As a member of the Minnesota Vikings’ 1998 draft class that included the phenomenal wide receiver Randy Moss, Harvard center Matt Birk took winning for granted at the beginning of his career.
Playing in an explosive offense that included the likes of Moss, Cris Carter, Robert Smith, Randall Cunningham, and Daunte Culpepper, Birk made two trips to the NFC championship game in his first three seasons. However, the Vikings fell short of the Super Bowl in both 1998 and 2000 as Birk was just establishing himself as a six-time Pro Bowl center on the Minnesota offensive line.
There would be other opportunities, Birk thought at the time, but the 14-year veteran — his last three seasons spent with the Ravens — is still seeking another conference championship appearance, let alone his first trip to the Super Bowl.
“At that time, I probably didn’t know what it meant or just how precious is was, and I haven’t been back since,” Birk said. “We have this opportunity in front of us to be in the playoffs and be in the second round now. You certainly don’t take it for granted, and as you get closer to the end, it just becomes that much more precious.”
Much like linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, Birk feels the urgency to win this season with his football future unclear. His contract expires after the season, and he and his wife Adrianna have six children, including a boy born just a few weeks ago. Even if Birk wants to continue playing, it’s unclear whether the Ravens, or any other contending team, will want a 36-year-old center for the 2012 season.
Unlike those near misses in the infancy of his NFL career, Birk fully realizes this playoff run may be his last chance to win a championship.
Despite going largely unnoticed, Birk’s play has been commendable after starting the season on a concerning note. He missed the entire preseason after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to clean out the bursa sac in his knee in early August. The procedure prompted the Ravens to sign five-time Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode just days before the start of the regular season.
At the time, it appeared to be a question of when, not if, Gurode would supplant Birk as the Ravens’ starting center, but he made all 16 starts, remaining healthy other than a sprained shoulder suffered against the Cleveland Browns in Week 13. The good fortune allowed the veteran Gurode to serve as the team’s top reserve on the interior line, making five starts in place of injured left guard Ben Grubbs in the first half of the season.
Despite early-season struggles due to the late addition of veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie and the injury to Grubbs, the offensive line found its stride in the second half of the season, with Birk providing much-needed veteran leadership to complement the stellar interior play of Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda and Grubbs.
“From where we were a week before the start of the season, we’ve come a long way,” Birk said. “[We had] a couple pieces missing there during training camp, but I feel like we’ve gotten better as the season has gone on – certainly just the comfort level, chemistry, cohesion, whatever you want to call it.”