NFL draft prospects, particularly quarterbacks, are some of the world’s most hyperscrutinized individuals. God save the aspiring QB who is said to have “character issues,” a vague but unmistakably disparaging phrase used by often-anonymous NFL sources in mud-slinging pre-draft profiles. It’s a label that can mean almost anything (and be based on nothing but rumors), but one that can stick to a player for his entire career. That’s even true in the case of Cam Newton—“has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup,” wrote scout/troll Nolan Nawrocki about Newton in a 2011 critique that was echoed repeatedly this past season even as the Panthers star led his team to the Super Bowl.
This year, Michigan State’s Connor Cook is the quarterback getting showered with all the red flags. Cook is the real deal: He’s big, he has a strong arm, and he performed very well under pressure during three years as a starter for a top college team. But there’s something wrong with him, apparently. I can’t tell you what it is, because I genuinely don’t know—and this despite the fact that I’m a lifelong Michigan fan who generally vacuums up dirt about Spartans’ off-field misbehavior. The anonymous scouts and executives who spoke to USA Today for a bizarre/appalling April 21 story about Cook didn’t hesitate to say they had misgivings, though. They just can’t quite articulate what they are:
“There’s something off,” said an NFL quarterbacks coach, one of many people in the league who have spoken to Cook and gave their impressions to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons. “There’s something about him that you just don’t trust him.”
“Something”—got it. Also: The anonymity was required “for competitive reasons,” sure.
“I don’t mind the kid at all,” a general manager for a different team said. “I’ll take an (expletive) who wins games over a nice guy who loses games. But there’s something missing with him.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind this guy, but he’s a piece of shit.”
“There’s just something put-offish about him,” an offensive coordinator for a third team said. “It appears to me—I could be dead wrong—but he’d be a guy that, when he got in the locker room, they’d try to eat him up and spit him out.”
Michigan State went 34–5 in games Cook started. As of press time, he remained unchewed and undigested:
“I think he just gets caught up in the persona and the whole ‘being the quarterback,’ ” said a scout for a fourth team who has studied Cook extensively. “That’s just my gut. The lifestyle’s more important to him than the actual grind and the process.”
OK, we’re finally getting somewhere. The trouble with this quarterback is that he wants to “be the quarterback.” Also, he got caught up in the glamorous lifestyle of playing in crap weather for a not-particularly-storied program in stylish East Lansing, Michigan. Real glory hound, this guy.
As far as I know, there’s only one thing Cook has ever done that might make someone—an idiot, or an NFL scout—think he has “character issues.” After this year’s Big Ten championship game, he seemed to brush off former Ohio State star Archie Griffin during a trophy ceremony. It was a gesture that lasted a fraction a second in a noisy, chaotic situation, and Cook apologized almost immediately, saying he never meant to give the appearance of disrespect. (Archie Griffin, incidentally, last played competitive football in 1982 and is not someone I think we need to expect Michigan State undergraduates to recognize on sight.)
And that’s it for on-the-record evidence that Cook has an attitude problem. There certainly aren’t any damning anecdotes about him in the USA Today story, a piece that gives anonymous NFL honchos a venue to make personal attacks on someone who doesn’t appear to have done anything wrong. If these scouts and executives are trying to deliver some kind of coded message, that code is totally opaque. Do they mean that Cook is a jerk? That he doesn’t have a firm handshake? That he’s smug? And if they do mean any of those things, why not just use the word “smug,” or any of the many other adjectives with which humans traditionally express themselves?
USA Today highlighted one more anonymous dig:
“He’s going to fall, I think,” an executive for a fifth team said. “Just the guy—people have their questions.”
Questions—people have them.
Even Nawrocki’s attack on Cam Newton named specific alleged faults: Newton was supposedly likely to fail because he was a selfish liar who always played to the cameras. That’s a hyperbolic, obnoxious claim, but at least it’s a specific one, something that a player can try to refute. There’s nothing Connor Cook can say or do to prove his bona fides to USA Today and the anonymous cowards of the NFL, because nobody’s told him what he’s done wrong.