When the Ravens signed five-time Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode a week before the regular-season opener, many expected the former Cowboy to be the insurance policy — or potential replacement — for veteran center Matt Birk.
But Gurode has instead been forced to play left guard in place of the team’s best offensive lineman Ben Grubbs, who has missed the Ravens’ last three games with a right toe injury. After veteran Mark LeVoir was ineffective in a Week 2 loss to the Titans, Gurode has filled in admirably at left guard over the last two weeks despite having never played the position — he played right guard early in his career in Dallas. He’s been especially potent as a run blocker, getting a good push off the line of scrimmage to help open running lanes for Ray Rice and Ricky Williams.
“It has been difficult, but, at the same time, you need to do your best,” Gurode said. “Going from center to guard, you know you’re used to making calls, snapping the ball with your right hand, and then you find yourself getting comfortable..at the start of the play.”
Gurode’s play is a major reason why the Ravens find themselves 3-1 at the quarter pole while dealing with a plethora of injuries. With Grubbs expected to return after the bye when Baltimore hosts the Houston Texans on Oct. 16, where does that leave the talented Gurode on the offensive line?
Is he again relegated to the bench, or would coach John Harbaugh consider working Gurode in at the center position despite the 35-year-old Birk playing solidly through the first four games?
“I think he’s another starter for us,” Harbaugh said. “And you have to have more than five starters; that’s been proven this year. You look all around the league, even [Sunday night] for the Jets. I think he’s a guy that can play as an extra lineman, he’s a guy that can play center, he’s a guy that should be able to play left guard or right guard for us. And that’s invaluable.”
Judging by Harbaugh’s comments, it appears Gurode will assume the duties formerly held by Chris Chester as the team’s interior swing lineman, capable of playing center and both guard positions. As the Ravens coach points out, it’s an important asset to have, but it’s also difficult to deem such a talented player a backup on a team priming to make a Super Bowl run.
In fairness, Birk has two-plus seasons working with Flacco and has played through chronic pain that forced him to have arthroscopic surgery to clean up the bursa sac in his left knee in early August. The rapport between a center and quarterback should not be taken for granted, and Birk is one of the most respected members of the Ravens locker room.
But many speculated Gurode would eventually replace Birk as the starter after signing a one-year, $3 million contract on Sept. 4. The 33-year-old has said all the right things since coming to Baltimore, but getting cut by the Cowboys in a cap-related moved before becoming a backup with the Ravens has to be a tough pill to swallow for a player coming off five consecutive Pro Bowl seasons.
“I’m a team guy,” Gurode said after signing with the Ravens in early September. “It’s whatever I can do for the team. Matt [Birk] is a guy who has taught me a lot over the years. He was actually at my first Pro Bowl, and we have been talking back and forth over the practice schedule and things of that nature. He has helped me fit into the offense, and I am here to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Assuming Grubbs is ready to return to his left guard position against Houston, the smart money says Gurode remains the primary backup on the interior, at least for the time being. It’s hard to imagine the Ravens messing with the overall chemistry of an offensive line that’s gelled so quickly after the late addition of Bryant McKinnie and the shift of Michael Oher to the right side. Birk’s leadership is a major reason for that success, even if his individual play doesn’t match his body of work as a Pro Bowl center in Minnesota.
There’s no guarantee that Birk’s knee holds up over 16 games with the veteran regularly reporting to the facility early in the morning for treatment prior to meetings and practices. The chances are good that the Ravens will need to call upon Gurode to fill in at center at some point this season even if Birk remains the starter.
The potential drawbacks of moving Gurode to center and the difficult conversation you’d need to have with Birk might not be worth the trouble, but it’s an interesting discussion for Harbaugh, offensive line coach Andy Moeller, and the rest of the staff to have during the bye week — even if only briefly.