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Eisenberg: Matt Birk's Departure Diminishes Ravens


The only appropriate response to center Matt Birk's decision to walk away from the Ravens is … applause.

Everybody, how about a hand?

After playing high-level NFL football for 15 years, earning six Pro Bowl selections along the way, Birk finally experienced the sensation of Super Bowl confetti falling on his shoulders earlier this month. He had put off his retirement a year ago to take one more crack at getting to the top, and lo and behold, he did. It's the perfect way to go out.

Birk deserves it.

A father of six and recent Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winner, he is smart, funny and level-headed, a community-oriented, hands-on family man as well as a top player; quite simply one of the classiest people ever to put on the Ravens' uniform.

He even walked away the right way Friday, as a certified adult would, by using his announcement to call attention to a community reading center at an elementary school his foundation supports.

Some fans probably aren't sorry to see him go because he is 36, no longer a Pro Bowl player and the Ravens can use the salary cap space he is saving them (reportedly $2.05 million) by retiring. But that's misguided logic. Birk's departure, while fitting and appropriate, doesn't help the Ravens; it diminishes them. It's something else for them to overcome as they set out to try to win another title in 2013.

The Ravens like the tenacity and intelligence of his heir apparent, Gino Gradkowski, their 2012 fourth-round draft pick, but Gradkowski is smaller and has never started a game, and it remains to be seen whether he is ready. Gradkowski did grade out well in the season finale in his only extended regular-season look.

But either way, Birk will be missed.

When asked recently what enabled the Ravens to win in the end this season, General Manager Ozzie Newsome identified leadership as an especially crucial factor. Birk was a major part of that in his subtle way.

"Life without Matt Birk is going to be a very Difficult challenge," tackle Michael Oher tweeted Friday. "can't imagine not playing with him. Best leader ever. Will be missed!"

Think about it: Signed as a free agent before the 2009 season, Birk never missed a game in Baltimore, starting 64 straight in the regular season plus all playoff contests. Although he had his share of injuries and chronic physical issues, he always played through them, stayed on the field and did his job. He was a pro's pro, the anti-diva, never complaining about his issues.

He was brought in to fill a hole, and he filled it without fail for the life of his first contract with the team and the first year of a second deal. How many free agent signees can say that?

No doubt about it, Birk goes down as one of the Ravens' best signings ever.

He was the quarterback of the line, the one who called the blocking schemes, working in tandem with Joe Flacco to set the offense before every snap. It's a thinking man's job, and Birk excelled at it.

He played well this season – as well as at any time in his Baltimore tenure, according to Head Coach John Harbaugh. A year after the Patriots' Vince Wilfork pushed him around in the 2011 AFC title game, leading some to speculate that it was time for him to go, he had a strong game against Wilfork in this year's rematch.

Toward the end of his final season, with typical self-effacement, Birk contrasted his possible pending retirement with that of his more heralded teammate.

"A guy like Ray Lewis, you send him off properly — press conferences, all that stuff," Birk said. "Guys like me, I just disappear, and then you're sitting around one day wondering, 'Hey, whatever happened to that guy whose locker used to be over here?'  That's how it goes."

Funny stuff, as usual. But in the Ravens' locker room, where Birk was known best around here, they know better than to soft-pedal the departure of such a valued and valuable teammate.

They know it's a big deal, but also beautiful, a moment that warrants applause.

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