Nearly two weeks after losing in heartbreaking fashion to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship, Ravens center Matt Birk still can’t bring himself to watch a replay of the closing seconds of the game.
However, time heals all wounds in the 35-year-old’s mind. It wasn’t the first time the veteran offensive lineman fell one game short of the Super Bowl after he was a member of the Minnesota Vikings teams that lost conference championship games in 1998 and 2000 — two of Birk’s first three seasons in the NFL.
“You recover,” Birk said in an interview with AM 1570 WNST in Indianapolis on Friday. “I think it’ll be better once the [Super Bowl is] over. Then, everyone can move on.”
However, moving on may hold different meaning for Birk, who still hasn’t decided whether he’ll return for a 15th professional season. He is an unrestricted free agent and may have fallen short in his final chance to reach a Super Bowl when Billy Cundiff’s 32-yard attempt sailed wide left in the final seconds of Baltimore’s 23-20 loss in Foxborough.
Though the offensive line struggled in the postseason against the Texans and Patriots, Birk held up well while making 16 starts after missing the entire preseason due to arthroscopic knee surgery. The Ravens elected to sign five-time Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode as an insurance policy, but Birk was able to play at an effective level throughout the season.
As tempting as a final run at the Super Bowl would be for a man who’s never reached the NFL’s brightest stage, Birk has more on his mind than his health as he contemplates returning for another season. The father of six children — including a baby boy Birk’s wife Adrianna gave birth to back in December — may feel a stronger need to stay home with his family than to bang heads with 300-pound defensive linemen next fall.
“The first thing I’ve got to make sure is what’s best for my family,” said Birk, who plans go on vacation after the Super Bowl. “Then, the second, I [need to] feel if I’m able to play at a level or a standard that’s acceptable.”
Of course, the Ravens must decide if they want to retain Birk’s services or go in a different direction next season. With Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs also set to become an unrestricted free agent, general manager Ozzie Newsome is faced with difficult decisions in trying to improve an offensive line than struggled at times while maintaining the continuity that also helps a unit as years go by.
Even if Birk decides he wants to play one more season, the Ravens could try to re-sign the veteran Gurode — who’s expressed a desire to return to Baltimore — or explore other avenues for younger options at center.
“I will say this: Before we line up and play in 2012, there will be another center on this football team in some capacity – free agency, draft, or whatever,” Newsome said at the Ravens’ end-of-season press conference.
Should the Ravens find another answer at the center position, it’s unclear whether they’d want to retain Birk as a backup to a player who essentially took his job. However, Birk’s professionalism and reputation in the locker room would make him the perfect one-year stopgap if the Ravens draft a center in need of a season to grow before assuming starting duties.
Active in the community with his Hike Foundation and reading programs throughout the Baltimore area, Birk was in Indianapolis this weekend as a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, an honor that recognizes community service as well as excellence on the field. Despite being a Minnesota native and having played the first 11 seasons of his career for his hometown Vikings, Birk has felt a strong bond with the community since joining the Ravens in 2009.
And it’d be difficult to leave so late in his career.
“That’d be tough at this point in my life with six little kids,” Birk said. “It definitely takes its toll. The people we’ve met in Maryland and the love they’ve shown us and the way they welcomed us, it’s been absolutely fantastic. Obviously, if I decide I want to play again, I hope it’s with the Ravens. It is a top-notch organization.”
To hear the entire interview with Matt Birk on radio row at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, click HERE.