GREEN BAY (MCT) — For the first time in a full year, Evan Dietrich-Smith is homeward bound. He’ll see his family, see his friends. The Green Bay Packers’ center plans to head west to California when organized team activities wrap up.
But the trip won’t be long. Two, maybe three days.
Then it’s back to Green Bay.
Said Dietrich-Smith, “I’m not the biggest fan of taking too much time off.”
That’s a small peek inside the brain of the Packers’ new starting center. Dietrich-Smith hasn’t been rewarded with a long-term deal yet. He’s in the same boat as Sam Shields, B.J. Raji and others. Green Bay will wait before investing. After starting the final four games at center in 2012, Dietrich-Smith signed his modest restricted free-agent tender of $1.323 million and returned.
Any job in the NFL is fleeting, a fact Dietrich-Smith knows more than anyone in the Packers’ locker room. He has been released by the team before. He’s worked out of a YMCA.
So now that he is an unquestioned starter, Dietrich-Smith refuses to view himself as an unquestioned starter.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Dietrich-Smith said. “If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you could be the next guy out the door. I don’t take anything for granted. Every opportunity I get, I have to prove myself.”
Looking back, it’s surprising the Packers waited until Week 16 to bench veteran Jeff Saturday for Dietrich-Smith. Injuries along the line didn’t help. Green Bay needed Dietrich-Smith at left guard for 4½ games before he spent the final four at center. But from September on, it was apparent Father Time had Saturday locked in a full nelson.
The 37-year-old often was overwhelmed by younger, fresher defensive tackles. In the run game, he was a day late. Finally, the 6-foot-2, 308-pound Dietrich-Smith was inserted as the starting center and — as quarterback Aaron Rodgers often hinted himself — he showed signs of being the center of the future.
Inside an ear-splitting Metrodome, Dietrich-Smith was the point man for a unit that generated 34 points and 405 total yards in the regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. He was hardly the problem in the playoffs, teaming with Josh Sitton to spark a pair of DuJuan Harris touchdown runs. His presence also allowed Green Bay to rev up its hurry-up offense.
So now he enters camp as the starter. With several chances at handpicking a center in the draft the last two years — including two from Wisconsin — Green Bay passed. Fourth-rounder J.C. Tretter may have been a versatile backup, but he broke his ankle in practice.
This is Dietrich-Smith’s job to lose. He just doesn’t want to hear about it.
“I really don’t think I’m the guy yet,” Dietrich-Smith said. “That’s what everyone keeps telling me, but I can’t have that mentality. You have to make sure you’re working and getting better every day. That’s the mentality I’ve had my whole career. You have to make sure you’re doing it right.”
Take Tuesday’s practice. On one play, Dietrich-Smith misidentified a block and pressure flooded the middle of the line.
“You can’t brush that stuff off,” he said. “You have to make sure you’re right all the time.”
Saturday couldn’t handle the job physically into December, something the younger, barrel-chested Dietrich-Smith shouldn’t have a problem with. Strength coaches are often forced to kick him out of the weight room. No, the No. 1 focus for Dietrich-Smith is the mental strain of the position in this offense.
About “90 percent” of the job is mental, “10 percent” physical, he said.
If the center botches a call, it affects everyone. One sinkhole and the richest player in football is at risk. Dietrich-Smith knows he must approach each snap with complete confidence. If Rodgers makes a last-second audible — common at the line — Dietrich-Smith must react. Now. And he must relay that information ASAP.
“It’s not easy. You have to be on top of your game all the time,” Dietrich-Smith said. “You have to be very vocal. Your communication has to be very deliberate. It has to be out there and everybody has to know what you’re doing. If you don’t have that confidence, it shows up on film.
“You have to be right or you’re all going to be wrong together.”
And the Packers are hoping their reshuffled offensive line reaches the point of fluid improvisation. The Vikings game, Dietrich-Smith’s second start at center, was a perfect example. Peering back at Rodgers through his legs, it was difficult for Dietrich-Smith to hear anything. That’s where continuity is key, he says. In critical moments, a message can be blurred in translation.
Dietrich-Smith is hardly the new kid on the block. He originally signed with Green Bay in 2009. The backup lineman was let go, picked up by Seattle, let go and then picked up again by the Packers. As he has spoken at length about before, Dietrich-Smith realized he needed to clean up his act off the field — quit partying, start working out more — to forge an NFL career.
Hence, the “hello, goodbye” trips west. Green Bay is his new home.
To make it his long-term home, to earn a contract extension, Dietrich-Smith can’t warp this approach.
The contract isn’t on his mind.
“I’ll let the play talk for itself,” Dietrich-Smith said. “I don’t worry about that kind of stuff. That’s the stuff that agents handle....For me, it’s more about going out there and playing consistent.”