BALTIMORE MD - DECEMBER 05: Matt Birk #77 of the Baltimore Ravens prepares to snap the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium on December 5 2010 in Baltimore Maryland. Pittsburgh won 13-10. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
When the Baltimore Ravens signed veteran center Matt Birk in 2009 many fans thought of him as a veteran stop gap in the absence of the recently departed Jason Brown. Birk was originally signed to a three year deal worth about 12 million dollars. In Birk, the Ravens filled a need with a veteran six time Pro bowler and two time All Pro that was thought to be nearing the end of his career. Although the team knew that his best years were behind him, they felt he would be a reliable center and help develop the younger players they planned to bring on in the future.
The Ravens got more than they bargained for though with Birk. Not only was the six time Pro Bowler and two time All Pro still able to play at a high level but he was the Minnesota Vikings Man Of The Year six times as well and continued to impress as a player and a man off the field in Baltimore. Matt was also a recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award as a Viking and Walter Peyton Man Of The Year in 2011 as a Raven as well. The Harvard graduate was also named the sixth smartest athlete in the world by the Sporting News last year.
On January 15, 2012, CBS analyst Charlie Casserly stated on the pregame broadcast of the Texans vs. Ravens that Birk will retire at the end of the season. However Birk's retirement was short lived as on March 16th, 2012 he signed a new three year deal with Baltimore. Although he is currently 35 years old the former 6th round pick is still able to play at a high level on the field.
Birk played very well at the beginning of 2011 until he sustained a knee injury that hampered him for the second half of the season. I think that is why he pondered retirement for a brief period. In the two playoff games for the Ravens he got pushed around a bit. Vince Wilfork had a career game lined up against Birk in the AFC Championship game and almost single-handedly put a stop to the Ravens offense.
However, Matt Birk knows how to come back from an injury. In 2004, Birk missed the last 4 games of the season due to surgery to treat a sports hernia. He missed the entire 2005 season with a hip injury that required surgery. Birk returned to form in 2006, again anchoring the Vikings offensive line from the center spot, and earning his fifth career Pro Bowl selection. Although a bit older I have confidence that he will again come back and anchor an offensive line that is in need of a stable veteran presence.
Yesterday we talked about Marshal Yanda and how he is the best lineman the Ravens have and that is true, physically. Mentally however, Birk is the player that may be the most important to the line in 2012. He is extremely smart and has all the experience in the world for the Ravens young lineman to learn from. Baltimore drafted two young interior lineman Kelechi Osemele and Gino Gradkowski that need to take all the mentoring they can get while players like Matt Birk are still on the roster. Osemele has a chance to be starting right next to Birk week one if he shows he is ready in training camp and the preseason. Gradkowski on the other hand will, most likely, be Birk's replacement one day and could not have a better player to learn from.
For now Matt Birk is the player to watch. If he can return to his 2009, 2010 form this season the Ravens line will be much better for it and so will quarterback Joe Flacco. If not, the Ravens have several young players who will be eagerly awaiting a chance to crack the starting line up.