Brian Baldinger
From left: Brian Baldinger, Matt Birk and Andrew Siciliano on the NFL Network’s “Total Access.” Photo courtesy of the NFL Network.

While Americans were busy enjoying our Independence Day this past July 4th I drew NFL Network duty in Los Angeles. I was a host on their signature program, “Total Access.”

Joining me that day was newly retired Baltimore Ravens center, Matt Birk.

I saw him in the newsroom five hours prior to the show with coffee in hand and a freshly tapered gray suit, blue shirt, and paisley tie.

He was ready for the show much like he was ready for Super Bowl Sunday this past February 3 in New Orleans.

On that special day he was dressed in a Ravens uniform wearing No. 77, five hours prior to kickoff.

He had worn No. 77 for all 15 of his years; 11 as a member of the Minnesota Vikings and the last four as the starting center for the Baltimore Ravens. He went to four pro bowls and won a Super Bowl…on the final day of his amazing NFL career.

Not many people ever exit their profession the way they want and when they want.

On this July 4th he was embarking on his new career; that as an NFL analyst.

Only five months removed from the big game in New Orleans, Birk had already shed 50 pounds and a couple of suit sizes. Yes, he was officially retired and darn happy about it.

As an alumni of Harvard and a father of six, between the ages of one and 10, Matt had important parental duties at his new home in Florida. Perhaps this TV gig could help ease the transition period from NFL player to dad and to whatever is next.

In the meantime he was all mine to pick his brain about his championship season. For the two days between July 4th and the 5th, I would pepper Birk with a zillion questions and he willingly answered every one with nothing to hide and no person to protect.

His insight is what I think every Eagle fan would enjoy. Mostly because the Ravens glide to a championship was never easy, and forever in doubt.

The adversity was always present and in some cases before the season ever kicked off in training camp.

In March, their former defensive player of the year, Terrell Suggs, would tear his Achilles tendon. Their starting left tackle showed up to camp weighing 400 pounds and cold not pass a physical. There was a near mutiny between star players and head coach John Harbaugh over how difficult practices had become.

Joe Flacco, their starting QB, had refused to sign his contract extension and would enter the season on the final year of his rookie contract.

Their were the in-season injuries to starting cornerback Ladarius Webb. Ray Lewis would miss eight weeks with a torn trice tendon. All pro defensive tackle, Haloti Ngata, would sustain terrible injuries to his shoulder and knee and reduce him to a pedestrian player for much of the season.

In week 15 of the season they fired offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron. It was an especially painful decision for Harbaugh considering it was Cameron, who, while the head coach at the University of Indiana, would hire John as a young assistant coach.

Former head coach of the Colts, Jim Caldwell, would assume the newly vacant play-calling duty.

Head offensive line coach, Andy Moeller, would have his duties usurped at the start of the playoffs by the surprising hiring of fired Eagle defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo.

Oh, and the painful losses…The ones that just punch you unexpectedly to the solar plexus. like the humiliating loss at Houston by the score of 43-13. How about losing four of the final five games of the season including a one-sided defeat at home to the Denver Broncos 34 -17. How about being down seven with under 40 seconds left at Denver in the playoff game and facing third and 10 and 70 yards from pay dirt.

The Ravens overcame all of these obstacles and many many more to snatch the organization’s second Lombardi Trophy.

How and why?

Because they are the toughest team in the NFL. Not just physically tough. More importantly they are mentally tough. You see while all of the obstacles mentioned in previous paragraphs are real, never did the Raven players gripe publicly about their dire straights.

No bickering in the locker room about injuries or coaching decisions or about the roster.

In Baltimore the players play and the coaches coach, and as long as their is hope the players play hard and the coaches coach hard and it never changes.

I asked Birk about the Ravens toughness and where it comes from.

Make no mistake about it, Ray Lewis loves to practice and loves to prepare and he sets the tone along with Ed Reed, Birk and Terrell Suggs.

And all young players learn that in order to stick around and have a chance to contribute or possibly even star one day then it starts with learning how to be a pro. Practice and preparation are the building blocks. And their leaders help to enforce it

I asked Matt what the play call was in Denver when it was third down and they were 70 yards from the most improbable play in the NFL season.

The bomb from Flacco to Jacoby Jones that would land over the head of Bronco safety Rahim Moore for the tying score to force a sudden death overtime…Birk said he couldn’t remember.

All he knew was the protection, Flacco and the receivers knew the routes.

Birk and the offensive line were in charge of getting Flacco enough time to locate his open receiver and step into the biggest play of the quarterback’s five-year career.

In Baltimore, players play and coaches coach. It has always been the winning formula in every sport. Sometimes a little luck and good forte is created when this basic formula is implemented.

This theme is important as the Eagles and new Head Coach, Chip Kelley, are a fortnight away from their maiden voyage. Throughout the offseason I heard grumbling coming from the players about the new coach and the new system.

TOO COLLEG-EE, if that is a word or even a phrase. Won’t work, can’t work.
It all can work but everyone has to buy in.

No championship season is ever without adversity and obstacles. For two days in Los Angeles the retired center told me all about the obstacles.

Some I mentioned here, but I don’t have the space to list them all.

To Eagle fans and players get ready for a long strange trip. Trouble in many different forms awaits you.

But players play and coaches coach and if the Eagles buy into this basic formula perhaps success can follow.


18 Jul 13 - Football, MHP, NFL, Ravens - Brian Baldinger - No Comments