Matt Birk Weighs In on Minnesota Vikings’ HC Zimmer and Future of the Franchise

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As far as football experience goes, Birk certainly has an impressive resume.

A Midwestern kid from St. Paul, MN, Birk played high school football for Cretin-Derham Hall. He then went on to become an NFL draft pick, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, a Super Bowl champion, and currently works as the NFL Director of Football Development in New York City.

And it all started with the Minnesota Vikings.

Despite having an excellent college career at Harvard University and earning several first-team honors, the center never fully expected to be drafted in 1998. He instead mentally prepared to be a free agent, to simply find an invite to a team’s camp. However, Birk took an opportunity over spring break to work out with the Vikings; the rest, as they say, is history.

“You think, ‘there are 32 teams—what are the chances I’m going to play for my hometown team?’ […] The phone rang, and it was [then-head coach] Denny Green—he said they were going to draft me with the next pick. My name came up on the TV, and it was a tremendously special moment.”

Birk played two seasons as a backup for the Vikings before taking over the starting center position in 2000. In that first year, he started all 16 games and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Birk continues to call 2000 his most memorable season, as the team rebounded from losing some significant players and impressively finished 11-5.

With the exception of missing a season due to injury, Birk cemented himself as an integral part of the Vikings roster for a decade. In addition to Pro Bowl honors, the center was named All-Pro twice and Minnesota Vikings Man of the Year six years in a row.

Despite going on to finish his career with four seasons—and a Super Bowl victory—with the Baltimore Ravens, Birk remains tied to Minnesota. A part of Birk’s spirit will undoubtedly always wear the purple and gold, and he felt incredibly optimistic about the Vikings’ year, calling the 2014 season’s end “tremendous.”

As an Ivy League graduate, it’s no secret that Birk is an intelligent man; his keen judgment can be trusted when he identifies head coach Mike Zimmer and his “great leadership” as the largest reason for the Vikings’ positive outlook.

While Zimmer served as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, Birk played in Baltimore and faced the Bengals a number of times. As an opponent, Zimmer’s defense proved a frustration and an obstacle for most teams the Bengals played. But as a coach, he earned nothing but respect. Birk said the following, reflecting on Zimmer:

“The NFL is a pretty small fraternity, and I heard nothing but positives about Coach Zimmer. Tremendous football coach, great man, obviously showed he was a great leader. I mean, things are always going to happen—it’s not if a crisis hits a team; it’s when. […] He had a rookie quarterback, a franchise player suspended for 15 games, multiple injuries—but to guide the team to where he did—that just speaks to his leadership and ability to coach.”

Zimmer sets himself apart as a leader, and Birk feels confident that the coach’s style will also work to set the Vikings apart on the field. Zimmer goes beyond sideline play calling and coordinating; he invests in his roster.

“[Zimmer] not only motivates his players, but when you’re playing for a coach and you know your coach is smart, when you know your coach is going to put you in good situations, situations to succeed—you go far to play for a guy like that.”

With a players’ coach like Zimmer at the helm, the Vikings can also be optimistic about new additions over the offseason. Bringing in new rookies often proves unpredictable for any team; signing a player is one thing—developing and improving that player at the professional level is another. But Birk emphasized Zimmer’s ability to do just that.

“Zimmer knows how to coach guys, and develop them, and make them better. That’s what’s exciting.”

The 2015 Draft will certainly be important for Minnesota. If anyone understands the impact that even later-round draft picks can have for a team, it’s Birk. After all, the All-Pro center himself was not drafted until the sixth round—and yet went on to be one of the top offensive linemen in the NFL. He explained that one of the biggest factors when drafting is how well those players will transition from college to the pros.

“[General Manager] Rick Spielman does a great job of evaluating talent, and when you have a coach and coaching staff who can develop the talent—that’s what you need. Nobody is good enough out of college to play in the NFL and really make a lasting impact.”

That being said, who should his former team grab at No. 11 for the 2015 NFL Draft? According to Birk, it’s a bit early to predict—a lot of offseason moves could occur before April 30—but there are definite factors to consider.

“My feeling is that [the Vikings] probably have enough talent at receiver, tight end and running back,” he expressed. Birk paused for a moment, then identified Minnesota’s three biggest needs going into next season: “Offensive lineman, linebacker, and defensive back.” He adds, laughing, “There you go. I just put on my Mel Kiper hat for you.”

While he may not be an ESPN draft analyst, spend just a few minutes chatting with Matt Birk, and you can’t help but feel excitement surrounding Minnesota’s franchise and everything to come leading up to another year, another chance.

“The future is bright for us Vikings fans,” Birk promised. “Brighter than it’s been in a while.”