When starting center Phil Costa suffered a back injury in the second quarter of the regular-season opener against the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys were forced into using a replacement whose arrival was so fresh he hadn’t even snapped a dozen times to quarterback Tony Romo in practice.
Despite those difficult circumstances, Ryan Cook made a seamless transition in helping Dallas post a 24-17 upset. Cook, though, said what he did wasn’t nearly as impressive as some Cowboys fans may have been led to believe.
"There’s this misconception out there that I’d never played center before, and this guy just hops in and does OK," Cook told FOXSports.com after Wednesday’s practice.
"In college, I was a center for five years. I’d only started one (NFL) game at center, but I played a tremendous amount in practice in Miami and even Minnesota as well. I’d rotate in and take reps."
Cook’s versatility motivated Dallas to swing a trade with Miami at the end of the preseason to acquire the seven-year veteran for a 2013 seventh-round pick. The move proved fortunate for a Cowboys squad that was lacking interior-line depth. Cook remains with the first-team offense as Costa recovers. Cook, 29, hopes to parlay this opportunity into bigger things.
"I’m trying to be an elite player," Cook said.
To achieve that and become a regular NFL starter again like he was for 40 games at right tackle from 2006 to 2010 with the Vikings, Cook must consistently prove he can handle the NFL’s top interior defensive linemen. The next test comes Sunday against Tampa Bay’s Roy Miller, who is making a name for himself on an aggressive young defense in his fourth NFL season.
"His assignment is to choke the heck out of the center," Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recently said of Miller. "He does it better than anybody I’ve seen in a long time."
Giants right guard Chris Snee described Miller, 6-foot-2, 315 pounds, as "a load" before last Sunday’s game against the Bucs. Snee wasn’t kidding. New York won, 41-34, but was limited to 94 rushing yards after losing running back Ahmad Bradshaw to a neck injury. Tampa Bay was even more dominant the previous week when holding Carolina to 13 yards on 10 carries.
Miller’s presence often helps keep Tampa Bay’s linebackers clean from blocking. He also creates opportunities for McCoy, who is quicker and more of a disruptive force in the backfield.
"He’s a big guy and he’s fast," Cook said of Miller. "They move a lot up front. As an offensive line, we have to be prepared for that.
"The linebackers are real fast-flow type of guys, If the defensive line eats up double teams and the linebackers fill the holes, they can make plays."
At 6-6 and 325 pounds, Cook is the NFL’s biggest center. Because of his size and athleticism, the Vikings were convinced Cook could make the transition to right tackle. They picked the University of New Mexico product in the second round of the 2006 draft ahead of current NFL starters like Andrew Whitworth, Eric Winston and Jeromey Clary.
The Vikings later decided that Cook wasn’t the answer and drafted Phil Loadholt in 2009. Cook, though, is grateful for his five seasons in Minnesota and the lessons he learned from standout veteran linemen like Matt Birk and Steve Hutchinson.
"Was I particularly ready at that time to be an offensive tackle? Probably not," Cook said. "I hadn’t had a lot of technical work, and there were a lot of things I think I needed in order to make that transition. But it was a great experience for me. It helped me learn more assignments, techniques and other things that only help when you’re moving inward (on the offensive line)."
Now that he’s shifted inward, Cook hopes his NFL stock is heading upward once again as he bonds with Romo and his fellow Cowboys offensive linemen.
"A lot of teams run the same types of plays, but they’re all called different things," he said. "That’s the biggest challenge — learning the different terminology and being able to communicate that so they understand what you’re saying.
"I’m working to build continuity with these guys. We’re getting used to each other."
If such efforts pay dividends, the Cowboys may very well get used to Cook sticking in the starting lineup.