Posted: 9:35 p.m.
Kyle Cook may have won the strongest man competition during the Bengals mini Olympiad earlier this week with 39 heaves of 225 pounds. But it is his strength with the intangibles that has him doing things at center not seen in these parts since, dare we say it, Richie Braham.
At this early stage, no one is saying that Cook is the answer or that he's a Braham clone or that the Bengals will suddenly lead the league in rushing while giving up just five sacks. After all, he's delivered as many NFL snaps as the people that interviewed him Thursday.
What people are merely saying is that things like communication and cohesion along the battered Bengals front are better than they have been lately with scenes like this:
A long time observer of this offensive line walked into the Bengals locker room last week and saw something he hadn't seen since the days of, well…
A group of players were gathered around Cook and he was telling them what they had to do if the defense did this or if it did that.
Asked about such a scene, right guard Bobbie Williams didn't deny it Thursday after the Bengals' first minicamp practice of the weekend.
"Not since 74," said Williams of Braham's number as one of three linemen left who played with Braham during his last season in '06. "The thing about Richie was that he knew the offense inside and out and he was a tough player. I can honestly say (Cook) knows and he's steadily learning. There's no comparison. You don't want to do that to anybody. But he's tough, we like him and he plays hard."
Cook flashed that for everyone to see during that first practice when he got into it with middle linebacker Dhani Jones. Jones has played in 125 NFL games and is stepping off the Travel Channel into his 10th season while Cook is looking to take his first NFL snap in trying to channel Braham. But that didn't stop him from forcing Jones to rip off Cook's helmet as they flailed away briefly following a downfield engagement.
Everything the offensive line does this year is going to be under the microscope after a woeful 2008 claimed four starters and moved one. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander went into the 1996 opener in St. Louis with three linemen making their first NFL start (it was Braham's first and it was at center), but he says "this is our biggest challenge."
But don't mind Cook's tiff. Williams and guard-tackle Scott Kooistra waved it off after practice as just another day at the office. They've seen it ever since Cook showed up as a rookie off waivers just before the 2007 regular season.
"That's Cook's M.O.," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "He's a little bit of a nasty player. I think your center has to be a little bit that way. It's a hard position, it's a tough position. He's got the toughness to play it."
Cook got a smile out of Jones as he stared at him walking by in the locker room.
"I'm here all day," he said, laughing.
"But so am I," Jones said.
Cook shrugged it off as no big deal.
"We've had 11, 12 practices and we've been going at each other every day," he said. "I would never do anything to hurt my middle linebacker."
Then Jones gave him the middle linebacker's ultimate compliment in discussing Cook's ability to get to the second level.
"If he's getting on you," Jones said, "he's doing a good job. Yeah, he's getting on me."
Cook has never met Braham, but he's watched him on tape so much that it must feel like he has. Because he is a smart guy, Cook is naturally curious about the man who anchored the Bengals line from 1999 until the second game of 2006 after playing mostly guard for the first five seasons of his career.
And, try this stat on. In the 43 games Braham played under Marvin Lewis, the Bengals averaged 4.2 yards per rush. In the last 46 games without him, the number is 3.7. A lot of reasons. But he's a big one.
"It's funny, just last week I was asking Bobbie and Kooter (Kooistra) about him," Cook said. "I wanted to know his build and how he played. He did well in the system. I see great things on film. They said he was similar to me. Big, strong burly guy that knew his stuff."
Cook studies the centers he wants to be like. The guys who have been around a long time. And they all have one thing in common.
"They're smart," said Cook, pointing to his favorite, Titans Pro Bowler Kevin Mawae, as well as Matt Birk, a guy he understudied during the spring and summer the Vikings signed him as a free agent out of Michigan State.
"Now I'll be watching him twice a year in Baltimore," Cook said.
Cook has watched those guys in person and on tape, but he's also been picking the brains of the defensive linemen he has gone against in practice, particularly his old college teammate in East Lansing, Domata Peko.
"I ask them how I compare and they say I compare to a lot of guys they face," Cook said. "They've said it's like playing against Baltimore or Tennessee. That's good to know."
But it all comes back to the old John F. Kennedy line:
"You can't beat brains."
The old touch footballer could have added, "especially at center."
Alexander, who oversaw Braham's move from guard to center, said after Thursday's practice that he thinks Cook might be as smart as anyone that's come through in his 16 seasons.
"I like him," Alexander said. "It's not because he's smart and tough. He's smart, tough, and a good player.
"He's a natural leader. Whatever it is, he's got it. They trust him. They know he's right. They follow his direction. He's what we're looking for. He's the center. He's got to take charge, make all the calls, synthesize complex things in a hurry and be right."
The Bengals had enough faith in Cook that they didn't go after a veteran in free agency when they chose not to pursue their own free agent center in Eric Ghiaciuc, now of Kansas City. They did draft Arkansas' Jonathan Luigs in the fourth round, but Cook is the guy they have groomed for at least this year.
"(Cook) has done a good job taking control of the offensive line. He makes the calls, he makes them very assertively," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "He gets us organized because that's what the center does. He organizes the four other guys so they can work in tandem and get certain blocks done and certain pass protections taken care of and he does a great job doing that. I've been very pleased with him."
Asked if that has been lacking the past few seasons, Bratkowski said, "That hasn't been our strength. We've had some issues."
Whitworth, who along with Williams and Kooistra did his time with Braham, was a rookie in '06 and didn't get to experience much of it. But on Thursday he said Cook has brought similar stability to the line.
"The communication and cohesion of the unit is probably further along than I can remember the last couple of years, even at this time of year," Whitworth said. "He's doing a good job just going out and doing his job. And that is getting out the calls and putting people in the right direction and letting the rest take care of itself. He's being assertive and sending guys where they need to go."
Cook might be looking for that first NFL snap, but it hasn't stopped him from helping guys wade through the playbook. Rookie right tackle Andre Smith simply says, "Cook knows everything."
"Whether it's new things going in or old things, we've got a lot of young guys coming in that are rookies or first-year guys who might have questions what we do on this play or who do we go to on that play," Cook said. "As a guy who's been around for three years I feel comfortable in the system, so we can sit down and talk about it. The biggest thing is that everyone is on the same page and we talk about it together, then we get that much better."
Cook was one of the stars of Wednesday's Olympics. In the past Lewis has usually reserved a team-building day during OTAs for off campus, such as Kentucky Speedway or a water park.
This year he came up with intramurals gone wild. He split the team into two squads, one captained by Carson Palmer and Chris Crocker and the other by Whitworth and Jones. There were events like lifting (won by Cook) three-point shooting, an obstacle course, tug-of-war, a football accuracy toss, and punt catching.
Most of the events had a heavyweight, a middleweight and lightweight class, and Palmer and Crocker's team won it by winning the last event, the tug-of-war.
By most accounts the players had a good time and Palmer referred to how competitive it was. It seems to be contagious and has swept the offensive line.
"He's a beast, an animal," Williams said after working next to Cook again. "I like it. It’s the NFL. Take it back to the old school."