Henning: Cook taking place as MSU’s best QB ever
East Lansing — How does he rank, this amazingly skilled passer and winner known as Connor Cook, when placed against earlier Michigan State quarterbacks?
Some of his forerunners proved not only at East Lansing but in the NFL that they had prize-winning talent: Earl Morrall, Kirk Cousins, Jim Miller, Drew Stanton, Tony Banks, Jim Ninowski, and even Brian Hoyer, who has been more of a story with four NFL teams than he was during his MSU days.
But it seems during these past 60 years — a reasonable time frame for comparisons — that none had as many overall physical tools, or as much skill, strength, accuracy and dynamism as Cook has been showing during his senior year with the Spartans.
Saturday added a few more pages to Cook’s best-selling handbook: “How To Win Football Games and Influence History.”
He threw 52 passes, 30 for completions worth 398 yards and four touchdowns as the Spartans ran away from Indiana late and won, 52-26, on a balmy, rainy day at Spartan Stadium, which didn’t feature a quarterback’s most helpful weather.
Cook missed by three yards beating Bill Burke’s single-game record for yards by a Spartans quarterback, 400, in a 1999 toppling of Michigan. But it isn’t numbers that make Cook different.
It is the way he throws a football.
Give him a downfield rectangle the size of an iPad and he whizzes a bull’s-eye pass that bores into the paws of a Spartans receiver. Ask him to put the precise amount of air, velocity and direction on a fade-pass into the end zone’s corner, and Cook so often nails it.
A javelin-throw of a deep pass to a receiver who might have a step on a safety or corner? He loves it, this exquisite challenge in timing and marksmanship.
Examine him on third down. If it’s long-distance and he’s obliged to whistle an out-pass to the receiver’s back shoulder a toenail inside the chalk, he can make the throw and beat a defender who has done just about everything right.
And, here also is a difference in Cook: If his team needs yardage either by design or because he sees a hole or can sidestep a sack, Cook has a knack for getting it minus risks that a man 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds will run his way out of a game and into the hospital.
“NFL-type quarterback,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said after Saturday’s game, which kept the Spartans unblemished (8-0) and moved Cook’s personal record as starting QB to 31-3 since he became starter three years ago.
“Great touch, great arm-strength. Very quick release. And, he’s big.”
There have been so many premium QBs at East Lansing over the decades and generations it’s difficult to say Cook is an easy choice as MSU’s all-time best.
But the time probably has come. Cook is playing a game that is more sophisticated and demands more, physically, than at any previous point on East Lansing’s football timeline.
You can make a case for some of the 1950s cast, which included Morrall, Ninowski, and Dean Look. Morrall hit it big late in his career rescuing Super Bowl teams and would figure to be some kind of match for Cook.
But he didn’t have Cook’s size or superior skills.
Nor did the quarterbacks who 50 years ago were driving MSU and Duffy Daugherty to national championships: Steve Juday and Jimmy Raye.
Many had nice runs, but ...
Charlie Baggett had a nice run in the 1970s, as did Eddie Smith, who threw a few miles worth of passes to Kirk Gibson and his sidekicks during a wild 1976-78 run. Smith had an arm that puts him in MSU’s all-time top tier. But he barely scraped six feet and Smith was permitted to run only when he had state-trooper escorts.
The ’80s: Jon Leister, Bryan Clark, Dave Yarema, Dan Enos, Bobby McAllister. Yarema had the closest to a gunslinging NFL arm, and Enos was marvelously efficient. But they weren’t in Cook’s realm.
Miller qualified when he became an early ’90s fixture. He was an NFL quarterback on a college field. But he couldn’t match Cook and his nimble feet.
Banks had NFL talent, but he was a transfer whose stay in East Lansing was brief. Burke was a left-hander and probably threw with as much velocity as anyone has tossed a pass at Michigan State. His throws spun as tight as rifle bullets. But, again, he was not a QB with as much overall game as Cook.
Jeff Smoker, Drew Stanton, Kirk Cousins: Here it gets truly interesting. These were MSU’s guys from the past 15 years, and all were blue-chippers. Stanton and Cousins are playing in the NFL, with Cousins at times looking as he did during three glorious seasons under Dantonio.
Smoker had talent in the extreme and, unlike Cook, wasn’t always aided and abetted by equivalent team skill.
But was he Cook?
NFL draft could confirm it
The NFL draft next spring should add an important vote to Cook’s ranking as MSU’s best all-time quarterback. The NFL appreciates that he has been a huge winner. But pro scouts will be evaluating and ultimately selecting him based, again, on a mighty combination of size and wizardry at throwing a football.
He is making throws that never have been made in East Lansing. Not by a Spartans QB.
“I feel like the ball is coming out of my hand better, the release, the spiral,” Cook said Saturday, explaining that even two weeks ago, at Rutgers, he wasn’t in the groove he found the past two weeks, at Michigan, and again Saturday. “I felt like I was in the zone.”
But it isn’t one or two weeks that have separated Cook from his predecessors. It’s the way he has played for three years, increasingly gaining finesse to match an exceptional body and mechanics.
He is simply playing on another level, one he, uniquely, had capacity to reach.