Surprise: Jeff Saturday out as Packers' C
There has been considerable debate in recent weeks on whether or not the Green Bay Packers should replace place-kicker Mason Crosby. To this point, the Packers have stood behind him. It appears we were focused on the wrong veteran player.
Even after wrapping up the NFC North title, the Packers have taken an unexpected and curiously-timed action: Jeff Saturday won't be the Packers' starting center Sunday against the Tennessee Titans and perhaps beyond. Instead, third-year player Evan Dietrich-Smith -- who has been considered Saturday's heir apparent for 2013 -- will make his first career start at center.
Saturday Saturday didn't practice Wednesday and Thursday because of neck and shoulder injuries, but he returned Friday and coach Mike McCarthy said he was available to play against the Titans. But McCarthy confirmed that Dietrich-Smith will start, and Saturday told reporters that he didn't think his health was the reason for the change.
The Packers still have plenty to play for in their final two games, including a first-round playoff bye and possibly home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. So it wouldn't make sense to start experimenting at such an important position to evaluate future personnel needs. Mostly, the surprise nature of this move illustrates how difficult it is for outsiders -- at least fans and the media -- to judge offensive line play.
Saturday is 37 and we all smirked a bit when he finished atop fan voting for the Pro Bowl this week. But there is a big difference between a veteran who has perhaps slipped from his peak performance and one who is needs to be benched two weeks before the playoffs begin.
To be clear, Dietrich-Smith could be a long-term answer for the Packers. We knew that Saturday, signed as a free agent last winter after Scott Wells' departure, was always a stopgap answer. And there is support for Dietrich-Smith from some of the most important players in the locker room, most notably quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Last month, Rodgers said on his ESPN 540 radio show: "I think [Dietrich-Smith] has a very good approach to the game and he's a guy who’s going to be -- I'm not going to make any bold, crazy predictions -- but I do feel pretty certain that he's going to be with us for a long time and eventually be the starting center."
The Packers clearly have decided that time has come. But no matter how much potential Dietrich-Smith has displayed in practice, or during seven spot starts at guard over the past two seasons, I doubt the Packers would have made this move so late in the season if Saturday were playing better.
I won't pretend that my amateur eye had noticed an obvious deficiency in Saturday's performance over the previous 14 games. Nor had I heard many rumblings from football people who know a lot more than me. Our friends at Pro Football Focus have Saturday rated as their 30th-best center in the NFL, based on run and pass blocking, but sometimes centers are valued more for their ability to make calls and set protections than pure blocking.
Historically, the Packers have more often than not made the right decision when elevating a young player into the starting lineup. That transition usually occurs in the offseason, but the Packers apparently didn't want to wait on this one.