In new environment, McKinnie feels like old self
It's hard to appreciate just how large Bryant McKinnie truly is unless you've stood next to him.

McKinnie weighs upward of 350 pounds and stands just three inches short of being seven feet tall. He's not fat, despite what you have heard. He's just gigantic, from his toes to his calves to his shoulders.

He was leaning against his locker and fiddling with his BlackBerry this week. Cupped in his enormous right hand, the BlackBerry looked like it could have been the size of walnut.

There are a number of reasons why the Ravens decided, late in the preseason, to gamble on McKinnie and make him their starting left tackle even though he was cut by the Vikings, with the team expressing concerns about his attitude and fitness. The Ravens felt a simple change of scenery might help him re-boot his commitment, and they were also desperate for whatever help they could get after watching their offensive line look shaky, at best, during the preseason.

But none of those reasons outweigh the most obvious truth about McKinnie: No matter what kind of shape he was in during the lockout, it was still going to be hard for a defender to get around someone built like a Kodiak bear.

Thought it's only been four games, it's probably fair to say the Ravens gamble has paid off remarkably well. McKinnie has started every game and, if you throw out one bad half he had against the Tennessee Titans, he's been pretty good in both pass protection and run blocking. He managed to set the tone for a dominant day against the Steelers when he made two blocks on one play and sprung Ray Rice for a huge gain.

"I think he and Shaq are about the same size," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. "Trying to find Ray Rice when he's running behind [McKinnie] is pretty hard to do."

His arrival also allowed the Ravens to put Michael Oher back at right tackle, re-teaming him with guard Marshal Yanda. Rice running to the right side has consistently been one of Baltimore's best plays in 2011.

Plus, if you believe Ravens coach John Harbaugh, McKinnie's biggest impact hasn't been felt yet. It's likely going to come in the second half of the season, when the Ravens will need it the most.

"We are really happy with him," Harbaugh said of McKinnie. "We really like where he is, no doubt. He's played well. He's a premier player. We knew he was one of the premier tackles in football. I just think he's only going to get better as the season goes on, because he's going to get to work with our guys in our system and he's going to continue to get in better shape."

Two types of shape

Just what kind of shape McKinnie was in during the NFL lockout is still somewhat in dispute. When the Vikings decided to release him after eight seasons, an NFL source told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune it was in part because McKinnie showed up weighing nearly 400 pounds.

McKinnie has no problem admitting he wasn't in football shape when he reported to camp. But he contends whomever spoke anonymously to the Star-Tribune was exaggerating how much he weighed. And it only made him all the more happy to leave town.

"I was heavy, but there were reports saying I couldn't even move," McKinnie said. "It just wasn't accurate. I could see where Baltimore might have thought I was a risk because they weren't sure how that would pan out, but it just wasn't accurate. I'm not somebody who can run a whole bunch of sprints. That's never been me. But I always know how to play football. Those are two different types of shape, anyway."

The marriage between McKinnie and the Vikings could never exactly be described as idyllic, even though he played fairly well and the team — which drafted him No. 7 overall in 2002 — had success with him in the line-up. McKinnie was involved in a scuffle outside a Minneapolis gas station in 2005, and he was one of the Vikings fined for his participation in the embarrassing "Love Boat" sex party scandal in 2006. In 2008, he was arrested for his participation in a brawl outside a Miami night club, and he was also openly critical of the team's decision to trade quarterback Dante Culpepper. In 2009, he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time but was kicked off the team for skipping practices prior the game.

All those incidents gave the Ravens pause when McKinnie was released by the Vikings. But when general manager Ozzie Newsome spoke with Ed Reed — a college teammate of McKinnie's at Miami — the Ravens Pro Bowl safety didn't hesitate to vouch for his fellow Hurricane.

"I don't know why it didn't work out," Reed said of McKinnie's time with the Vikings. "It's really not my choice, but once he hit the market, Ozzie came to me and asked me about him. It was a no-brainer. You need a left tackle, and he's one of the best. I've seen him go against some of the greatest rush ends in this league right now, and he's proven it. It was just a matter of him getting in shape."

A fresh start

McKinnie says he's not interested in making excuses about his time with the Vikings. If the organization grew weary of him, well, the feeling was mutual.

"Sometimes when you're in a place for so long, you kind of feel like you're not appreciated," McKinnie said. "I'll be straight up and admit that's kind of how I felt. I wasn't being appreciated so it was time for me to go. I felt like saying 'When I leave, you'll appreciate what I've done as soon as I'm gone.' And I feel like some of that is going on now."

Although their time in Minnesota, and their departure from the organization, was certainly different, even Matt Birk said he can understand some of what McKinnie says about the need for a change.

"I think it did rejuvenate him," Birk said. "I know from personal experience that change is good for the soul. It's a fresh start. Sometimes during your career, if you play one place for a long time things can get a little bit stale. When you change all your surroundings, your teammates, your facilities, where you live, I don't think it can do anything but re-energize you. Late in your career, people tend to say 'Oh, his play has fallen off.' And going somewhere new is a chance to prove those people wrong.' "

McKinnie said the Ravens were appealing in part because they told him he wouldn't have to conform to the organization and act a certain way. For years, the Ravens have thrived on having a locker room full of loud and colorful personalities, and McKinnie — who loves to laugh and tell jokes — felt right at home.

"I'm not going to lie, I felt like in Minnesota, people were a little up tight and weren't always allowed to be themselves," McKinnie said. "They were being who the coaches wanted them to be and weren't able to express their true personality. One of the first things Coach Harbaugh said to me was 'Express your personality. We're all about that here. We're about going out there and enjoying ourselves.'"

McKinnie knows he tends to say and do things that would make a lot of head coaches nervous. But what he appreciates about the Ravens, at least thus far, is they're not hung up on appearances. Is he a good guy? A bad guy? In his mind, it's silly question. All the Ravens care is that he does his job.

"I've had coaches in the past that made you dread things, whether it's because they're always complaining or because they're not making it fun," McKinnie said. "The coaches here know I didn't get a chance to learn technique because I wasn't here for camp, so at the end of the day, all they care about is getting the play blocked. I feel like the joy of playing football has returned for me."

kvanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kvanvalkenburg