The Minnesota Vikings spent much of the year wearing out the phrase “Next man up.” Injuries hit on both sides of the ball, the earliest of those being veteran center John Sullivan, pushed backups into action. In a pinch to shift around the offensive line, when Sullivan went down, swingman Joe Berger was the next man up.
The website Pro Football Focus, known for its controversial metrics for ranking and rating players that has been praised by some and denounced by others, consistently rated Berger as one of the top centers all season long and, when PFF named its All-Pro team last month, Berger finished second only to Travis Frederick of the Dallas Cowboys.
In the accompanying explanation, PFF said, “How about the year from Berger? Expected to be a backup, the Viking only just loses out on the first team nod because his pass protection was weaker than that of the excellent all-rounder Fredericks.”
On Thursday, PFF announced an inaugural award given to offensive linemen. It already has an award for the best offensive lineman – named after ironman Bruce Matthews – but this year added awards for the best pass-blocking offensive lineman and best run blocker.
The run-blocking award, named after longtime Patriot John Hannah, was won by Berger. PFF writer Matt Claassen said that, by PFFs rankings, nobody was more consistent and effective in opening holes for his running backs than Berger.
“Joe Berger was largely used in a reserve role during his first few years with the Vikings before starting at right guard during the last half of the season after replacing Brandon Fusco. This preseason Berger was once again inserted into a starting spot during the preseason after a season-ending injury to center John Sullivan. Not only has Berger done a superb job replacing an elite center, but he has quietly been one of, if not the best center in the league this season. The veteran has excelled as a run blocker to earn the highest run blocking grade among centers during the last four years. Over the final half of the regular season, he earned an above-average grade of +1.0 or higher in every game, including a peak of +5.3 against a good Oakland defensive line [0.0 is average)]. He was also the most consistent center as he had the lowest percentage of negatively graded run blocks at the position. The Vikings offense primarily runs man and zone blocking schemes where center play can be crucial, and Berger’s performance was an integral part of Minnesota’s rushing success this season.”
For a player who went largely unheralded despite being under the microscope with big shoes to fill, Vikings fans can attest that Berger was one of the best centers in the league. The fact he hadn’t played center since his days in Miami, Berger not only lived up to expectations of his coaches, he exceeded them.
The Vikings knew they had an asset in Berger, but maybe nobody knew how much they had until Berger became the next man up.