When the word then became that the Ravens had signed the six-time Pro Bowler, there was a sense of shock. How could this happen? It would seem the stare-down that the Vikings and Birk had been having for the last year finally came and, instead of blinking, Birk just turned and walked away.
Of all the teams that Birk could have visited, the Ravens were about the worst possible team from the Vikings' perspective. Baltimore had just lost its own starting center Jason Brown to an inflated free-agent deal with the Rams – a team that has to overspend to get free agents to come there. Unlike teams like the Raiders that also needed a center, the Ravens played in the AFC Championship Game and have the talent to make a Super Bowl run in the next couple of years. In NFL terms, the contract Birk signed with the Ravens was far from outrageous – three years, $12 million with $6 million guaranteed. It would have been a significant price to pay, but considering the Vikings are a run-first offense, having O-line stability is a primary concern. It would seem the Vikings played a game of chicken with Birk and lost.
Second-guessing is easy at this point and historians will point back to the 2000 season when the Vikings had a similar situation at center. Jeff Christy had been a Pro Bowler himself, but, when he became a free agent, the Vikings let him go to Tampa Bay and inserted Birk into the starting lineup. At the time, fans thought the team was both cheap and nuts. How can you let a top center like Christy get away for some low-round draft pick from Harvard? It didn't make sense, but Birk more than lived up to his end of the bargain. From that perspective, the Vikings were proved right.
But that was in the Red McCombs era, where pencils were used down to the nub and pennies were pinched wherever possible. There has been no such restriction on the purse strings with Zygi Wilf. The Vikings have spent handsomely and been willing to spend on free agents they would eventually lose out on. What fans find the hardest to grasp is the perceived lack of interest to bring Birk back.
It seems hard to fathom that, considering the Vikings "culture of accountability," a player who has been voted Vikings Man of the Year every year for the last seven seasons wasn't retained. His ability on the field has been self-evident. His charitable work off the field, while not as visible as his playing presence, was just as important.
Birk will be missed. Not just for his Pro Bowl skills, but for what he did in the community – his stand against his own union to help players from a bygone era in the NFL that have been virtually ignored, and his work with his foundation to help the underprivileged. In the culture of accountability, Birk was its de facto poster boy. If his name was in the news, it wasn't for drug use or gun possession, it was more likely about building a playground or donating money to a cause. He will be missed both on the field and off the field and fans will have a hard time believing that his leaving couldn't have been prevented, because, at face value, it looks like it could have been if the Vikings had been willing to sign him to an extension long before he entered the final months of his contract.