Over the last couple of weeks, much of the focus of the Vikings offense has been on the quarterback position, where Tarvaris Jackson – a forgotten man since his demotion in Week 2 – came back to rally the Vikings to a win over Detroit and had the best scoring day of his career the following week at Arizona. It has been a story of redemption for a player who was publicly stripped of his starting position only to regain it three months later.
A similar story has taken place on the offensive line, but, because of the anonymous nature of offensive linemen, it has received much less fanfare. By and large, O-linemen are pointed out on game broadcasts when they do something wrong, like jumping early for a false start or getting called for a holding penalty. When they're doing their jobs right, they rarely get called to singular attention, unless it is providing a block that springs someone like Adrian Peterson for a long gain.
So it came as something of a surprise that, after making 29 consecutive starts at right tackle, Ryan Cook was yanked from the starting lineup in favor of veteran Artis Hicks, who had never started a game in his career at right tackle. After a pair of particularly brutal games against the Packers and Buccaneers, Cook said he wasn't surprised by the decision.
"I wasn't playing very well," Cook said. "Nobody had to tell me that, because I knew it myself. I was making mistakes like false-start penalties that just weren't acceptable. When Coach (Brad) Childress told me he was making a change, I wasn't happy about it, but I understood where it was coming from."
At the time, Cook said he would commit himself to improving his technique and the subtle aspects of playing his position because he didn't know how long it would be until the call came for him to return. In the case of T-Jack, it took three months. In the case of Cook, it took only one week.
In his first game as the new starter against Jacksonville, Hicks suffered an elbow injury that knocked him out of the game. He was replaced by Cook, who started the following week against Chicago. Hicks returned to action against Detroit the following week, but aggravated the elbow injury, which has sidelined him for the last two weeks – giving the starting job back to Cook. He said his temporary demotion has had a positive affect on his performance, putting back into perspective that he needs to be at the top of his game at all times or he could again find himself on the sidelines instead of opening holes for Peterson and Chester Taylor.
So how does he assess his performance since returning to the lineup?
"I think it's been pretty good," Cook said. "I guess in the end, that's not for me to determine. I just go out and do what I have to do at the best of my ability."
Cook realizes that, just as the Vikings made wholesale changes at the safety and wide receiver positions over the last couple of seasons, a changing of the guard may be coming along the offensive line. Matt Birk is a free agent at the end of the season and the Vikings have made no public inclination to lead fans to believe that they will re-sign Birk before he can test the free-agent waters. A four-year center in college who had limited experience on the outside, Cook could become a candidate for that position if Birk were to leave via free agency. But he said he isn't concerning himself with the potential of being the team's center of the future. He is more focused on being the right tackle of the present.
"I don't know anything about what the plan is for the center position," Cook said. "I haven't played there or practiced there because we have one of the best in the league at that position already. My focus has been completely on playing right tackle and, until I'm told otherwise, that's where it is going to stay. I can't really comment on anything to do with another position or what the plan for that will be."
Regardless of where his future may be with the Vikings – tackle or center, starter or backup – Cook said he is using his uncertain status as motivation. Regardless of the role he is asked to play, he said he is approaching it with the mindset that he has something to prove and something to provide the Vikings offense.
"I try to make an impression every time I step on the field," Cook said. "That got a little more intensified when I got benched. When I got my second chance, I said to myself that I have to try to make the most of it – for now and for my career after this season."
With Hicks back at practice this week (at least on a limited basis), there is the chance that Cook will again find himself on the bench Sunday in the game of the year for the Vikings. He said he will let the chips falls where they may this week and, at season's end, hopes that his performance will speak for itself with the coaching staff and provide him some momentum to propel his future career as a Vikings offensive lineman.
"This is a ‘what have you done for me lately?' type of business," Cook said. "I'm sure when the season is over, they're going to go back and look at the whole thing and evaluate it from there. All I can do is work as hard as I can in games, in practice and during the offseason and hope they see my dedication and desire. That's about all I can do."
Cook assesses his rocky ride
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