GREEN BAY – There were plenty of reasons why the Green Bay Packers signed Jeff Saturday this spring.
He was a veteran center at a position that is not for the inexperienced in coach Mike McCarthy’s offense.
He was a cheaper alternative than Scott Wells, who went to the Pro Bowl last year and went to St. Louis as a free agent, signing a four-year, $24 million contract ($13 million guaranteed).
He had extensive experience in a no-huddle offense, having spent 13 years with the Indianapolis Colts, protecting and making line calls for Peyton Manning.
And, although he was obviously reaching the end of the line – he was about to turn 37 in June – the team believed he had enough smarts and savvy, as well as enough left in the tank, to get through at least one more NFL season.
But perhaps the added benefit of bringing in Saturday wasn’t fully evident until Friday, when – with just two weeks left in the regular season – the Packers benched him in favor of third-year man Evan Dietrich-Smith. For it was in that moment, at a time when he could have been bitter, angry and disappointed, that Saturday also showed another of his valuable traits: Utter professionalism.
A class act in every sense of the word, Saturday could’ve easily ducked reporters Friday, especially since McCarthy never came out and said publicly that the change was being made. He could have played the change off as being related to the neck/shoulder injury that kept him out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday. And, after McCarthy had hemmed and hawed on the subject when it came up in his post-practice press briefing, Saturday could’ve done the same.
But he did no such thing.
“Obviously, as a player, you want to play. But I support Evan and I know he’s a great player. He’ll get the job done and do what he needs to do to play well and get us a win,” said Saturday, who was named to five Pro Bowl teams, received two All-Pro selections and won a Super Bowl title during his time in Indianapolis – and, ironically, received the most votes among NFC centers in the fan balloting for this year’s Pro Bowl.
“Obviously, I (was) a stop-gap here. There’s no surprise as far as that stuff goes. You’re 37 years old. I’ve been around this thing long enough to know that it’s not a long future. I think if ‘Deedy’ plays well, I wouldn’t think they’d go back and make another change. That’s how I look at it.
“I told Dietrich, I fully support him, I have a ton of respect for him as a player and as an athlete. I think he’ll do a good job. I told him to make the most of it. We all get our chance somehow. Whenever you do, take advantage of it. When I got my chance, I made the most of mine. I hope he does the same.
“We’re at two totally different points of our career. His is on the up-ramp, mine is on the way out. This is football. It’s a business at the end of the day. I think ‘Deeds’ is going to do a great job and give us a good chance to win games.”
Asked if he was surprised by the timing, Saturday paused, then replied, “I guess. Coach McCarthy makes a decision and as a player, you’re one guy on the team. Whatever decision is made, you support what happens. I’ve got a ton of respect for (Dietrich-Smith). He and I worked together, and I think he’ll do a good job.”
It was clear something was up when McCarthy was slightly evasive when asked about the plan at center for Sunday’s game against Tennessee, saying that Saturday “will be ready to go” but replying with “We’ll see” when asked if Saturday would start.
Asked to clarify, McCarthy replied, “We will probably go with Evan Dietrich-Smith to start the game. But I’ve got to visit with Jeff. We didn’t do a whole lot today. He’s been going through a number of things Wednesday and Thursday. We feel good about his health, but we haven’t made a final decision. I feel like I say this every week, that’s what the 1 o’clock meeting is for.”
Saturday didn’t mince words. Asked if the move was medical related, Saturday replied, “I don’t think so. I haven’t been able to go this week, but when you look at it, I think Evan has worked hard, played good. Give him a chance to go see what he can do at center and see how he plays. I should be ready to go, so I don’t think that really has any kind of factor of what’s happening.”
As a result, barring a late-season injury – something that’s not out of the question given the Packers’ buzzard’s luck on the injury front this season – Saturday’s time in Green Bay is over. ProFootballFocus.com had Saturday as the league’s 30th-best center in its most recent rankings, and while Saturday signed a two-year deal as a free agent in March, he has said all along that he’d wait and see how this year went.
Now, having been benched on the cusp of the playoffs, it seems clear that he’ll call it a career after the year is over. Colts owner Jim Irsay has already told him he has a role in Indianapolis’ front office waiting for him if he wants it.
In the meantime, rest assured he’ll do all he can to support and help Dietrich-Smith, who goes from filling in at left guard for an injured T.J. Lang, to sitting the bench last week against Chicago (when Lang returned to left guard and Don Barclay continued to start at right tackle), to being the starting center – now, and possibly into the future.
“That’s how the league plays out, man. They want the best five guys out there – however they see it. You just have to roll with it,” Dietrich-Smith said. “We’re all here, we all get paid to do our job and however they see your job to be fit, you’ve got to do it when they call upon you.
“I’m just going out there to help the team win as best I can and this is the move they want to make. I’m just going to do my job. I’ve got tons of respect for Jeff. He’s helped me a lot. I’ve had two good mentors. Jeff means a lot to me, so does Scott, and to get the opportunity, I hope I just go out there and make the coaches really, really proud.
“Me and Jeff had a great relationship since he’s been here. I mean, me and him have been on the same page since Day 1. The big thing for us, we just want success for the team. And he’s always been on board with eventually, something’s going to happen. with him with this going on, he has my support and I have his support but for me, it’s more of a respect thing. To have Jeff’s respect and have the respect of the guys is the biggest thing for me.”
Asked about the timing, Dietrich-Smith replied, “Yeah, it’s different, but they feel this is the best option for them. We’re going to go out there and do what we need to do tow win football games. This is how they want to go, then this is how we’re going to roll with it.”
So will Saturday, although he acknowledged this was not the ending he’d envisioned.
“I’d be lying if I told you it’s not disappointing and tough. I’m here to play football,” Saturday said. “I told Coach, I came here to help win a Super Bowl. Winning the NFC North is great, but that wasn’t why I was here. I looked for more of the postseason. It’s disappointing from that side.
“(But) you can’t be affected by your circumstances. I’m a member of the Packers. It’s not just me. If Coach McCarthy thinks that gives us the best chance to win and go on and do things in the postseason, then that’s what it is. As a player, it’s always disappointing whenever someone else goes in front of you. It’s a tough thing to deal with. But I’m going to deal with it.
“Here’s the one thing: I can look at my family, I can look at all my players and say I put the best I could be out there. If that’s not good enough and somebody else is better, then they deserve to play. And I’ve always felt like that. I respect ‘Deedy’ enough to say if that’s his, then he needs to take it and go do a good job with it."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.