Key Cogs: OL Still Work in Progress

The Vikings have two multiple-time Pro Bowl selections on their offensive line, so you might think they are confident they will be a dominant unit this year. They might be at some point, but Matt Birk and Steve Hutchinson both say the line is a work in progress.

Matt Birk knows a thing or two about shuffling offensive lines. In his rookie year, he played right guard and right tackle before going on to become a four-time Pro Bowl center, but last year his hip injury caused a year-long juggling act up front.

Ever since Birk became a full-time starter in 2000 – which was the same year he began his string of Pro Bowl honors – he has become a go-to guy for analysis as well.

So with Birk returning to center after two seasons of hip and sports hernia woes, his opinion about the Vikings' offensive line matters. His take is that this line could live up to the hype – if the individual parts can fire like a well-tuned engine.

"It all depends on how the five of us come together. You can have five talented guys, but that doesn't mean you're going to be a good offensive line," he said. "We feel like we have some players and can be pretty good. But because there are so many new parts, it's a long road ahead of us."

The bookends remain as they did for much of the line's best stretch last year when Marcus Johnson was at right tackle and Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, as the latter was all season. But none of the three interior linemen – Steve Hutchinson at left guard, Birk at center and Artis Hicks at right guard – played a down for the Vikings last year.

"Probably in five or six years, individually this is probably the most talent we've had across the board, but offensive line play is measured how you play as a unit. Talent levels as individuals doesn't guarantee anything," Birk said.

Hutchinson echoed that sentiment

"We all know we can play, it's just a matter of repetition and playing together," the three-time All-Pro guard said. "An offensive line isn't anything unless all five guys are on the same page. It's like a fist. If all five fingers aren't together, you don't have a fist."

Neither Hutchinson nor Birk are labeling the line a finished product, no matter how much fans want to talk about the talent and assume the additions will automatically make all of last year's troubles go away.

"This whole thing is a battle. Hopefully you have more good days than bad and hopefully overall you keep improving," Birk said. "From Sunday to Sunday, one Sunday you can play great and the next Sunday you can get your tail kicked. You probably really know if you win the Super Bowl. Then you can say, ‘We're OK.' Before that, you have to keep working. You can never rest on what you did yesterday or last week or last game."

For Birk, the challenge this year is two-fold. First, he has to get over the trepidation about his hip, and he seems to have done that already.

The bigger issue for Birk could be in making all the line calls in a completely new offense – or at least new to him. While Hicks played for the Philadelphia Eagles under Brad Childress' West Coast offense there, Hutchinson is also relatively familiar with the style of play. Most the line calls are the same here as they were in Seattle's West Coast version, but the wording in some instances is different, Hutchinson said.

For Birk, the whole offense is different.

"It's coming," the center said. "Training camp is great because every day you get to immerse yourself in football for 14 hours a day and that's the best way to learn something."

Having West Coast pupils to his left and right has to help as well, and having Hutchinson, who is considered the best left guard in the game, doesn't hurt either.

"He's fantastic," Birk said of new number 76. "Even before he signed, if you would have asked me who the best guard in football is, I would have said him. He's a blue-collar guy. He comes to work to work. He doesn't have any kind of attitude or ego. He wants to make the line better and make sure we're all on the same page."

In Friday night's practice with the Kansas City Chiefs, Hutchinson's talent was apparent. Chiefs defensive lineman James Reed drew Hutchinson to go up against at one point in one-on-one drills. Reed fired off the ball, where he took a step or two and ran into Hutchinson, who didn't give an inch of ground to Reed.

It was one of those had-to-see moments, and when asked what makes Hutchinson so good, Birk basically named the whole package: "He's strong, he's big, he's fast, he's smart. If you watch the film, he just always gets his guy. Bottom line, he just always gets his guy."

Throughout the season, Birk hopes to be making the right calls to have every lineman "get his guy." For now, however, it's still all a talented work in progress.

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