Birk Leading and Learning

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In football terms, Matt Birk and Joe Flacco have not known each other for very long.

That much showed when the duo flubbed three center-to-quarterback exchanges on Tuesday, one coming on a shotgun snap that would have resulted in a sack.

Despite Birk and Flacco's ongoing development, the 12-year veteran center's impact has largely been positive. With an offensive line that boasted the NFL's youngest starting group at the start of last season, Birk brings proven leadership that will be critical to Baltimore's success up front.

"It starts with Matt Birk," said general manager Ozzie Newsome. "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.'"

Birk, in fact, has only been to the Pro Bowl six times, or more than half of his 11 seasons. Known as one of the best – if not the best – centers in the NFL, Birk filled a major need for the Ravens when Jason Brown signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the St. Louis Rams this offseason.

Even though Brown was viewed as a star in the making, Birk is already a proven commodity at a position that fosters long careers.

But Birk's career has been spent entirely with the Minnesota Vikings. They selected him in the sixth round of the 1998 NFL Draft out of Harvard, and even though he owns that Ivy League degree, Birk admits that learning a new offense hasn't been easy.

"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. I'm back to the book studying again. It's kind of nice to be, in a way, starting over again."

Birk, a regular participant in the Ravens' offseason minicamps, is demonstrating his improving grasp on a daily basis.

Listen closely, and one can hear Birk bark out the calls for the offensive line. With every practice, Birk seems to get more and more comfortable.

"I think he already settled into it, it's just a matter of getting all the terms down," explained head coach John Harbaugh. "The more you understand the terms – and he's getting Cam's [Cameron] offense down – the louder you tend to be. He's obviously a smart guy, so he's taking charge of the offensive line."

Birk, 33, thinks the "take charge" part of his job description comes from the position.

Because he is the keystone in the middle and must forge a close bond with the quarterback, the center is generally looked upon as a leader.

Especially now that he is playing in unfamiliar territory, Birk does not take that for granted.

"Kind of by default, you're going to be in a leadership position," said Birk. "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 out here, just trying to work and get better – obviously I've got a lot of ground to make up being the new guy – but, just trying to earn the trust of the group."

It won't take long for Birk to feel fully assimilated.

At the very least, Birk's hard-nosed approach to business on the gridiron fits in well with the Ravens.

"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 do have to come out here and work. As players especially, we complain because of training camp, and the heat, and its July or August 1st or whatever.

"I just think the way that this group embraces that challenge every day – good, bad, indifferent, doesn't really judge it – just keeps going out there and keeps working hard." 

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