So imagine for a moment that you are an NFL football player. You have been playing on the offensive line for six years, but mostly as a backup for the past three years. Then just days before start of the season, you get traded to a new team. Your job is to provide depth on a struggling offensive line. After just a handful of practices to learn the system and get familiar with your teammates, you are standing on the sidelines during the first game, and the coach comes to you in the first quarter and informs you that the starting center is out with back problems, and you are now going to have to take his place against the defensive line of the New York Giants. And every Giants player, coach, and fan knows that you are now the target to exploit on the line.
If it was me, I would have looked the coach square in the eye and said, "I really need to go change my pants."
But fortunately for the Dallas Cowboys and their fans, the man in question was Ryan Cook. And in a game that saw many of the players wearing the star step up and play their hearts out in securing a 24-17 win and getting to enjoy the best record in the NFL for three days, his contribution may be overlooked by some.
Make no mistake. It. Was. Huge.
More about why you should remember Cook's role after the jump.
We all knew going into this season that the fate of the Cowboys would largely be determined by how the offensive line performed. Four of the five starters were new to their position. Tyron Smith and Doug Free had swapped positions at tackle. New faces Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau were manning the guard positions. Only Phil Costa provided any continuity.
And then after the first series, Costa had to go out with back spasms. It was now up to Ryan Cook to help keep Tony Romo alive and open up some holes for DeMarco Murray.
It was time for the next man up. And Cook manned up.
That's not to say the offensive line was suddenly superb. They had problems all night long. Tyron Smith was called for multiple false starts. They had breakdowns in pass protection and trouble opening those running lanes early in the game.
But the Dallas Cowboys do not have to have an O-line full of All Pros. They are blessed by having a quarterback who can pretty much at will channel Harry Houdini, and a running back who will keep coming and playing hard. With Romo playing one of the better games of his career against a depleted Giants secondary, they were able to stave off a defensive line that was also missing some key parts. By the fourth quarter, it looked like they were wearing down the Giants' D.
And after the two minute warning, all they had to do was guard the Victory formation. It was an amazingly satisfying two minutes of boredom.
Before last Thursday, I did not even know there was a player named Ryan Cook in the NFL, even though he had just played against Dallas in the last pre-season game as part of the Miami Dolphins. I was hopeful he was going to be an upgrade in the depth for the interior line, but I had to trust the coaching staff. His stat sheet at NFL.com shows that he was with the Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins for 77 games and started 40 of them, but he seemed to be on the decline, with only seven starts in the past three years.
And then came Wednesday, and the hugely anticipated NFL Kickoff game between the Cowboys and Giants. Costa was unable to continue, and Cook was sent in. This could have been a major issue, and would have likely been pointed to as a reason if Dallas had come out on the short end of the score. As rabblerousr explained in his Fearless Season Prognostication, and quoting OCC's own O-Ring Theory post from 2010, the weakest player in the offensive line will be the key determinant in how that unit preforms. Given the scenario, it would only be logical to assume that Cook was going to be that most-fragile link in the chain.
He wasn't. He stood up to the test, and in at least one write-up I have seen (written by the closet Cowboys fan we know here as JimmyK), he and Livings were thought to be the two best linemen for the night.
And there is a lesson here. While there were many standout performances to cover in the game, this was completely and thoroughly a team win. (Cue tanstaafl.) It wasn't one player on the field, it was all eleven out there for each and every play. Some made mistakes as well as good plays, but in the end, the good overwhelmed the bad. Along the way, it may have answered a question I asked about whether this team had the mental toughness to win. In this game, at least, they clearly did. And one player who clearly demonstrated it was Ryan Cook, who came in under remarkably difficult circumstances and got the job done.
But then, he did have a superlative example of that quality in one Jason Witten. The saga of his injured spleen has been well documented, and with him taking the field against the Giants, he showed leadership and no doubt inspired all of the other Cowboys to give all they could. And he has something taped to his locker that just may be a new creed for this team. It is a quote he got from the team's visit to the Navy SEALS training facility while the Cowboys were in San Diego.
"I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My team expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than our competition. If knocked down, I will get back up every time. I will draw on every remaining source of strength to help my team and to accomplish our goal.
"I am never out of the FIGHT."
It's one game. This one is history, and after what is probably a raucous flight home, the focus shifts to the most important game, the next one against the Seattle Seahawks. But based on the evidence at hand, this is a different Cowboys team. It now has focus, toughness, and some pretty inspirational players.
Ryan Cook is part of all that. And he has earned it.