A month after expressing uncertainty about his future, Matt Birk informed Ravens coach John Harbaugh this week that he plans to return for the 2011 season.
The six-time Pro Bowl center was non-committal on the 2011 season when he limped out of the locker room last month after another physically challenging year. But Birk was back at Ravens headquarters this week working out and receiving treatment for his knee injury.
"I told them I would be good to go," Birk told The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday.
Birk, 34, has dealt with neck, elbow and knee injuries in his two seasons with the Ravens, but he has never missed a game. The knee injury forced him to miss at least one practice in each of the final three weeks of the season, including two leading up to the divisional playoff game at Pittsburgh.
For the first time in his 13-year career, Birk said he is still feeling the effects of the season a month removed from it. He doesn't have any surgeries scheduled for the offseason and expects to be fully recovered with some rest.
"The older you get, the more beat up you get," said Birk, who just returned from a vacation with his family. "When you have injuries, it's hard to remember what it's like when you feel good. It's part of the deal. It's what you signed up for. The older you get, the more you have to embrace that part of the challenge. Otherwise, it comes to the point where you say you can't do it anymore."
In order for Birk to play 18 games this past season, his swollen knee had to be drained at least once a week. Harbaugh previously said he had his "fingers crossed" that Birk would come back.
"I thought he played very well," Harbaugh said a day after the Ravens' 31-24 playoff loss at Pittsburgh. "I was very concerned about him the last few weeks because that leg ... was really swollen up because of the bursa [sac]. I watched the tape against Pittsburgh and he was good. I can't say he was knocking [Casey] Hampton off the ball, but he was controlling the inside pretty decently. For what he was dealing with, I don't think it's an age thing as much as it was the knee. I thought he did well."
Birk is entering the final year of his three-year contract and is scheduled to make $3 million. The Ravens signed Birk after Jason Brown went to the St. Louis Rams in free agency.
Since joining the Ravens in March 2009, Birk has been the most experienced starter on one of the youngest offensive lines in the NFL. His biggest error with the Ravens came in last month's playoff loss at Pittsburgh, where an early snap to Joe Flacco led to one of three turnovers in the third quarter.
In addition to making sure he would be healthy enough to play this season, another factor in his decision to return was his ability to contribute to the team.
"I don't want to be out there just to be out there," Birk said. "That doesn't interest me. I feel like physically I'm well enough to play at a level to help the team."
Coming back to play also had to "make sense for the family," he said. Birk and his wife, Adrianna, have three daughters and two sons.
"She and the kids make significant sacrifices," said Birk, who celebrated his wedding anniversary Tuesday. "It's a lot more than a job and a career."
Considering Birk's age and contract status, the Ravens could draft a center and groom him under the 10-year NFL starter.
If Birk hadn't returned, the Ravens' other options on the team were Chris Chester, Bryan Mattison and Marshal Yanda — all of whom have combined to make one start at center. So, Birk's return adds stability to the position.
"My motto is: Don't make a decision until you have to," Birk said. "But barring any setbacks, I would say I'm good to go."