Ravens’ Birk assuming leadership role

Street Talk Ravens’ Birk assuming leadership role

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WESTMINSTER — There were a few primary reasons why Matt Birk signed with the Baltimore Ravens, and they weren’t confined to monetary inducements.

The six-time Pro Bowl center was swayed by more than a three-year, $12 million contract that included $6 million in guaranteed money.

For Birk, a Harvard man who likes to roll up his sleeves, get dirty and roughhouse with the biggest, meanest nose guards in the league, his decision to leave the Minnesota Vikings after 11 seasons was triggered by two major factors.

One, he identified a kindred spirit in the AFC North squad because of its collective work ethic and intensity.

Two, he felt like the Ravens were built to contend behind an intimidating defense and a rising quarterback in Joe Flacco after making it to the AFC championship game last season.

"It just seems like it’s a blue-collar, lunch-pail group of guys," Birk said. "Football is one of those games where there are really no shortcuts. You have to get out here and you have to work. I love the way this group embraces that challenge every day."

The 33-year-old is regularly granted the opportunity to take a day off every three days as a member of the Ravens’ 30-and-over club. However, he opts to skip the creature comforts of his hotel room to sweat it out on the practice field and get a few mental reps.

He’s traditionally the lone veteran who shows up for work even when he’s excused, showing up to run and lift weights before the morning practice.

"I think it says that he is really trying to tie that offensive line together," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He wants them to be a unit. If he’s out there working calls and talking in the background, he can do that. .. He’s obviously a smart guy, so he’s taking charge of the offensive line.”

And part of the impetus for Birk’s sterling attendance is self-motivated.

He has to familiarize himself with an entirely new offense and absorb offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s intricate playbook.

It’s his responsibility to make the line calls and get the rest of the offensive line accustomed to how he reads blitz packages and changes blocking schemes on the fly.

Communication is paramount.

"It’s just like being a rookie again," Birk said. "For years, to be quite honest, I never really had to crack my playbook. And now I go after lunch, after dinner, at night, all those things. It’s kind of nice to be, in a way, starting over again."

Birk has started 123 career games and once generated a consecutive game streak of 67 games.

The concept of being strong up the middle hasn’t escaped the Ravens’ attention. They envision Birk operating as a building block to solidify the offense with every snap.

It starts with Matt Birk,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “To have an experienced guy like that, the technician that he is, the guy that will be able to direct the traffic on the offensive line, I think is huge. They have a guy in the room that they can look to and say, ‘If this is a seven- or eight-time Pro Bowler, and this is the way he works, then I want to be like him.’”

Praised for his leadership and tenacity at the line of scrimmage, Birk has assumed a leadership role on offense even though he’s only been on the team for a few months after replacing stalwart center Jason Brown after Brown signed with the St. Louis Rams.

It hasn’t taken Birk long to make a big impression on his teammates.

"He’s what we need on this offense," running back Ray Rice said. "He’s a guy who’s going to demand perfection from the other guys. He’s making calls, he’s helping Joe out. And he definitely helps the running backs, because when we know what the line is doing, it makes it easier to run the ball."

One pivotal aspect of Birk’s game that hasn’t gone perfectly has been the center-quarterback exchange. During one practice, there were three muffed snaps between Birk and Flacco.

"We’re working on that timing," Birk said. "To be delicate, I have to get used to where Joe puts his hands."

While that might be a work in progress, Birk isn’t.

The former sixth-round draft pick with the Ivy League degree hasn’t missed a start since being sidelined for the entire 2005 season with a hip injury that required surgery.

So far, he has made a smooth transition to his new environment.

"It’s going great," Flacco said. "Matt knows what it takes to have a good offense, and he knows how much work he’s going to have put in to get to learn a new offense. I feel very comfortable with him."

Birk has created a lot of confidence already as Brown’s replacement, which is a major statement considering how highly regarded Brown was in the locker room.

And Birk’s easygoing manner has served him well since his arrival. 

In an unassuming manner, he has worked hard to earn his teammates’ faith as a viable blocker and through his low-key, friendly personality.

"I think of myself as a new guy trying to fit in," Birk said. "Obviously, as a center, you have to learn the offense and you have to make the calls. So kind of by default, you’re going to be in a leadership position.

"Everyone thinks because I’m older, more experienced, automatically that makes me a leader. You know, I don’t think so. I don’t think you’re anointed as leader, I think it’s something you earn. I’m just trying to earn the trust of the group."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital

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Aaron Wilson

About Aaron Wilson

Aaron Wilson covers the NFL for National Football Post as well as the Baltimore Ravens for The Carroll County Times and Ravens24x7.com. He has previously covered the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans and has covered the NFL since 1997.  He has won several regional writing awards, including, most recently, Best Sports News Story for the state of Maryland in voting conducted by the Associated Press managing editors. 

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