Out of all the plays and out of all the situations the Baltimore Ravens went through on the field during the 2012 season, I don’t think there was a unit on the team who surprised more than the offensive line did.
(Well…Rahim Moore and just about everybody else were probably more surprised at one point. But I digress…)
The transformation along the offensive line during the playoffs was one the likes of which I have never seen before. There were stretches during the season where the offensive line was borderline Chicago Bears bad. So for the unit to transform the way they did in the playoffs was incredible. While Bryant McKinnie’s insertion is often cited, veteran Matt Birk, who retired earlier in the offseason, also deserves some credit for the improvement.
So going forward, will the Ravens miss the veteran?
I personally don’t think so; at least, not from a physical standpoint. There have been times over the last few seasons – most notably in the 2011 AFC Championship Game – when Birk got handled. At the age of 37, Birk likely made the right decision by going out on top.
I personally expect second-year player Gino Gradkowski to fill in nicely, and start over A.Q. Shipley, who was aquired via trade from the Indianapolis Colts. Of course, that remains to be seen.
But from a mental standpoint, I think the Ravens will miss Birk. He was the leader of the offensive line calling the plays and putting his teammates in the right places. It will be interesting to see if Gradkowski (or Shipley) can command the huddle along the offensive line with three of four players on the line having experience of at least five years in the league.
When you add both aspects (mental and physical) together, I think the Ravens will do just fine. Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda are emerging as the best guard combo in the NFL, and will be there to help whoever turns out to be the starting center.
Remember, in 2008, the Ravens started Jason Brown, who had never started there in his NFL career, at center. All he did was lead the offensive line to a spot as one of the best in the league as the team was fourth in rushing yards, and had a solid ranking in sacks allowed at 15th in the league.
There will certainly be some growing pains, but with the veteran leadership surrounding the center position, I’m sure Gradkowski – or Shipley – will do just fine.