The Vikings have a tough but ultimately good situation with John Sullivan and Joe Berger battling to start at center on a deep offensive line.
Sullivan has long been considered one of the best centers in the NFL, and he was named a Pro Football Writers Association All-Pro in 2012.
Berger had been a solid lineman for years. He was drafted by Carolina in 2005 and played for Miami and Dallas before finally landing with the Vikings in 2011.
Berger had started only 38 of 99 career NFL games before last season. When Sullivan got injured, Berger stepped in and played very well. He was even named by Pro Football Focus as the best center in the league.
So now the Vikings have a big decision to make on who will start. But ultimately Berger said he and Sullivan are just going about their work.
“I think we’re both kind of staying out of it a little bit and doing what we can do during practice and letting the coaches figure out how they’re going to work it out at the end,” Berger said.
The Vikings will have more decisions to make after the season with the 34-year-old Berger a free agent, but right now he is primarily focused on getting seeing improvement on the line.
“I think we’re learning and all getting better,” he said. “We’re taking it a day at a time. There’s a lot of stuff we need to clean up yet. We need to get that going before Week 1.”
Does he expect to be back next year? “Well, we’ll see,” Berger said. “I’m an old man, we’ll see what they do.”
Berger had made 20 starts at center in 2009 and ’10 with the Dolphins, but he said coming to Minnesota and backing up Sullivan taught him a lot.
“John is a great student of the game, he understands the game,” Berger said. “I think coming here and being able to watch him play and how he controls the huddle, yeah, I was able to learn a lot from him.”
When asked how he was able to fill in so well last year, the 6-5, 305-pound Berger gave most of the credit to his teammates for his success.
“That’s a hard question to answer, you don’t really know why,” he said. “I had a good couple guys around me and things kind of clicked, I guess.”
On being called the NFL’s best center by a major publication, Berger said: “Any time you get recognized by anybody it’s nice. I think the important thing is to be recognized around here. These are the guys I come to work with, these are the guys that really evaluate me. It’s nice to be recognized outside, but it’s more important in here, I think.”
Analyzing the positions
Center is generally considered one of the toughest positions to play and features some of the smartest players in the NFL.
So it’s amazing to think that Berger, who is from Newaygo, Mich., walked on at NCAA Division II Michigan Tech, where he went to study engineering. Playing right tackle for the Huskies, he eventually learned the game so well that he was drafted in the sixth round by the Panthers, and despite not making the Carolina roster out of training camp in 2005 he is now in his 13th NFL season, and playing well at a difficult position.
“I think you have to be smart, have to be able to make the calls, have to be a leader, and then you have to be quick,” Berger said. “… Most places use the center to set up the run plays and pass protections, so you’re kind of getting everybody on the same page before the play starts.”
He explained his process at the line.
“You walk up to the ball, point out where the middle linebacker is and then make a call to let everybody know; depending on what the play is, it could be anything,” he said. “You just tell everyone where you’re going.”
And how often does he make the right call? “I better be right all the time,” he said, “because everybody is counting on it.”
Even if Sullivan gets the starting job, Berger will end up with playing time. During his Vikings career, he has started 14 games at right guard and three at left guard. “I think I can play guard as well as center. Tackle, I haven’t spent any time out there, really,” he said.
He added that there is a large difference between the two positions, which makes his versatility so special.
“Center, you’re making a lot of calls, a lot of pre-snap stuff, right up on the ball and big nose guards are right almost touching you before the snap,” Berger said. “Guard, you have more space and time to think about your job.”
Miami’s loss, Vikings gain
Berger was released by the Dolphins during Week 2 of the 2011 season and promptly picked up by the Vikings. He was asked if being released surprised him.
“That’s hard to say. You always want to be on the team and think you’re going to make the team, but that’s part of the game, cuts are going to happen,” he said. “I had interest here and there [after being cut], and this seemed like a great fit for me, at the time, and I have been here six years now, so it has worked out great.”
He was asked if he thinks Miami regrets that move. “I don’t know how that stuff works,” he said. “But I hope so.”
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Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at
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