GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jeff Saturday has been benched as the Packers’ starting center.
Just two games before the playoffs begin, Saturday, a 37-year-old five-time Pro Bowl selection, has been replaced by third-year offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith.
“We’re at two totally different points of our career,” Saturday said at his locker. “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.”
After playing 13 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Saturday signed a two-year contract with Green Bay last offseason. Saturday chose the Packers over Denver, where he would have reunited with quarterback Peyton Manning.
“Obviously, I’m a stopgap here,” Saturday said. “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.”
Other than during Saturday’s rookie season in 1999, he has started every game in which he’s been active. When the Packers take the field this weekend at home against the Tennessee Titans, Saturday will watch as another center snaps the first ball instead of him.
“I’d be lying if I told you it’s not disappointing and tough,” Saturday said. “I’m here to play football. I told Coach (Mike McCarthy), I came here to help win a Super Bowl. Winning the NFC North is great, but that wasn’t why I was here. It’s disappointing from that side. If Coach McCarthy thinks this 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 (Dietrich-Smith) enough to say if this is his (opportunity), then he needs to take it and go do a good job with it.”
Saturday has been bothered by neck and shoulder injuries this week, which kept him out of two practices. However, he is probable on the team’s injury report and will be on the active roster for the game.
“I should be ready to go, so I don’t think that really has any kind of factor of what’s happening,” Saturday said.
Dietrich-Smith started four games this season at left guard, a move necessitated by a season-ending injury to right tackle Bryan Bulaga. When Bulaga went down, T.J. Lang slid from his starting spot at left guard over to right tackle.
But now that Dietrich-Smith is at center, the move seems permanent.
“I think if ‘Deedy’ plays well, I wouldn’t think they’d go back and make another change,” Saturday said. “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.”
Dietrich-Smith went undrafted in 2009 and signed with the Packers as a free agent. However, the team released him at the end of training camp in 2010 before re-signing him four months later.
It took a couple seasons on the bench, but when Dietrich-Smith has had his chances on the field, he’s performed well.
“It’s obviously an honor; I’ve got a lot of respect for Jeff,” Dietrich-Smith said. “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. They feel this is the best option for them. This is how they want to go, then this is how we’re going to roll with it.”
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has repeatedly sang the praises of Dietrich-Smith this season, calling him the team’s “center of the future.” Apparently, that future is now.
“I always take appreciation for (Rodgers) backing me so much and I’ve always tried to take advantage of my opportunities,” Dietrich-Smith said. “For him to go out there and say he’s got a lot of faith in me means a lot to me. But it’s just something I want to go out there and prove to the other guys that I can go out there and we fit really good together and we all belong out there.”
Though the 10-4 Packers have already clinched the division title, their offensive line has struggled throughout most of this season. Rodgers has been sacked more than any quarterback in the NFL and Green Bay’s run game has been inconsistent.
“I graded out well,” Saturday said. “You win 10 games, you win the division, I have no complaints with that. There’s obviously areas that you want to be better in and things you can do better. Overall, I think we’ve done a good job. We did well enough to win 10 games. That’s how you want to evaluate it as you move forward.”
Unless the Packers suffer another injury on their offensive line, it’s possible Saturday has played his final snaps in the NFL. Green Bay will likely not bring him back next season as Dietrich-Smith settles into the starting role, perhaps sending Saturday into retirement after a long, successful career.
“Obviously, as a player, you want to play,” Saturday said. “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.”