State Your Case: Matt Birk was a Harvard man who could play hard-core football

Matt Birk photo courtesy USA today.
Ron Borges

If Matt Birk ever reaches the Pro Football Hall of Fame he would be its most unusual entrant. He’d be the only Harvard-educated man in Canton.

But that Ivy League jumping-off point to the NFL doesn’t mean his credentials don’t warrant his inclusion.

Birk played one of the most obscure positions in the game – center – for 15 seasons, 11 with his hometown Minnesota Vikings and the final four in Baltimore, anchoring a Ravens’ line that produced four straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons for Ray Rice and a Super Bowl XLVII championship in the battle of the Harbaugh Brothers (John coaching Baltimore and Jim leading the San Francisco 49ers in 2012).

Those 1,000-yard seasons were nothing new for a Birk-anchored offensive line.

Originally drafted on the sixth round by the Vikings in 1998 (173rd choice), it took two years for Birk to evolve from Ivy League tackle to NFL center. But once the evolution was complete, and he entered the starting lineup he became one of the game’s best centers for the next 13 seasons.

Birk was named All-Pro twice and went to six Pro Bowls, which is as many as all-decade center Olin Kreutz over the same time period (2000-2010). Had he not missed the entire 2005 season due to hip surgery, it is likely Birk would have had seven. He was in the midst of a five-year run where he was selected to the Pro Bowl four times, missing only that ’05 season.

After rehabbing his injury he returned to the Pro Bowl in both 2006 and 2007, giving him six all-expense paid trips to Hawaii in his first eight years as an NFL starter.

But the real mark of an offensive lineman is: What did the backs behind him do? In Birk’s case, they wore their legs out gaining rushing yards.

Five different backs rushed for over 1,000 yards behind him, and in nine of his 11 years as a healthy starter there were 1,0000-yard rushers behind his blocking. They included not only Adrian Peterson’s first two seasons and the four best years of Rice’s career but less remembered backs like Robert Smith (1,521 yards), Michael Bennett (1,296) and Chester Taylor (1,216).

Birk’s absence in 2005 illustrated his central importance to the Vikings as their rushing offense tumbled to 27th when he was out. Upon his return the following season, Taylor ran for over 1,200 yards.

So there you go.

Long considered a forceful locker-room presence, it was Birk who chased down Randy Moss when he walked off the field late in a looming Vikings’ loss. After a stern talking-to about professionalism, Moss did not repeat that mistake again while in a Vikings’ uniform.

“Matt’s influence in his four years with the Ravens was evident to all,” Ravens’ general manager Ozzie Newsome said after Birk announced his retirement weeks after starting in Baltimore’s Super Bowl victory at age 35. “First, he played well and gave us stability on the offensive line. You can’t underestimate the line calls he made to help a relatively young offense get set to run plays the right way.

“Second, his leadership on and off the field was outstanding. We could go to young players and say, ‘Do what Matt does, and you’ll succeed. Watch him and follow him.’ His work ethic was as good as any player we had.’’

That work ethic led him to start all of the final 64 games of his career while with the Ravens. He retired with 112 consecutive starts, which was the longest active streak for a center at that time.

Following his 2005 hip surgery, Birk did not miss a start in the final seven seasons of his career. Prior to that surgery, he missed only the final four games of the 2004 season, starting every game his first four years as a starter, as well.

Overall, Matt Birk started 187 of his 210 career games, and missed only 20 in the final 13 years of his career. Coaches often say the largest part of ability is availability. Few centers of his time were more available every Sunday than Matt Birk, and when he was out there it was very likely one of his running backs was going to pile up over 1,000 yards and your team was going to move the ball.

The final seven years of his career, Birk didn’t miss a start and the runners behind him never missed rushing for over 1,000 yards.

Despite those impressive credentials, Matt Birk has yet to have been considered for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That would seem to be the least the Hall’s 48 voters should do sometime soon.

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