METAIRIE - Having to plug an untested center into the lineup in the middle of a game isn’t the most comforting thought for the head coach, offensive line coach, or, more importantly, the quarterback.
For proof, all one had to do was watch the second half of Monday night’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. Working out of the shotgun, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo avoided disaster when he had to flag down three errant snaps from center Phil Costa.
A little more than 24 hours earlier, the New Orleans Saints had no problems whatsoever after second-year pro Brian de la Puente was pressed into service when starting center Olin Kreutz injured his left knee late in the first quarter against the Houston Texans.
What’s more amazing was the fact that de la Puente, a guard by trade, had never played a snap in an NFL regular-season game at either position.
But when it was time to go, de la Puente, a member of the Saints’ practice squad last season, didn’t blink. Neither did he say a word, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer said.
“He said nothing,” a smiling Kromer said Wednesday. “He was ready. He just looked at me and it was like, ?Good.’ But he didn’t say a word.”
Instead of talking, de la Puente took full advantage of his opportunity.
He played the game’s final 59 snaps and handled each flawlessly, including a key stretch in the fourth period when the Saints, who trailed 26-17 earlier in the quarter, went to the no-huddle.
“It was exciting for me, but I prepare every week like I’m going to play,” said de la Puente, who, after earning a roster spot this summer, has been the backup at center and both guards for the first three games. “I play all three interior positions, so versatility is my niche here right now.”
But he hadn’t been called on until Kreutz got banged up. De la Puente said he was standing with Kromer on the sideline when Kreutz got up slowly after a play, then put a brace on and went back out for the next series.
“He’s a tough guy,” de la Puente said of Kreutz, who didn’t practice Wednesday. “It’s something serious for him not to play. But he wasn’t feeling right and he didn’t have lateral movement. That’s when the coaches said, ?You’re in. You’re up. Let’s go.’
“To be honest, I just wanted to get the first snap out of the way and get the first hit,” he said. “It was like, ?I’m in, let’s worry about the play.’ I wasn’t nervous. I really didn’t have time to think about it, which was a good thing.”
What made his debut nice, he said, was snapping the ball to Drew Brees and having the Saints come from behind for a 40-33 win.
While he was on the practice squad and got extensive work in training camp and the preseason, he was on the scout squad and the second-team offense and hadn’t worked a lot with Brees.
“We make an effort every week to get some snaps at practice, but not a whole lot,” de la Puente said. “During training camp that (first) week with all the free agents that were here, we actually got to get some good reps.
“But it had been a few weeks. We took a couple before we went out there. There were no missed snaps. A lot of credit goes to Drew; he hung in there with me, and everything went well.”
“That was big for a guy that hasn’t been here that long and had been on the practice squad,” Brees said. “Kudos to Brian, he did a great job preparing himself even though he didn’t get a lot of reps during the week.”
As a result, Kromer saw the things he thought he saw in the preseason.
He didn’t get to see de la Puente in full pads last year because they often work in shoulder pads and shorts during the regular season. But he certainly was impressed when he got a more extensive look at the 6-foot-3, 306-pound de la Puente, who had a brief stint with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008.
“The practices in the regular season don’t get too physical,” Kromer said. “So it wasn’t until training camp that I knew what he could do physically. He’s got natural football skills.”
It took 2-1/2 years and five teams for de la Puente to find a home. In that time, he was waived or released eight times.
“It has been a long road. ? It has been a different road than a lot of guys,” said de la Puente, who will start Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars if Kreutz can’t go. “I appreciate it a little more just because I’ve been through a bunch of teams. It’s kind of surreal.
“I kind of don’t want to step back and think about it,” he said. “It’s not really a pat yourself-on-the-back type thing. Let’s keep working to the next thing.”
And try to make sure nothing goes wrong at such a crucial position.
“It’s nice when you know you have a guy like that, who can step in and you feel like you don’t miss a beat,” Brees said when asked about Romo’s problems Monday night.
“In the end, you want to make sure you have a guy in there that knows what the heck is going on, and you feel comfortable taking a snap from him under center or in the gun. The last thing you want to be thinking about is that.”