Yes, most people know the story: Birk went to high school in St. Paul, lived in the Twin Cities year-round, married a lifelong Minnesotan, has owned a few restaurants in town and has four children who are approaching school age. That history seemingly points to a guy who would have no interest in leaving the Vikings, who drafted him in 1998 and installed him as their starting center in 2000.
But I think Birk realized a year ago that the Vikings didn't have him in their long-term plans. Almost without fail in recent seasons, Minnesota has moved aggressively to re-sign its core players at least a year before their current contract expires. Birk found himself in that situation during the winter of 2008, but the Vikings told him no deal was forthcoming and then indefinitely deferred further discussions.
Birk got the message, skipped the voluntary portion of the Vikings' offseason program and mentally geared himself for a final season with the team. The Vikings expressed interest in re-signing him last month, but their enthusiasm for his return always seemed muted. Birk almost certainly sensed their ambivalence; his agent, Joe Linta, told the Star Tribune on Tuesday that his decision would be based on "his relationship with the Vikings" and what he might forge in Baltimore.
Reasonable people can debate whether the Vikings made a good football decision last year when they declined to extend his contract. (Birk played at a high level in 2008 but turns 33 this summer.) But the bigger question is whether they have done enough from a personnel perspective to protect against Birk's pending departure.
During an interview at the scouting combine last month, coach Brad Childress spoke highly of young center John Sullivan, a sixth-round pick last year who saw special-teams action in all 16 games as a rookie. Childress also didn't rule out the possibility of moving right tackle Ryan Cook, a center during his college career at New Mexico, but it seems that Sullivan will get the first opportunity.
Childress: "John Sullivan is a guy that football is important to. He's a smart guy. I will say he's the first guy that has been back in the building [after the season]. I don't know if he got bored in Connecticut or what. I looked up one day and he's on the treadmill. I go, 'What the hell are you doing in here?' And he's been there all the time since then. He's got football IQ and he wants to be good. He talks it and Matt [Birk] has been very giving in terms of not sweating him, just sharing."
Despite those attributes, Sullivan will be hard-pressed to immediately replicate the leadership and consistency Birk provided for most of this decade. A transition at center was coming at some point, and the Vikings ultimately left the timing in Birk's hands. He made the call Wednesday.