Nine years after having his heart broken at the Superdome in New Orleans, John Sullivan finally got his revenge against the Saints as a member of a Los Angeles Rams.
The longtime Vikings center will start Super Bowl LIII, having resurrected his career after a 2015 back surgery in Minnesota seemingly jeopardized his playing days. In 2009, his first season as a full-time starter, the Vikings lost in overtime in the NFC Championship Game with Brett Favre at the helm. Poetically, Sullivan’s Rams beat the Saints Sunday in similar fashion.
Let’s not forgot: Sullivan might have been on track to be a Vikings great. He was the one chosen to replace Matt Birk, who had started eight out of the nine previous seasons before leaving in free agency in 2009. Had Sullivan played out his contract post-surgery, he would have matched Birk for seasons as a starter in Minnesota.
“John’s really smart,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said last year before a matchup with the Rams. “He’s really brilliant. He sees stuff. I’m sure he’s got notes on everything that we’ve run against him in the past, so he can not only help quarterbacks but offensive line.”
Sullivan earned a top-five grade at center from 2011-13 and had signed an extension through 2017 before a lumbar microdiscectomy derailed his 2015 season and led to his release in 2016 as Joe Berger earned the job at a cheaper salary.
The Notre Dame grad latched on with Washington and played offensive snaps in just three games during the 2016 season. Then he found new life with Sean McVay and the Rams on an incentive-laden one-year deal. McVay had worked with Sullivan as the Redskins offensive coordinator the previous year.
Here’s what Sullivan said about McVay prior to the 2017 season.
“You’re going to these offensive install meetings, and he is so on the screws on every single detail. But he’s not micromanaging. It’s just pointing out things that you can be looking for, and really coaching in the classroom in terms of being detail-oriented. He was incredibly impressive. I didn’t know his age at that point. I didn’t know he was 30. And even to this day, it doesn’t make any difference. He’s an incredible motivator, amazing with the X’s and O’s, and so far proving himself as a great head coach in terms of leading this organization and changing the culture, and making sure that everybody buys into our message.”
Sullivan allowed 15 pressures of Jared Goff throughout 2017, tied for 10th-fewest amongst centers, as the Rams went 11-5 to win the NFC West.
Here was McVay on Sullivan:
“He’s one of the more impressive players I’ve ever been around, just in terms of his above the neck and the way that he’s able to translate things from the meeting room to the grass. He truly is one of those linemen — like we talk about with the quarterbacks — that’s an extension of the coaching staff. He’s got a great grasp of what we want to get done.”
Sullivan’s brilliant 2017 earned him a two-year, $10.75 million deal with the Rams, who have clearly thrived behind McVay, Goff and one of the league’s best offenses. Sullivan, however, took a step back statistically, surrendering a league-high 37 pressures at the center position this regular season while committing seven penalties. He’s been one of the best centers in the postseason, though, with zero pressures allowed on Goff, who’s only been sacked once in two games.
Finding a Sullivan-type should be a goal for the Vikings this offseason as they look to bolster the offensive line. There is inherently a risk in signing veterans, but new schemes, coaches and training staffs can often squeeze the most out of older players — even if it’s just for one season. With so much cap space occupied by the quarterback and defense, the Vikings at least have to try for a low-risk, high-reward signing.
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