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VIKINGS VS. ATLANTA

Season opener: Noon Sunday • Metrodome • Ch. 9 • 1130-AM, 100.3-FM

Jim Souhan: Birk puts it on the line: Things will be better

  • Article by: Jim Souhan
  • Star Tribune
  • September 2, 2007 - 12:39 AM

A photo displayed in their 2007 media guide tells you everything you need to know about the Vikings.

Standing abreast, wearing their NFC jerseys, are the four Vikings who made the Pro Bowl in 2006 -- Steve Hutchinson, Pat Williams, Kevin Williams and Matt Birk.

They are four interior linemen who have been at the top of their profession for years. Pat Williams might have been the best run-stopper in the NFL in '06. Kevin Williams is capable of being one of the five best defensive tackles in the league.

Hutchinson, while hampered by the Vikings' obtuse offensive line schemes last year, is capable of obliterating opponents when put in the right position.

And then there is Birk, the Cretin-Derham Hall alum, proprietor of the restaurant Matty B's, leader and symbol of the Vikings team that will start the season next Sunday at the Metrodome.

Birk is emblematic of the Vikings' substantial group of smart, talented veterans. You should be able to win with players like Birk, Williams I, Williams II, Hutchinson, Darren Sharper and Antoine Winfield.

The problem: None of them is employed to score touchdowns. The football cliché is "It all starts up front." The football reality is that if it doesn't end up in the end zone, you're not going to win many games.

For what it's worth, Birk said he thinks he'll be better in his second year in Brad Childress' offense, better in a second season alongside Hutchinson.

"I think having a year under your belt and going through some struggles is going to help," Birk said. "You learn from those things.

"We just have to do things better. Having a whole season, another entire offseason, helps you clean things up and just start learning the little things, the nuances of certain blocking schemes.

"Instead of trying to figure out where you're supposed to go, you start understanding the philosophies of each play, exactly what everyone else is trying to do. You have a better understanding of the offense."

That signals a problem with this offense. The strength of this team should be the physical domination that the left side of the line should be capable of providing. Birk, Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie shouldn't ever be put in a position where doubt can curb their aggressiveness.

This is the preseason, though, and Birk sounded intent on taking responsibility for last year's offensive failings.

"Especially after a season where you don't perform individually or as a unit or a team the way you should have, you have to be a man, be a pro, and take the offseason to figure out what went wrong," he said. "Look at film and figure out how you can get better, and how you can make the guys around you better.

"Guys like Hutch and myself, we've been around a long time. We understand that. We're mature if for no other reason than we've been around for a while."

Guard Artis Hicks said he noticed a bond between Birk and Hutchinson when "Hutch" first arrived.

"They bonded real well," Hicks said. "In fact, I cracked on them a lot. We'll be saying a team prayer, we'll be holding hands, and at the end, I'll say, 'You guys look like you like holding hands.' You know, locker-room humor."

Birk missed the 2005 season because of a sports hernia and torn labrum. In 2006, as far as you can tell with a center on a bad team, he seemed to play well.

"Our expectations are high this year," Birk said. "I'm not into predictions, but our goal every year is to win the division."

Birk, 31, is about to start his 10th NFL season. Is he ready for another 16 games spent smashing into defensive linemen?

Wearing old cargo shorts and a T-shirt, looking like any average Joe who happens to carry 310 pounds of muscle, Birk smiled.

"Well, I can't dance," he said. "So I might as well play football."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. jsouhan@startribune.com

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