The life of the NFL backup can be a lonely one and, at the same time, a little nerve-wracking. If things go as planned, backups often aren’t asked to contribute to the team. But, at the same, when an injury happens, they are expected to step in immediately and take over for the injured starter.
Although Sirles was happy to be given the chance to play – and, by Mike Zimmer’s assessment, played well in relief of Boone – it wasn’t the kind of circumstances that he wanted to make his 2016 O-line debut.
“You never want to step in for a guy who gets hurt because that’s your buddy out there,” Sirles said. “But when your number is called, it’s really important that you go out there and you try and perform at the best level that you can.”
Only half the players on the game-day roster are offensive or defensive starters, so for those who aren’t in the lineup much, their game day is centered on preparing and keeping themselves ready for the time that their position coach yells out his name and tells him to get into action.
The most difficult aspect of the life of a backup is trying to simulate the flow of the game that players get into when they break a sweat and get their muscles and joints loose for continuous contact.
“The hardest part is just staying warm on the sidelines,” Sirles said. “You’ve got to make sure that you’re always into the game. You’ve got to make sure that you’ve got a good lather up because you can’t go in there cold. You never know what plays in a game are going to make a difference.”
In his time with the Vikings, Sirles has spent the majority of his time playing tackle, but as a swingman he is asked to be prepared to play every offensive line position other than center.
When Boone went down, Sirles’ assignment was at left guard. While not his natural position, he has taken on both the duties of guard and tackle because versatility is his calling card to have a long NFL career – even if the starts have been few and far between.
“I played a lot of guard when I was in San Diego,” Sirles said. “I played the last two regular season games of 2014 at right guard for them. I’ve had experience there, but I’ve played more tackle here. The more you can you do the longer you can stay (in the league).”
It was fortunate for the Vikings that Sirles was as prepared for the Carolina game as he was. He had spent much of the early part of the season backing up at the tackle spots, but during the week leading up to the Panthers game, he was getting a lot more reps at guard, which proved invaluable.
Although Boone was forced to the sidelines with the injury, he was keeping a sharp eye on what Sirles was up to in his spot on the offensive line. Like Zimmer, Boone occasionally had some tough love for Sirles, but that’s part of being a mentor and something that Sirles appreciated.
“There were times when I knew I got beat on a play and I’d look over and Boone was the first one staring me down – yelling ‘use your hands’ or something like that,” Sirles said. “I love Boone to death. He’s a guy I’ve really latched onto since he’s been here. He’s a guy I’ve looked up to when he played in San Francisco. I’m really glad he’s around to be a mentor for me.”
Being a swingman has its benefits and downside. The difference between playing right guard or tackle and left guard or tackle is almost like learning your technique while watching it in a mirror. You’re right-hand dominant on one side and left-hand dominant on the other.
It’s a skill set that backup linemen have to learn because they aren’t penned in at one position. When game-day inactives are made, there is the potential a backup could be called on to play very different positions, so they need to be up to speed on everything all four of the guard and tackle assignments in a given week.
“That just kind of comes with being a backup lineman in the NFL,” Sirles said. “If you only dress seven or eight (offensive linemen) on game day, you’ve got to have guys that can play multiple positions. If you have one or two injuries, heaven forbid, that’s just something you kind of live with until you become that cemented starter at whatever position that is.”
Sirles game himself a pretty solid grade on his first offensive line action of the season and said it has given him a little more confidence that, if he is needed again, the line won’t take a backward step with him in the lineup.
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He isn’t anointing himself as being prepared for everything a defense can throw his way, but he came away from the Carolina game happy with how he performed.
“I thought I played pretty well,” Sirles said. “I definitely have some things I have to clean up. Everything happens so much quicker when you’re in there at guard versus tackle. But I thought I came in and played pretty well, but that’s not the benchmark. I’m always shooting to play better.”