ATLANTA – No offense, John Sullivan, but those of us covering the Vikings through both of your back surgeries in 2015 never in a million years would have predicted we’d see you as an active, starting player participating in Super Bowl LIII’s Opening Night.
“None taken,” laughed the Rams center.
“And, actually,” he added, “after the second surgery, I thought that might be it for me, too.”
And yet, here we were, standing on the floor of Atlanta’s State Farm Arena on Monday night as 10,000 fans hooted and hollered six days before “Sully” and his Rams face the Patriots at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It feels pretty great because I just stayed the course,” Sullivan said. “Everything happens for a reason. Things work out if you just keep making good decisions and trusting the right people.”
Sullivan missed all of 2015. Then he started only one game as a backup for the Redskins in 2016.
But he got to know Sean McVay, who was Washington’s offensive coordinator in 2016. And in today’s game, the best way to the top is to say you know McVay.
“I was so fortunate I was able to meet Sean,” the 33-year-old Sullivan said of hisbarely 33-year-old boss. “We have a great relationship. He’s a brilliant coach. That’s what I saw first in Washington. He was scheming people open all over the field.”
McVay inherited possibly the worst offensive line in football. He released Tim Barnes, who had started 32 consecutive games at center, and signed Sullivan. He also signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth en route to turning the Rams from 4-12 losers in 2016 to Super Bowl participant in two years.
“I was going to re-sign with the Redskins, but when Sean got the job here, I just knew I wanted to come along with him,” Sullivan said. “I just knew he was going to be an amazing head coach. When I signed in ’17, I figured, ‘OK, we’re going to find this out pretty quick if I still got what it takes to be a starter.’ ”
Sullivan is a frequent punching bag for Pro Football Focus. His season rating of 51.7 ranked 46th among all who played center.
But the Rams aren’t complaining. In 18 games this season, he’s played all but 52 of 1,251 snaps for a well-balanced offense that ranked second in scoring (32.9).
Four years ago, it was a very different story for Sullivan. A 2008 sixth-round draft pick who sat behind Matt Birk for a year, Sullivan had started 93 of 96 games from 2009 to 2014.
But the guy who thought he “could play through anything” found out otherwise and had back surgery in September of 2015.
“I thought I was coming back at midseason, but I got hurt again in the weight room,” Sullivan said. “We were overly aggressive trying to come back because I was on IR designated to return.”
Evan Marcus was the team’s head strength coach at the time. He was fired after the season. Asked if he thought Marcus pushed him too hard to come back, Sullivan said, “It’s in the past at this point.”
The Vikings released Sullivan before the 2016 season. He said he believes that was a mistake.
“I thought I was starting to play better before they cut me,” he said. “I needed a little bit of time to play back into shape. If you go through two back surgeries, you’re going to need a little time to play back into shape. You’re not going to come back and immediately be the same guy you were before that injury. That’s just the way it is.”
And Sullivan won’t lie. He took joy in beating the Vikings 38-31 in Los Angeles back in Week 4. Rams quarterback Jared Goff posted a perfect passer rating while throwing for 465 yards and five touchdowns.
“It was awesome, obviously, because I have a lot of personal history with them,” Sullivan said. “And because we knew the Vikings were a great team.”
Sullivan earned a $1 million bonus this year for being active in at least 15 games (16) for a team that finished top five in scoring and made the playoffs. He is signed through 2019, but the Rams are grooming backup Brian Allen, a rookie fourth-round draft pick.
So, Sully, if the Rams win the Super Bowl, are you going to pull a “Matt Birk” six years to the date after Birk retired following the Ravens’ win in Super Bowl XLVII?
“Nope,” Sullivan said. “I’m not anywhere close to being done playing this game.”