Mike McCarthy openly admits it wasn’t an easy move to make, but one that needed to be made with two games left in the regular season.
After standing by 37-year-old center Jeff Saturday for the first 14 weeks of the season, McCarthy decided to move forward with 26-year-old Evan Dietrich-Smith at the spot during Sunday’s 55-7 win over the Tennessee Titans.
With Dietrich Smith playing the position he and the coaching staff feel he’s best suited for, the Packers’ offensive line went off without a hitch, especially considering the team was playing without starting running back Alex Green, who was out with a concussion.
In his first career start at center, Dietrich-Smith said he felt comfortable in his chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and it showed. He didn’t commit a penalty or muff any snaps in the rout.
Coupled with the fact the five-time Pro Bowler Saturday had been dealing with back and neck ailments that kept him out of practice two days last week, the Packers officially deferred to the younger, larger and quicker Dietrich-Smith on Friday.
Now, they don’t appear to be looking back.
“The center change definitely was (difficult), but any change is never easy,” McCarthy said. “Really in talking with Jeff and the number of things he’s been fighting through physically, it’s a bit of a stretch on my part. I just felt like if we were going to make this change that this was the time to do it to make sure Evan was ready for the playoffs.”
Saturday came to Green Bay this offseason on a two-year, $7.75 million contract after the Packers lost starting center Scott Wells in free agency when he departed for St. Louis.
They hoped to utilize Saturday's experience running the no-huddle offense, which he did during his time in Indianapolis, but he struggled at times, particularly in the running game.
After the annoucement on Friday, Saturday took the first benching of his 14-year NFL career with class, putting over Dietrich-Smith’s improvement while admitting his decline.
While Dietrich-Smith was able to overtake Saturday for the starting spot, he also attributed his improvement this season to studying behind Saturday, who has made four Pro Bowl appearances over the last six years.
“I have nothing, but respect for Jeff,” said Dietrich-Smith on Sunday. “Jeff has been a class act his whole career. The guy exudes what a professional football player is. To be able to be behind him and learn from him, it’s a big thing. It’s a big help for young guys.”
With injuries piling up since the midway point of the season, the Packers have needed all seven of the offensive linemen currently on the roster, so there’s always a chance Saturday could get moved back into the lineup if another starter falls.
Until that happens, however, the Packers are committed to Dietrich-Smith.
“I just felt Jeff had taken us to a point where we needed to think about making a change,” McCarthy said. “He’s actually played well last couple weeks, but I just felt Evan was ready for this opportunity where I did not feel that way in the past.”
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