Birk's Surgery Only Clear Thing At Center

Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and Matt Birk may talk this week, but it doesn't sound like it will change the Pro Bowler's decision to have surgery. That leaves an extremely interesting situation at center.

With Pro Bowl center Matt Birk expected to undergo season-ending surgery, Cory Withrow is now atop the depth chart at the position. How long he remains there is another question.

Second-year player Adam Goldberg, shifted from starting left guard to backup center early last week, appears to be the long-term solution in the middle. When coach Mike Tice initially made the move, it appeared he was simply demoting Goldberg because he wanted to move Chris Liwienski back to left guard and get rookie Marcus Johnson in the starting lineup at right guard.

But a few days after the shuffle, it was revealed that Birk planned to have surgery to repair the torn labrum in his left hip.

Suddenly the method to Tice's madness became clear.

Goldberg had never played center before, but saw significant playing time at the position in last Friday's 19-16 preseason victory over San Diego.

"I've been in this system for three years now and I have two veteran centers to learn from and to ask questions about," said Goldberg, who entered the game in the second quarter and played the remainder of the game. "I have the offensive coordinator (Steve Loney, who also is the offensive line coach) right in my position room. All the pieces were there to make a quick transition."

Assuming Goldberg learns to play center at an accelerated rate, it wouldn't be a shock if he was snapping the ball to quarterback Daunte Culpepper on Sept. 11 when the Vikings open at home against Tampa Bay.

Withrow, after all, has been a career backup in his six seasons with the Vikings. He has started only six of the 64 regular-season games in which he has appeared, and five of those came last season in place of the injured Birk.

Using the 6-7, 310-pound Goldberg as the starter also would give the Vikings more size up front. Withrow is five inches shorter and 23 pounds lighter.

With Goldberg as the starter, the Vikings line would look like this: Bryant McKinnie (left tackle), Liwienski (left guard), Goldberg (center), Johnson (right guard), Mike Rosenthal (right tackle).

Birk's decision, meanwhile, came as a surprise to many.

He had undergone three operations for sports hernias and another to repair a torn labrum in his right hip in the past 13 months. The surgery on his hip last off-season was thought to be the final step to getting him back on the field.

But Birk also had pain in the other hip and decided to visit a doctor in New York last month while the Vikings were in town for a preseason game against the Jets.

Making the situation all the more interesting is the fact the Vikings don't feel Birk needs the surgery and insisted he could play through it by taking pain-killing shots. The Harvard-educated Birk responded by asking the team to guarantee him $3.94 million in his contract, an unheard-of request in the NFL.

The Vikings said no thanks, but owner Zygi Wilf discussed the situation with Birk for about five minutes on the field before last Friday's game.

"We're still talking," Wilf said when asked where things were headed. "We plan to talk with Matt again (this) week. We don't know where it will go. But our biggest concern is Matt's physical health."

Birk, though, sounds as if his mind is made up. He was talking Monday about his role as a cheerleader, and he plans to have the surgery performed in New York by Dr. Bryan Kelly early this month.

"My mindset right now is pretty much I'm having the surgery," Birk said. "I guess anything can happen. It would be very remote (I wouldn't do it)."

The recovery time is expected to be about 12 weeks, meaning the Vikings almost certainly will place him on the season-ending injured reserve list.

As for Birk's future with the team, he has $17 million remaining on the eight-year, $31 million contract he signed in September, 2001. That includes a $3.25 million base salary for this season, which the franchise is obligated to pay.

However, none of the remaining $13.75 million is guaranteed, and the Vikings could well ask the native of St. Paul, Minn., to take a pay cut, or release him, after this season.

Birk, though, came away from his chat with Wilf confident that he remains in the Vikings' plans.

"He just said he was concerned about my physical health. He wanted to just sit down and talk with me about it," Birk said. "He looked me in the eye and told me (that) and I believed him. That makes me think also that I'm in the long-term plans here and the long-term thoughts, which is great because I want to be."


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