All Backed Up At Center

Center Billy Conaty made an impression in training camp, then did whatever he could after he was released to stay in shape. It seems to be the year of the successful backup for the Vikings.

While the Vikings smile at their depth at running back, their roster strength at center has been tested in the first half of the season as well.

Pro Bowler Matt Birk missed almost all of training camp because of hernia surgery. Backup Cory Withrow stepped in for Birk and gained invaluable experience. Withrow even started one game for Birk Oct. 10 in Houston. But Withrow has been inactive because of torn knee cartilage. When Birk suffered a concussion last week against Tennessee, Billy Conaty filled in.

Conaty's competence at center allowed the Vikings to be more cautious in handling Withrow's recovery time.

Conaty, a veteran who spent the majority of his career with the Buffalo Bills, was cut by the Vikings during training camp, then called back in mid-October, when Withrow injured his knee. He said his time spent with the Vikings in August eased the transition when he returned.

"It was pretty easy as far as picking up the offense because I was here during training camp," Conaty said. "It's going well."

Like tight end Sean Berton — who was released earlier this season by the Vikings, then called back — Conaty didn't leave Winter Park hastily when he was waived.

"What would you do? Start shooting up the office?" Conaty said. "I've been pretty fortunate throughout my career. But getting cut at the end of training camp, burning a bridge wasn't an option. I was appreciative they gave me the chance. I was a little disappointed, but I realize this is a business."

After he was waived, Conaty returned to his home in New Jersey. For five weeks he continued to work out and wait.

"All you can control is staying in shape," Conaty said. "Everything after that is out of your control. It's unfortunate they had injuries, but I'm glad it worked out. I wasn't really staring at the TV watching Vikings games hoping someone would get hurt or anything like that. I didn't even see that many Vikings games, actually. I just stayed in shape and whatever happened, happened."

Last year's collapse after starting 6-0 is still etched in the Vikings' memory. For that reason, Birk said no one is settling with the team's quick start.

"We're proud of that, but I don't think there are any guys around here who are impressed yet," Birk said. "We learned our lesson last year. (A good start) doesn't get you in the playoffs. If we didn't learn our lesson last year, we never will."

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