Casual fans of the Minnesota Vikings fans may not know who Joe Berger is, but over the next eight weeks or more, they are going get acclimated with the 11th-year offensive lineman.
Berger has been a valuable swingman for the Vikings for the previous four seasons, serving as a special teams player and fill-in starter in his four seasons with the Vikings.
Vikings fans have seen him primarily as a guard. In 2011, he started seven games – one at center, four at right guard and two at left guard. In 2013, he started one game at each guard position. Last year, he started the final nine games of the season at right guard, replacing Brandon Fusco.
While guard would seem to be his position of choice, Berger insists he still feels like a center. Before coming to the Vikings, he made 20 starts at center in his final two seasons with the Dolphins and he feels center is his more natural position despite having more Vikings experience as a guard.
“That was my position in Miami before I came here,” Berger said. “I was primarily a center. You guys have seen on game days more at guard here, but in my mind, I’ve been more of a center than anything else.”
Berger’s transition into the starting lineup over the final three preseason games after back issues sidelined starter John Sullivan has been relatively seamless. He had to transition to make the adjustment to playing guard the last few seasons but hasn’t felt any learning curve or growing pains returning to his natural position.
“Given time at any one position, I feel I can get comfortable there,” Berger said. “Last year, you guys asked the same question about (me playing) right guard. At the time, maybe I wasn’t as comfortable. But with some time there I felt comfortable. I’ve spent three weeks at center with these guys and I feel comfortable and ready to go.”
His teammates have seen the same work ethic and no drop-off in production, despite having very big shoes to fill replacing Sullivan. Left tackle Matt Kalil has worked with Berger the last three seasons and admires the veteran leadership he brings, as well as the versatility to play different positions at a high level.
“He’s a good player,” Kalil said. “That’s why we’ve had him here. He’s going to get the job done. He’s a physical, tough player. He’s got years of experience. It’s a good replacement to replace Sully with. We’re not worried about it.”
Having to switch out positions to help put out a potential fire is also something that hasn’t been a problem for Berger, who has become adept at playing any of the three inside positions.
Last year, Fusco watched as Berger took over his spot after he was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. While Fusco was itching to be in the lineup, he was confident that Berger would more than hold up his end of the bargain. As Berger moves into another starting role in the middle of the line alongside Fusco, he maintains his confidence in what Berger can accomplish.
“This is nothing new for Joe,” Fusco said. “He’s been around the NFL for 10 years heading into this season. I know in my career I’ve learned something new every year that I believe has made me a better pro. You don’t last 10 years in the NFL if you don’t have talent. The Vikings have seen that. That’s why he been with us for five years now.”
What may be the secret ingredient in maintaining a high level of proficiency on the offensive front is that Sullivan’s injury wasn’t thrust upon the team during the season. Sullivan was hurt in mid-August and it gave Berger the chance to work with the first-team offensive line for three weeks as a dress rehearsal for when the games start for real this week.
A lot is made about continuity on an offensive line being a huge key to offensive success and the four weeks of taking first-team reps alongside the players that will be flanking him Monday has been an unseen benefit that will help the front line have the sort of familiarity it needs to succeed as a unit.
“As an O-line, the more time you get together, the better it’s going to be,” Berger said. “It’s been good to be able to work with them. We’ve got some new guys in there, young guys. They’ve all been great to work with. It’s a good room, obviously missing a few key guys that we wish were there. The O-line room, we have to go ahead.”
The timetable for Sullivan’s return remains up in the air. After having back surgery this week, he was placed on injured reserve with the designation to return. What that means is that the earliest Sullivan could return would be Nov. 8 against the St. Louis Rams, but there remain some questions as to whether Sullivan’s injury will be longer lasting.
If it is a year-ender, Berger will be asked to be the man in the middle for the entire season. If Sullivan can return, Berger will go back to his role as the next man up for any of the interior line positions. While he is happy for the opportunity to show what he can do and be a critical part in the success of the Vikings offense, he has learned his role over the years and is willing to cede his starting job when Sullivan is deemed to be ready to reclaim it.
“We hope John heals quickly and can get back when he can,” Berger said. “He’ll be missed while he’s gone.”
It will be up to Berger to help reduce the pain of losing Sullivan by maintaining the same level of play and, from head coach Mike Zimmer on down, the Vikings are convinced he can more than just fill in for his downed comrade.