Gino Gradkowski looks back on his first year as the Ravens' starting center as a learning process. Gradkowski played every single offensive snap. He had his ups and his downs.
But there's one important distinction in his and Head Coach John Harbaugh's mind that may make Gradkowski the front-runner for the job in 2014.
He got better.
"There were some things I could have done better this year, but I feel like I continued to get better each week, which is good," Gradkowski said Monday. "I'm proud of the way I fought through some tough times and learned from my mistakes."
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Gradkowski started the year with five straight negative performances. His play leveled out after that. He had five games with either neutral or positive grades.
Gradkowski had a tough time with the New York Jets' talented interior line, as well as talented Vikings rookie Shariff Floyd and Lions' Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Gradkowski finished the year with one of his best performances in Cincinnati, particularly in run blocking.
On the year, Gradkowski received a -5.9 on his run blocking and -14.2 in pass blocking from PFF.
"I think it was a matter of getting more comfortable in there," Gradkowski said. "The game slowed down for me. I was able to play the game like I know how to play it."
Specifically, Gradkowski said he got more comfortable making calls at the line of scrimmage and reading opposing defenses – both things that come with veteran experience.
Even Matt Birk, who retired last offseason after 15 seasons and six Pro Bowls, said he struggled during his first couple of seasons.
Birk ended his career like "an offensive line coach playing center," according to Head Coach John Harbaugh. Birk would tell every lineman his job before the play. But acquiring that skill takes time.
Harbaugh also said he saw "major progress" from Gradkowski in terms of his communication.
"Gino would probably be the first to tell you that we had a lot of problems," Harbaugh said. "That was part of the reason that we didn't have a hat on a hat a lot of times early on, and that was a tough transition for us.
"And yet, Gino fights through it, and by the end of the year, he is making all those calls and doing a good job with that. [He is] a really smart guy, huge student of the game."
Harbaugh said Run Game Coordinator Juan Castillo would put Gradkowski in front of the offensive line meetings and entire offensive meetings to communicate a lot of the calls they're going to hear during the game, making sure they're all on the same page.
"I've watched a number of those meetings, and he just does a great job with it," Harbaugh said. "So, he's grown a lot, and [it's] something he should be able to build on."
Still, there's a good chance Gradkowski will have to compete for his starting job again next season. He beat out the more experienced A.Q. Shipley last summer.
Harbaugh said there will be a competitive situation at every spot on the offensive line except right guard, where Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda resides. That includes center.
Gradkowski will likely get pushed by Ryan Jensen, who didn't play a snap as a sixth-round rookie partly due to an injured foot, Shipley and possibly another veteran the team could sign.
"If I have to compete again for the job next year, I will," Gradkowski said.
"That's out of my control, and that's no problem. That's just how this business is. Every year you have to compete. I think I gained a lot of great experience that will help me next year. I look forward to continuing to prove myself as the long-term guy here hopefully."