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Matt Birk always knew that he wanted to play football again next season.
He just needed a couple of weeks to make sure his body was up to the task. After some time to relax and recover, Birk, 35, felt good enough to return for his 15th NFL season, and on Friday the Ravens announced that they reached a new three-year deal with the veteran center.
“After the season, you’re pretty physically and emotionally spent, so you just kind of get away from it for a few weeks and kind of try to listen to your body and listen to your heart and figure out what you’re supposed to do,” Birk said. “I talked it over with my family and just kind of listened to myself.
“I certainly realized that I still have the urge to play and the desire to play, and more importantly I felt like I could do it, that my body would hold up.”
At the end of the 2010 season, Birk was having his knees drained frequently and he then had arthroscopic knee surgery just before the start of last year. But he made it through last year relatively healthy, starting all 16 games once again.
“I feel great,” he said. “It’s March and I’ve had time to rest. I haven’t had to hit anybody in a while, but I feel great and I’m working out and I don’t feel like I’m restricted at all.”
Before the Ravens’ season even ended in January, there was speculation that Birk would retire. Charley Casserly of CBS first reported that Birk was planning to retire after the 2011 season, and other outlets also picked up on the story. Those reports, however, never came from Birk.
“I think a lot was made out of the report that I would retire,” Birk said. “That never came from me. I guess I just know from doing this a long time, you just kind of wait and see. You don’t make any long-term plans because once you’re done, you’re done. That’s it.”
Birk has now signed a three-year deal with the Ravens, which would take him to age 38 if he played out the length of the contract.
“Contracts in the NFL, sometimes the length doesn’t matter. I think it worked out best for myself and the team to have the deal that long,” Birk said. “Certainly can’t tell the future and what’s going to happen, but I think it lets both sides feel good about it.”
Bringing back Birk allows the Ravens to retain a critical piece in the middle of the line, which was one of the team’s priorities this off-season. The six-time Pro Bowler was a key part of the offensive line that cleared the way for Ray Rice to set a career-high 1,364 rushing yards last season.
With the core of the team returning, Birk expects the Ravens to be back in the hunt for a Super Bowl. They came within inches of playing in the Super Bowl last season and knowing how close they were was part of the reason Birk wanted to come back to Baltimore.
“That was part of the decision process too, knowing that we were that close and had a chance and we’re confident in the players and coaches that we have,” Birk said. “We’re going to be a good team next year.”
Even with Birk coming back, the Ravens could still look to add another center in the draft or free agency. General Manager Ozzie Newsome said last month that regardless of Birk’s plans, the team was going to add a center to the roster.
Last year’s backup center Andre Gurode is an unrestricted free agent but it’s unclear if Baltimore will look to re-sign him.
For Birk, who has started every game for the Ravens the last three seasons, he doesn’t pay too much attention to what the team is doing with offseason acquisitions.
“I have six kids, I’m too busy for all of that,” he said. “It will all work itself out. The Ravens are going to field a team next year and put us out there. And we’re going to work hard to do our best. I just find that getting wrapped up in that stuff tends to be a lot of wasted energy and I just really don’t have time for it.”
His focus now is getting mentally and physically ready for another season; one that he hopes can include another shot at competing for a championship.
“You have to put the work in, and start now, and work as hard as you possibly can and be as good as you possibly can,” Birk said. “You hope you’re back in that position again to have the chance to accomplish the ultimate goal.”