Bill Lapham. Ron Sams. Adam Schreiber. Melvin Fowler.
That is the group Joe Berger will be joining when he takes over for injured John Sullivan as the Vikings center. Those four are the outliers when you go through the Vikings history of starting centers, a position of astounding stability and talent for this franchise.
Lapham was taken in the expansion draft by the Vikings in 1961 and started 13 of 14 games. The Vikings went 3-11 that season and Lapham didn’t play again in the NFL.
Sams started 10 of 16 games in 1984, after Dennis Swilley temporarily retired at age 29 to build his dream house. The Vikings went 3-13, Sams didn’t play again in the NFL and coach Les Steckel was fired after one season.
Schreiber started 16 games in 1993. The Vikings slipped from 11-5 in Dennis Green’s first season to 9-7 and lost a wild-card-round game to the New York Giants.
Fowler started nine games (and Cory Withrow seven) in 2005. This came after the Vikings refused to guarantee Matt Birk’s contract for 2006 and he elected to have sports hernia surgery. The Vikings started the season 1-4, rallied behind backup quarterback Brad Johnson to finish a non-playoff 9-7, and coach Mike Tice was fired 20 minutes after the final game.
All in all, the four seasons out of 54 in which the Vikings played with a temp at center could not be deemed successful.
There’s a chance Sullivan will return for the second half of 2015 with the Vikings still having a shot to reach this season’s high hopes. There’s as much of a chance the Sullivan loss will be devastating to an already troubled offensive line and the Vikings will remain a mediocrity.
Followers of the Vikings have a tendency to spend much of their time fretting about left tackle. We were stunned by Matt Kalil’s decline in 2014; never satisfied with Bryant McKinnie’s commitment even when he was winning honors; spent more time complaining about Todd Steussie’s false starts than his overall effectiveness.
Traditionally, the Vikings have asked more of the center than any lineman, yet those players rarely have given the fans reason to fret. That’s because there have been 50 seasons when six rocks of reliability have held the position.
What’s amazing is the limited amount of resources the Vikings were forced to use to acquire this mighty half-dozen. Consider:
• Mick Tingelhoff was not among the 280 players (20 rounds, 14 teams) taken in the 1962 NFL draft. The Vikings signed him as a rookie free agent from Nebraska. Over the next 17 seasons, he would start every one of 240 regular-season games. He was a six-time Pro Bowl selection, a five-time first-team All-Pro and, finally, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.
• Swilley was taken out of Texas A&M in the second round (55th overall) in 1977. He was drafted as a guard, was a backup for two seasons, and then took over for the retired Tingelhoff in 1979. In his seven seasons (1979-83, 1985-86) as the center, he started 102 of 105 games.
• Kirk Lowdermilk was drafted out of Ohio State in the third round (59th overall) in 1985 and was the backup to Swilley for two years. He was a terrific center for the next six years, starting 85 of 92 games that were played with NFLers (not strikebreakers). He left in 1993 for Indianapolis and a three-year, $6 million contract that at the time was the league’s highest for an offensive lineman.
• Jeff Christy was released by Arizona during his rookie season in 1992. The Vikings signed him in 1993, he sat behind Schreiber, and then was a six-year starter with two Pro Bowls. He started 92 of 96 games from 1994 through 1999.
• Matt Birk was taken in the sixth round (173rd overall) out of Harvard in 1998 and was the backup to Christy for two years. From 2000 to 2008, Birk was named to six Pro Bowls and started 123 of 144 games. Sixteen of those misses came in 2005.
• Sullivan was also a sixth-rounder (187th overall) out of Notre Dame in 2008. He backed up Birk for one year, and then started 93 of 96 games from 2009 to 2014.
The Vikings have played 819 regular-season games with NFL rosters and 735 have been with Tingelhoff, Swilley, Lowdermilk, Christy, Birk or Sullivan starting at center. That’s 89.7 percent.
Go get ’em, Joe Berger.