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Birk steps right in at center for Vikings

In his first season as a starter, he replaces Jeff Christy well enough to join him in the Pro Bowl.

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Minnesota Vikings center Matt Birk, right, makes a futile attempt but can't reach Green Bay Packer's Darren Sharper who races 47 yards after intercepting a Daunte Culpepper pass intended for Cris Carter during a December game.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2001


MINNEAPOLIS -- Without glaring statistics and highlight reel moments, it's hard for offensive linemen to make an immediate impression on the Pro Bowl circuit.

It's virtually impossible for centers. They have to pay their dues. Develop their reputations.

This makes all the more impressive the feat of Vikings center Matt Birk, who will have his hands full trying to help contain the Giants' defensive line in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

Birk, a native of St. Paul, Minn., and a graduate of Harvard, vaulted into the starting role when Pro Bowl center Jeff Christy, along with Pro Bowl left guard Randall McDaniel, left to sign with the Bucs before the start of the season.

By the end of the season, Minnesota's offense was still clicking and Birk was heading to his first Pro Bowl as an alternate.

When he got home the day of the announcement, 38 messages were on his answering machine.

"You can go back and look at what I said on the record at the start of the season," offensive line coach Mike Tice said. "I said Matt was going to be a Pro Bowler. The only thing is, I didn't mean this year. I thought he would get there eventually but certainly not this soon.

"He played some tackle for us in his rookie year and then played some last year but not very much. He learned a lot from Christy. Jeff is a very bright guy, and he helped Matt learn the calls and taught him the system. And this year (Birk) came in in February and went right to work. It goes back to him being a smart guy and a blue-collar kid from St. Paul. He's just a phenomenal young player and is going to have a tremendous career."

After one season of snapping the ball to quarterback Daunte Culpepper, Birk finds himself under a microscope. He was there Saturday when the Saints came to town with their NFL-best 66 sacks and got waxed 34-16. With the task of helping to contain Pro Bowl defensive tackle La'Roi Glover (17 sacks), Birk more than held his own; the Saints never got to Culpepper.

"It was definitely a good game, and we obviously protected Daunte well. But I don't think it was our best game," Birk said. "I guess you always like to think your best game is yet to happen."

Birk's rapid recognition is a product of his hard work and attention to detail, but it was helped along by what the Vikings did after Christy and McDaniel left.

They simply promoted Birk, who had been Christy's understudy the past two years.

"Those guys left. And I was told that I had to play center, and that's my job," Birk said. "It's my job, and I go out there and try to do the best I can no matter who was here. I don't care who was here the year before."

By promoting from within, the Vikings also ensured there would be fewer problems with the transition.

"It was easy from the standpoint that we still had great veterans like (right tackle) Korey Stringer, (left tackle) Todd Steussie, (right guard) David Dixon and (left guard) Corbin Lacina," Birk said. "I just came in and wanted to earn their respect and their confidence in me to be their center and make all the calls. I don't want to bring the group down. The talent that we had, (considering) the talent that left, there was a high level of play that had become expected from this offensive line, and I didn't want to bring down the group."

Stringer, himself a first-time Pro Bowler, said Birk's immediate impact was a product of him accepting his role and understanding "the group mentality."

"(There's one way) to make a statement and make a point in a group mentality, and that's through hard work," Stringer said. "You don't really have a say unless you're carrying your water, and that's what everyone has done. Everybody has carried their water and been allowed to have a voice ... and we've grown together."

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