PALM BEACH, Fla. – As they got ready for dinner at the tony Republic Chophouse in downtown Green Bay last week, Mike McCarthy, Tom Clements and James Campen had to laugh. It had been so long since the Green Bay Packers had wined and dined a prospective free-agent signee, the head coach, his offensive coordinator and his offensive line coach weren’t quite sure if they still had it in them.
But as rusty as McCarthy and his staff might have been, they did something right, because on Friday, the team inked five-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday to a two-year deal that was vital to keeping the Packers’ high-powered offense moving in the right direction in the wake of starting center Scott Wells’ free-agent departure on March 16.
The Packers’ pitch so impressed Saturday, who received a two-year, $7.75 million deal and became the team’s first unrestricted free-agent signee since the forgettable Duke Preston in 2009, that he signed with the Packers even though his friend and longtime teammate with the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Peyton Manning, went to the Denver Broncos and tried to convince Saturday to come along. Saturday visited the Broncos and the Tennessee Titans after coming to Green Bay, but in the end, he wound up with the Packers.
“With Jeff, we spent the day talking football and so forth and he says, ‘You know this free agency isn’t all what it’s cut out to be. … I spent my whole career in one place, and it’s a little awkward, it’s unnatural,’” McCarthy recounted as he sat in the lobby of The Breakers resort, where this week’s annual NFL Meetings were kicking off Sunday.
“We all started laughing at our table and said, ‘Hell, I haven’t been to a free agent dinner in … I can’t even remember the last one I’ve been to. It’s been years.’ We had to kind of get reacquainted with the process. Obviously we did pretty well because it worked out. It was good to go out and have a meal with a veteran free agent.”
What’s even better, McCarthy said, is what Saturday will allow the Packers to do offensively. The coach has long said that in his offense, the amount of responsibility placed upon each player grows with the closer he is to the ball, meaning the quarterback and center have the greatest responsibility. Wells, who got a four-year, $24 million deal (with $13 million guaranteed) from the St. Louis Rams, was brilliant at making the protection declarations at the line of scrimmage, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on several occasions that Wells’ savvy helped make his job considerably easier.
In addition, McCarthy implemented greater use of the no-huddle offense last season, something that Saturday might have more experience in than any other center in the league, having played with Manning, who took it to another level in his time in Indianapolis.
“It’s important to make sure your key decision makers are giving everyone else an opportunity to maximize their talents, particularly the schematic challenge that we put on teams with our offense,” McCarthy said. “So that was a very important acquisition
“It really was going to be very important on who was going to play center because we will not slow down the quarterback and the rest of our offense, especially where we are. We’re at a place we want to be, and we want to expand. When our offensive guys get back, we’ve got some new stuff going and they’re going to be excited about it, but it’s not for the inexperienced.”
McCarthy said Sunday that he simply was not going to have a young center at the heart of his offense, meaning Evan Dietrich-Smith or practice-squadder Samson Genus were not realistic options. McCarthy also sounded like he didn’t think a rookie draft pick wouldn’t have been ready to handle the load, even a highly regarded, first-round talent. McCarthy said he had a backup plan if the Packers hadn’t landed Saturday, but he wouldn’t say what the plan was.
“We had a plan,” McCarthy said. “I really don’t want to get into that.”
McCarthy only chuckled when told that right guard Josh Sitton and left guard T.J. Lang debated on Twitter which one would have moved to center had Saturday not signed.
“I appreciate their sense of humor,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said that despite his age – Saturday turns 37 in June – he doesn’t look like a high-mileage player on film and has been extremely durable, starting 188 games and starting all 16 regular-season games in six of the past seven years.
“He’s got good film,” McCarthy said. “We spent time obviously watching the tape, and really the most impressive part of it was when he and (offensive line coach) James Campen sat in the room and just talked football.
“He had a chance to meet some of our linemen who were working out in the weight room that day, so I was very comfortable, very confident just in the way he fit in because at the end of the day fit is so important, and personality because being the veteran that he is, coming into that room, because it is a little unusual for us.”
Saturday has yet to do a formal media availability with reporters, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Silverstein reached him over the weekend, and Saturday spoke very highly of the coaches and their sales pitch. He said the Packers made him feel truly wanted, whereas the Broncos did not.
“Peyton is a close friend and I loved playing with him," Saturday told the newspaper. "I loved the time we spent together. It was the most difficult call I've ever made. I told him before anyone else that I was going to Green Bay.
"I told him I don't think the Broncos wanted me as much as he did. They've got things going on that they're happy with and are moving forward with and I didn't think it was an exact fit. I always felt like in Green Bay I was their very first choice."
The feeling was mutual.
“He’s a very impressive individual. He just brings a wealth of experience. I think he’s a really good fit for our offensive line room,” McCarthy said. “I was just real impressed with how long he’s played and the number of games he’s played in. It was a great visit. Tom Clements, James Campen and (I) had a chance to spend a lot of time with him. I thought it was a natural fit, and it made sense from both sides. So we’re looking for him to be a leader and use that experience, especially for our younger players particularly the offensive linemen.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.