Jason Wilde said:
GREEN BAY — The reason it was noteworthy was that it went against the Green Bay Packers' tried-and-true methodology.
A few days after veteran Pro Bowl center Scott Wells signed a lucrative free-agent deal (four years, $24 million, $13 million guaranteed) with the St. Louis Rams in March 2012, the Packers turned around and added not only an unrestricted free agent, but one who was no spring chicken: Ex-Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, who signed a relatively inexpensive two-year deal ($7.75 million, with $4 million in combined pay for 2012) to replace him.
At most positions, the Packers would have simply promoted the next young player on the depth chart, or allowed multiple young players to compete for the job. And the Packers did have young center already on the roster in Evan Dietrich-Smith, who was entering his third NFL season and had started three games in 2011 in spot duty.
But, as coach Mike McCarthy explained at the NFL Meetings that year in Palm Beach, Fla., he was uncomfortable with the idea of a young player taking over the center position, given the complexity of the Packers' offense and his plans to expand use of the no-huddle with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"I think the way we play on offense it's important to have a veteran center," McCarthy explained. "I think Jeff will handle those types of little nuances very well, and he may bring a nuance or two to the table. You have to tap into the experience that him and (ex-Colts quarterback) Peyton (Manning) have had for so long in Indianapolis."
As it turned out, the Packers probably would have been better off simply giving the job to Dietrich-Smith, since that's what they ended up doing anyway with two weeks left in the regular season, when McCarthy benched Saturday anyway. While Saturday brought the intelligence and leadership the offense needed and was still good as a pass protector (three sacks, two hurries and five hits allowed, according to ProFootballFocus), he struggled in the run game and his age — 37 — finally caught up to him.
In truth, what Dietrich-Smith lacked in experience, he made up for with a much-needed tough-guy edge. His football I.Q. was probably high enough to allow him to play sooner, according to quarterback Aaron Rodgers' rave reviews of him. After starting the final four games (two regular-season, two postseason), he's now technically the only constant on an offensive line where both tackles and both guards will be on the opposite side of where they were last year.
"More than anything, having a center like Evan who brings some crazy energy to practice every day and brings a wealth of knowledge and intelligence, that really helps," Rodgers said. "Because when he can be in the middle and have two incredibly intelligent guards next to him, you can do a lot of things."
Dietrich-Smith has certainly matured as he enters his fourth (credited) NFL season. He has seen action at three positions (left guard, center and right guard) the past two seasons, and whatever faith the teams might have lacked in him before last season, the coaches are now at the other extreme.
The only other true centers on the roster are undrafted rookie free agent Patrick Lewis of Texas A&M, and first-year man Garth Gerhart. Greg Van Roten, who was promoted from the practice squad last season as an undrafted free agent, is the top backup on the interior line, but it's abundantly clear that the team is not only counting on Dietrich-Smith to play, but play very well.
"For him, it's a matter of just to keep growing. He's made a lot of big strides in the last two years," offensive line coach James Campen said. "Playing the center position, it's a command and he has to generate enthusiasm in and out of the huddle, tempo, along with making calls.
"(He needs to) just keep progressing and attack it the same way he did when he started attacking his game at a serious level two years ago. That's been talked about before. He changed his work ethic, his habits, and just to continue to grow in that role."
For his part, Dietrich-Smith is looking forward to a year where he's locked in at his position — "It's definitely a lot easier when you can focus in on one spot and work all your techniques for that," he said — and having been retained with the low qualifying offer as a restricted free agent, Dietrich-Smith will play this year at $1.323 million with the potential of earning much bigger dollars as an unrestricted free agent next spring if he plays well.
An undrafted free agent out of Idaho State, the 6-foot-2, 308-pound Dietrich-Smith made the team in 2009 and was active for 13 games, mostly playing special teams. The Packers cut him on the final roster reduction at the end of training camp in 2010, though, and he spent most of 2010 out of football until the Packers re-signed him the final week of the regular season when injuries hit. He never played a snap that season, but he considered his experience a wake-up call.
He decided to take a more professional approach entering 2011, and that led to this opportunity. What he does from here is up to him — and vital to the team's 2013 success.
"Last year, he was a guy we really hadn't seen play much but obviously everybody trusted him when he got in there he played well," right guard T.J. Lang said. "And finally got the chance last year to take over that center job and really hasn't looked back.
"He's just a guy that keeps overcoming all the adversity he's been through, and he's really a great guy to have there in the center of the line. He's a smart guy and athletic. He can really get the job done for us."