the third end and a nickel end if Jones needed to be spelled in passing situations so there was no need for Cook.

Or, it may be Cook had lost it—maybe he just didn't show too well in 1981 and 1982 camps and the coaches didn't think he could help his teams, that 1980s was not a fluke. Honestly, we don't know.

In the end, it is never fair for a coach to compare any defensive end to Deacon Jones as Howard Schnellenberger did. It just sets the expectations too high, even if the player does very well for a while, as Cook did.

In some ways it reminds us of Bobby Murcer being compared to Mickey Mantle because both were shortstops signed by the same scout, both being from Oklahoma. But Murcer never had the strength of Mantle or the speed. Murcer, after he returned from the Army had some excellent seasons, even near-MVP seasons in 1971-72 but even then it was never going to be enough. 

Then when his power abandoned him in 1974 and 1975 (remember earlier in this post we talked about a power hitter expected to hit 25+ homers and then hits 10 or 11?) the criticism mounts.

Whan can be said is that Cook was an excellent pass rusher, who was superiorly quick and part of the best pass-rushing line in the NFL for a few years. He was competitive and a hustle-type. He played with a lot of heart and from 1975-79 there were not many pass rushers who got to the quarterback more often than Cook.

And sometimes that is enough to be said about a player. But what can be said about Cook's toughness came from off-the-field pain. 

Cook went to a Catholic High School—Our Lady of Victory High School in Pascagoula, MS, stayed devout through his career and after. 

He married in 1977 and two years later, without going into details which may suggest the poor practice of medicine by doctors, his first baby died of a rare heart condition, one that cannot be detected with any blood or any other kind of tests. 

And it didn't end there. He and his wife lost two more infants to the same heart disease which nearly crushed the young couple and brought immeasurable trauma to Cook's life.

He once said, "I've lost money, I've lost property, I lost cars, and I laughed. Sorrow, grief, these things—I used to think people couldn't die from a broken heart, but actually, you can die from a broken heart."

Cook attributes his ability to overcome and cope came from his faith and Catholic upbringing and the counsel from his grandmother who taught him about life lessons and the challenges in life. 

Still, this kind of suffering seems above and beyond normal.

In time Cook took his energies to counseling youth and believing his calling now is service to others, "I'm God's child. I'm a warrior for the Lord" and he endeavored to start an organization to further the causes he believed in called, "S.E.P.P.A.—Southeastern Professionals of Positive Action".

Honestly, we could not find any recent information on the organization he hoped to create so we don't of if it was successful or not, but we admire his efforts nonetheless just as we admired his efforts and competitiveness on the football field.

Sometimes sore losers are needed—it teaches the principle that Hem Edwards once said emphatically, "We play to win the game" and even if the Colts never got the Lombardi Trophy it's the effort that matters so it can be said that Fred Cook did play to win the game.

Career stats—

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