If you have been following the NFL for any time whatsoever, you are familiar with quarterback controversies, such as the one between Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow last year with the Denver Broncos. The fan base and media become impatient with the team because they believe that the wrong man is starting. A clamor generally ensues, and if the incumbent struggles, or is just perceived to struggle, the pressure will mount. It is hard to say how much this influences the coaching staff and team management, but they have to be aware of it. (In Denver, there were even billboards put up demanding that Tebow replace Orton, which is hard to ignore.) If a change is made, then there is at least a suspicion that the controversy affected the team.
This does not always lead to the correct decision, of course. In 2011, Orton was eventually benched for Tebow. He led the Broncos to a playoff win, but the team wound up keeping neither of the two. Orton now backs up Tony Romo for the Dallas Cowboys, and Tebow has taken his strangely hypnotic ability to create obsession among the media to the New York Jets so the Broncos could sign Peyton Manning.
The Cowboys have no such quarterback controversy, at least for now (and there is no reason at all for one to exist, but I hardly trust the Dallas media to not try to create it if Romo has a bad game). But, oddly, they have one brewing at center.
Phil Costa came into the 2012 season as the only starter on the offensive line who was held over in the same position from 2011. He is the subject of a great deal of criticism, mostly due to a poor first half of the season last year. He showed the coaches enough in the second half, however, to make the job his, even as he struggled to stay on the field during pre-season practices and games with back problems. The team really had no better option, as David Arkin was trying to learn the position and did not show himself to be any improvement. After the final pre-season game, Dallas traded a seventh-round pick to the Miami Dolphins to acquire Ryan Cook to provide depth in the middle of the line.
Three plays into the season opening win over the New York Giants, Costa came out with renewed back spasms. Cook filled in capably. And a controversy has been born.
More after the jump.
As reported at DallasCowboys.com by Nick Eatman, Costa has undergone an MRI and there was no damage revealed that will require surgery. However, Eatman also reports that it is almost certain Costa will not be ready for the upcoming game with the Seattle Seahawks, and may miss several more starts. This puts Cook in the lineup for now. The question now becomes what the team does about the position when (and if) Costa is finally healthy.
Jason Garrett unsurprisingly refused to address that subject when asked if Cook would be competing for the starting job.
"I don't want to get into that right now. We want Costa to get back," Garrett said. "Costa's been our starting center for a reason. We like him a lot. But at the same time, we want to make sure he's healthy. I thought he did a really good job working to get back. And it just shows you the kind of mental toughness that he has. He was determined to play, and his back really wasn't quite right. We really found out about it on the first play. He tried to gut it out on plays 2 and 3, but then we had to put Ryan in on the second series."
However, he also acknowledged that Cook did a good job despite very limited preparation time. Now, with the long week due to having had to play on the Wednesday before the rest of the NFL starts their season, Cook will get a chance to get all the starter reps with his linemates and Tony Romo going into week 2. If he has another good showing in Seattle, the hue and cry to make him the permanent starter will probably become deafening.
Garrett may play his cards close to the vest, but he also has a well established "best man" philosophy. If this jumbled offensive line begins to solidify with Cook in the middle, I have a hard time seeing the head coach or Bill Callahan wanting to pull Cook in favor of Costa, no matter how highly they think of Phil. If Cook does not have a bad game against the Seahawks, it may be enough to settle the matter, at least in the minds of the coaches. What they say to the press is not always the most accurate reflection of their true intentions, after all. Further, should Costa miss three or four more games, with the line doing decently, I think it becomes a done deal.
Dallas does not have to have an All Star offensive line. With Romo's talent at escape and evasion, the emergence of a potent three-headed wide receiver threat, a hard charging running back in DeMarco Murray who seems to get better as the game progresses, and the new-found aggressiveness of the defense - they just need competency up front. Whether they would be able to achieve that was the biggest concern coming into this season. Now, almost accidentally, the team may have this issue fixed. (For a brief look at what to do for the backup while Costa recovers, you can check out VAfan's post on the center position over the next few weeks. He saved me having to discuss it, so thanks.)
However, this all may not have been that accidental. Garrett stated that the Cowboys had Cook on their radar and based the decision to trade for him on what they saw. If so, this may be another case of good work by the scouting department. And if things continue as it looks like they will, it came just in time.