When John Harbaugh was hired as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, he immediately implemented a philosophy that has served as the team's core principle over the past several seasons.
"At the heart of football are three foundations. First is the TEAM, second is the TEAM, and third is the TEAM. We'll stick with that from beginning to end."
In his 15th professional season, Matt Birk has started an incredible 104-consecutive games, the longest active streak among NFL centers. At 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, the six-time Pro Bowler has been a fixture on the Ravens offensive line since signing as a free agent in 2009. After entering the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 1998, Birk has played in 202 games, establishing himself as one of the NFL's most reliable, effective and intelligent players.
What's the best TEAM you've ever been on?
"My senior year in college [at Harvard], we were undefeated in the Ivy League. At Harvard, there's no athletic scholarships, so once you get in, there's nothing holding you to play football. We had 36 guys start in my freshman class. Over the years, players left – for various reasons – and by my senior season, we had 12 left. That last year, we were 9-1 and won the Ivy League Championship. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and a core group of guys staying together who kept on grinding to accomplish our goal."
What is the greatest strength of this 2012 Ravens TEAM?
"Its willingness to work hard, and that comes from Coach 'Harbs.' We're a team that likes to go to work. If you don't like to work hard, you're not going to be here. It's a great approach to have: Always work hard, because it will pay off."
What has John Harbaugh taught you about TEAM?
"'Harbs' definitely has a plan and a well-thought-out idea of what he wants his team to look like, be like and play like. The great thing about 'Harbs' is that he's very honest. He is who he is. He deals in the truth. He'll tell you when he's right, he'll tell you when he's wrong – and he'll do it in front of everybody. Sometimes when you admit that you make a mistake, some people say, 'Oh, you don't want to show weakness.' But actually, that's showing strength. 'Harbs' also has an ability of knowing when you need a pat on the back and when you need a kick in the rear – as an individual or team. At this point of my career, I really appreciate who he is and how he handles this team. He's a fun guy to play for."
Three words that describe a John Harbaugh-led TEAM:
"Tough. Intense. Enthusiastic."
When have you been most proud of a Ravens TEAM?
"One moment that sticks out is in '09 when we were playing at Minnesota. We were down early and fought back with a chance to win it on a field goal, but we missed the kick. That was our third loss in a row. We made a great comeback, but it was a really tough loss. I remember being in the locker room after the game – and we felt terribly about that loss – but I remember Coach 'Harbs' telling us we'd be OK, especially if we kept fighting like that. I remember walking out of that locker room with my head held high – probably as high as it's ever been after a loss. I was proud of that team and the effort we showed that day."
Who is your favorite all-time TEAM?
"The Minnesota Twins teams of '87 and '91, winning those World Series. Being a middle school kid during those times and watching Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek was fun. It always seemed like while they may not have had the most talent, those guys were all about the team and playing for one another."
Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta
Looking back to 2009 when the Ravens signed Matt as a free agent, what football attributes of his attracted the TEAM most?
"Matt's got good size, and he'd played against a lot of 3-4 defensive schemes in the past. We felt he'd match up well against big nose tackles like [Pittsburgh's] Casey Hampton. He's a very, very smart guy and has a great feel for all these different zone blitzes and exotic schemes that we see. He also stays on his feet and is a great athlete. At that time, we had a younger offensive line, and we knew he'd bring leadership and help everyone work together. With his experience, Pro Bowl history and the fact that he'd been on some really good teams, we felt having a veteran like him would really benefit us."
Guard/Tackle Kelechi Osemele
As a rookie, how has Matt's leadership served the TEAM well?
"His leadership is outstanding. He's always on time and is a great communicator on the field. He sees things that we don't even see, and he's able to alert the coaches of everything that's going on. His leadership is invaluable because he has so much experience."
What is Matt's best attribute as a football player?
"Flexibility. He seems to work on that a lot, and that's one of the reasons he's been able to play for so long. Durability and flexibility are his strong suits – as well as his football IQ, which is outstanding."
Is there a play you've seen Matt make at which you've marveled?
"On plays where there is nothing really tipping off what a defender is going to do, Matt is able to redirect or adjust, like on a middle cross run play. It's crazy that he sees it, is able to react so quickly and then prevent the defender from shooting the gap."
Outside Linebacker Terrell Suggs
As a teammate, what makes Matt so valuable?
"He's a guy who plays at a high level on the field, but the influence he has on everyone in the locker room – from a leadership standpoint – should not be understated. Matt's someone who helps build that chemistry and camaraderie amongst us – the things that are crucial to having a successful team. Everyone enjoys being around him, and I can honestly say that it's a pleasure having Matt Birk as a teammate."
What is Matt's best football trait?
"You can't teach smarts, and his football IQ is off the charts. He's the reason our offensive line and Ray Rice have had so much success. Led by Matt, they know what they're doing out there."
Kicker Justin Tucker
Matt's locker is near yours. Explain why he's had such an influence on you?
"Matt is clearly a leader on the field, and as anybody else would say, he's also a leader in the locker room. One of the ways he leads that stands out to me is as a spiritual leader. He always does the readings at our team mass before a game. He's also started a discussion group amongst several players on the team that gives us a chance to talk about something other than football. We talk about our faith and ways to lead our lives as good examples for our families and friends outside of football."