It didn't take Matt Birk long to realize he wanted to continue playing football. A few weeks after a heartbreaking loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, the Baltimore Ravens' six-time Pro Bowl center wanted to get back to work.
Despite reports stating he intended to retire, Birk said he never seriously contemplated not returning for his 15th NFL season.
"I took a week or two off and I started working out again, my normal routine," said Birk, who passed his physical Monday and signed his three-year contract, in a telephone interview with the Times. "I'll probably always have that desire to play. Let me just say the reports that I was seriously contemplating retirement that never came from me. I did say I'd think about it, but that's just natural.
"You take a little time to heal up emotionally, physically and mentally and decide if you can do it again. I talked about it with my family and I did some serious thinking. I'm of the mindset that I'm always going to do it until I ain't. It's a process. It takes time. Yeah, I'm back, but I really never left."
Birk, 35, was named the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year after the season for his community involvement during the week of the Super Bowl.
By the NFL scouting combine in late February, his agent, Joe Linta, had informed team officials that Birk wanted to return and discussions were launched. The deal was agreed to in principle Friday.
Birk said chasing a Super Bowl, something he's never reached in his career, is his primary motivating force.
"I've always had that love for the game," Birk said. "I feel fortunate at this stage of my career to be on a great team. I feel like I can contribute and we're competing for the Super Bowl year in and year out. If I didn't feel like I could still play well, then I wouldn't. It's not like I have to pep talk myself to play.
"If you're not on a team like that, then it's a job. Then, it's work. There's a certain element of fun to this. I've been fortunate to be on a lot of good teams. If I was on a bad team at this stage of my life, then it might have been a different call for me. I know we're close. We're going to have a good team again."
Signed to a contract that will take him past his 38th birthday, Birk said he doesn't know how much longer he'll play.
"The length of the contract really isn't a big deal to me," Birk said. "It was a good thing for me and the team to have the contract be for three years. You never know what will happen in the future, but it's a good thing to have a longer deal. I still feel like I've got a lot of football left in me."
Although Birk had arthroscopic knee surgery during training camp last year, he started every game.
Now, he's relatively healthy after battling neck, hip and knee injuries over the years.
"I feel great," Birk said. "Everything's still working."
Birk is scheduled to undergo minor leg surgery to address varicose veins in a month.
"I've had some little kids come up to me and ask me, ‘What's wrong with your leg?'" Birk said. "I'm like, ‘Nothing man.' It's pretty minor."
With Birk re-signed and left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie's $500,000 roster bonus picked up last Friday, the defending AFC North champions return four of their five starters from last season.
The Ravens lost Pro Bowl offensive guard Ben Grubbs, though, as he signed a five-year, $36 million contract with the New Orleans Saints that included $16 million in guaranteed money. And offensive guard Evan Mathis declined the Ravens' contract offer last Friday to rejoin the Philadelphia Eagles on a $25 million deal.
The Pro Bowl guard's departure will hurt, but center Matt Birk said that's part of the process teams have to go through in the offseason.
"Absolutely, Ben will be missed," Birk said. "He's a great player, a great guy. I think that part of the reason we had the success we had was the chemistry up front. I'm not just talking specifically the play, but the personalities, the way we work together. Ben will definitely be missed."
Birk will line up alongside McKinnie, Pro Bowl right offensive guard Marshal Yanda and right offensive tackle Michael Oher, but the Ravens will have at least one new starter.
"Continuity is important in this league," Birk said. "The way the NFL is structured, part of it is you're not able to keep all of your good players. You can't keep all the guys you want to keep."
The Ravens have lost five players, including Grubbs, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, defensive end Cory Redding and safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski since free agency began last week.
"Look at the Ravens and their track record, and they've done a nice job of replacing guys," Birk said. "They draft guys and sign guys. We'll see how it shakes out. It's good to have Bryant back and Marshall and Mike. That's four out of five, so that's important."
The Ravens don't have much salary-cap space, roughly $4.789 million under the NFL limit not including the $1.6 million given to teams due to the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys' salary-cap penalties and the $1.5 million they can borrow against future years or accounting for Birk's contract.
So, signing an expensive replacement for Grubbs is an unlikely scenario.
They could shift 6-foot-7, 330-pound Jah Reid, a third-round draft pick who played sparingly as a rookie last season, inside to left guard.
"Jah did a nice job of coming in and working hard and keeping his mouth shut as a rookie," Birk said. "He's a good guy. He cares a lot about the game and his performance. He's a very hard worker. He made some good improvement last year. I'm sure if Jah gets the opportunity he'll do a good job."
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