By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun
5:59 PM EST, January 18, 2013
Ray Lewis' last hurrah with the Ravens opened with a packed news conference on Jan. 2, was punctuated by his last dance in front of fans at M&T Bank Stadium four days later, and has led to a number of rallying cries citing his "last ride" comment.
Matt Birk has witnessed it all, and the Ravens center said he doesn't expect that kind of farewell when he decides to retire.
"A guy like Ray Lewis, you send him off properly — press conferences, all that stuff," Birk said after Friday's practice. "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."
Since Birk joined the Ravens in 2009, the topic of retirement has been discussed toward the end of each season. But, as he would against an opposing nose guard, the Ravens' starting center has blocked questions on whether he will return for the remaining two years on the three-year, $8.5 million contract he signed in March.
"I'm a live-in-the-moment kind of guy, I really am," Birk said. "I never thought I'd be here in 2013 still playing football. I don't worry about the future, and I won't make any decisions until I have to. That's kind of my motto. Serves me well."
Talk about whether he will retire could take place again as early as next week, depending on how the Ravens fare against the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game. Birk again will face Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who had six tackles (three for losses) and sacked quarterback Joe Flacco once in last year's AFC title game.
Former Patriots and New York Jets offensive tackle Damien Woody said Birk will likely get some assistance from his guards, but he dismissed skeptics who have been critical of Birk's play.
"Is Matt Birk the same player he was six or seven years ago? No. But he's still playing at a high level," said Woody, who is now an NFL analyst for ESPN. "He's a smart guy, a tough guy, a Harvard guy. So when your skills start to diminish, that's when your cerebral [part] takes over, and that's why he's been able to play for so long. Matt Birk has had a hell of a career. He's played well this year."
At 36 years old, Birk is the Ravens' second-oldest player behind Lewis, but his value to the offensive line is arguably second to none. Unlike other offenses where the quarterback points out an opponent's middle linebacker, Birk is the one who calls out the linebacker and adjusts the protection scheme accordingly.
Having the 15-year veteran make the calls at the line of scrimmage makes it easier for the guards to pass along the protection to the tackles, right guard Marshal Yanda said.
"Matt makes it really easy for us to just focus in and play," Yanda said. "We're not worrying about the call because he always gets the call in fast. We get up there and it's bang-bang. He'll call out the Mike and then if it's something else, we'll do something different. He makes it easy for us."
NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes, a former NFL center, said Birk's ability to call out the protections also relieves Flacco of a worry on his already-crowded plate.
"We know the impact of what [inside linebacker] Ray [Lewis] means on the other side of the ball, but when you think about having a young quarterback, Matt Birk is making sure that everybody is where they need to be," Dukes said. "So all Joe Flacco has to do is drop back and throw the football, and that's a huge thing. I don't think he's getting near the credit that he deserves — much like I think Ray Lewis deserves for being that general on the field."
Birk's leadership may never have been more significant than this season as the Ravens made several changes to their offensive line. Four different players have started at left guard, and the Ravens have used two different starters at three other positions (left tackle, right tackle and right guard).
Kelechi Osemele, the second of the Ravens' two second-round picks in April who shifted from right tackle to left guard for the playoffs, said Birk's presence has made him more comfortable at his latest position.
"He's one of the smartest men — in and out of football — that I've ever met," Osemele said. "He has a lot of wisdom and a lot of experience. It's just been a heck of a lot easier to play fast with a guy like him."
Unlike his first three seasons with the Ravens when he was hampered by neck, elbow and knee injuries, Birk has been fairly healthy this year. Birk wouldn't say whether his health might convince him to return next season, but he conceded that his passion for the game hasn't waned.
"I've always believed that I can always get better," he said. "Even at this stage, I feel like I can still get stronger, faster, better at certain techniques. There's always something out there I can learn and get better at. That's part of the thing that keeps me going."
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