One of the selling points about being a celebrity in the National Football League is the recognition you get. Players develop signature moves along the way, from Jared Allen’s calf roping sack move to Cam Newton’s pulling of his jersey in an homage to Superman.
But with all of the attention players get, some players can fly under the radar in planned anonymity. Such is the life of an offensive lineman. If you go off game tapes and player evaluation grades, it’s hard to argue that Minnesota Vikings center Joe Berger has been among the best centers in the league in 2015.
Despite being expected to be a key reserve at both center at guard, when starting center John Sullivan went down, Berger got thrown into the spotlight. Yet, through it all, he has remained largely anonymous despite being elite at his position. He understands the lot in life of NFL offensive linemen and they learn to appreciate and embrace their lack of fame because, more times than not, having their names mentioned isn’t typically a positive thing on game day.
“That’s part of being an offense lineman,” Berger said. “For us, it’s good not to hear your name called out too often. More times than not when you hear your name or your number called out, it’s because you did something bad, so quietly doing your business is a good thing.”
When Sullivan went down, there was a sinking feeling among NFL observers and fans alike that, compounded with the loss of Phil Loadholt that the Vikings were woefully ill-equipped to make up for the loss. But the Vikings had a secret weapon that had been hiding in plain sight – Berger.
Although Berger hadn’t played much center for the Vikings, it was his natural position and he felt very comfortable stepping in for Sully.
He knew it. His coaches knew it. Everyone else would simply have to learn it.
“Coming from Miami, I was primarily a center, so that part wasn’t hard for me,” Berger said. “I was comfortable at center coming here, but got most of my playing time at guard was because of injuries we had here and became more of a swingman guy. Whenever you move to a different position, it takes a little bit to get back to it, but I really feel comfortable with it. I thought I played efficiently right away, but the more playing time you get, the higher your comfort level.”
One of the other components that made things work for the Vikings offensive line was that Berger had spent much of last season at right guard next to Mike Harris, who had replaced Loadholt when he was lost to a pectoral injury.
That familiarity paid off when Berger and Harris found themselves lining up next to each other again, this time just one position farther inside.
“It starts with Joe,” Harris said. “He’s done a great job leading us. The line coaches have done a great job because we knew in the preseason were going to be without Phil and Sully and they said that we had the guys already here to get the job done. We didn’t need to bring in somebody from the outside. We all became students of the game. We take a lot of pride in being able to make calls based on what we see and use that to win our one-on-one battles.”
Berger said his working relationship with both Harris and Brandon Fusco, who lines up to Berger’s left, was invaluable in helping the new-look offensive line coming together as a unit.
“Last year, I finished playing next to Mike and I’ve played with Fusco since he got here, so there was some familiarity there as far as communication went with those guys,” Berger said. “We’ve been next to each other every game and the longer you player next to each the smoother things seem to go. That’s a benefit that everybody wants to have.”
Their experience together has helped Berger and Harris work seamlessly as a tandem. The left hand knows what the right hand is doing and there doesn’t have to be a lot of communication to get the point across.
Harris knows what to expect from Berger and it works both ways. While they largely are involved in hand-to-hand combat with the defender lined up opposite them, the physicality of the line does the speaking for them because they know how the players next to them are going to respond.
“We don’t have to talk because we know what the other guy is going to do,” Harris said. “Joe told me that he’s played next to me longer than he has anyone in his long career. I’m honored to play next to him. He’s made me a better football player.”
As the Vikings continue their run to the postseason, one of the unheralded groups of players has been one of the most consistent and impressive. They’ve learned to work together to make the unit better than the sum of the individual parts, and Berger wouldn’t have it any other way.
The question now is what happens when Sullivan and Loadholt return. There are only five starting spots available. That’s a problem everyone associated with the Vikings is looking forward to having. There’s nothing wrong with depth and competition. It’s what helps make good teams great.
“That is what makes the NFL great is competition,” Berger said. “No matter what, there’s going to be competition, whether from within or finding other players. You want the best players you can find and push them with somebody else. Any time guys are playing and you have competition, it helps the team as a whole.”