You know the stories you usually read here at CheeseheadTV, and anywhere else in the Blogosphere and the media. We’re used to seeing stories about our folk heroes, the powerful starters and each and every ebb and flow in their season. And, we also love the stories of gritty youngsters trying to make the team, for whom winning the 53rd roster spot and spending a season on the inactive list is a victory in and of itself.
But what about those players in the middle: you know, the serviceable backups, the spot starters…the guys you keep around just long enough for them to prove they can be something better, or until something better comes along. The vast majority of the roughly 2,000 players in the NFL probably fall into this category (or some range of subcategories that imply “I’m not a starter”).
Yet those players’ stories may well be more compelling than the story of a kid who has always been the best at every level he’s played at. This is a story of adults struggling to hang on to a dream of playing in the NFL, in which the part of the dream including Pro Bowls, multi-million dollar signing bonuses, and endorsements galore are no longer part of the equation. This dream has become far more simple and stark: play as well as you can or they will find someone to replace you. Soon.
And perhaps no story better personifies this plotline than that of Evan Dietrich-Smith, the Packers’ offensive lineman whose story from the unemployment line to NFL roster mirrors that of a grocery shelf-stocking Kurt Warner…but that’s about as far as the analogy works. Warner is the exception to the rule, and for every player that goes from unemployed to Pro Bowler in the course of a season or two, there are several thousand who end up right back stocking shelves.
After being cut from the Seattle Seakhawks two years ago, EDS was applying to become a substitute teacher to support himself and his pregnant wife. Mind you, the pay for substitute teachers is far from secure: maybe $100 a day if you’re lucky, and don’t count on any insurance or benefits along the way. Deitrich-Smith was pretty scared at that point, with a baby on the way. At that moment, in the throes of the Great Recession, he wasn’t the only one looking for any source of income to make ends meet; but unlike most of the rest, he got the magic phone call that changed his life. He was signed by the Packers again, just in time for their Super Bowl run.
Last season, EDS played in every game, in the role that has come to define him since returning to the Packers: the ultimate backup. At the start of this season, he was listed as the primary backup at nearly every position along the offensive line. Such a flexible role has made him very valuable, especially after Josh Sitton was hurt last season and Bryan Bulaga exited this season on injured reserve. Both times he’s been thrust into a role as a spot starter at guard.
Yet, his strongest position is at center, where Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson project him at. There comes a point, however, where you run out of chances to take that position. Many felt that with the impending departure of long-time starter Scott Wells this past offseason, EDS was essentially penciled in to take over. That changed when Thompson signed aging veteran Jeff Saturday to start this season.
It’s hard enough when your general manager drafts a guy with a high pick at your position. You know you have some competition, and perhaps he’s looking down the line at replacing you. Certainly, Ryan Grant and James Starks had to be a little suspicious when Alex Green was drafted in the third round. But its a different story when your GM completely breaks from his long-standing approach and signs a veteran free agent, and places him ahead of you in a starting position.
It had to be a bit of a shot for Dietrich-Smith, who did a nice job filling in and establishing himself as a valuable spot starter. But a playoff debacle at home against the Giants, in which Aaron Rodgers had perhaps one of his worst passing days–sacked four times and decidedly under pressure and off on his throws–might have factored into a decision by Thompson to bring in a veteran to stabilize the line. Why take a chance on an unproven young kid?
But, Dietrich-Smith isn’t a young kid anymore. Yes, he’s far more young than Saturday, whose own performance this season has led to some quiet grumblings for EDS to take over at center. But now, the point is moot as our favorite backup extraordinaire has been called in to fill in for Bulaga. Amusingly enough, that hasn’t stopped his quarterback from publicly musing whether or not to bring in yet another aging veteran–former tackle Chad Clifton–to be the stopgap instead of Dietrich-Smith.
To his credit, Rodgers speaks highly of EDS.
“I have a lot of confidence in Evan,” Rodgers said. “He’s done a good job whenever he gets called on, whether it’s center or guard. We believe he’s going to be a big part of the future of the Packers’ offensive line. It will be good for him to get some reps in at the start of the game. He did a good job last week coming in off the bench cold. He’ll be ready to play.”
But, let’s not fool ourselves. Certainly, Dietrich-Smith, who may have experienced a TJ Lang-esque epiphany, changing some wild and undisciplined ways into focused professionalism, takes nothing for granted.
“The past is the past and you’ve got to grow from your experiences,” Dietrich-Smith says. “That’s what I felt like I’ve done. I’ve been able to take the negatives and turn it into positives. See what you do wrong, fix it and do it right the next time. Like I said, some guys don’t get a second opportunity and I’m thankful enough to get one from this team.”
Eventually, those chances are going to run out. This is a big opportunity for a 26 year-old who has struggled to earn a starting spot on his own. While EDS has proven that he is valuable as a backup and spot starter, he’s also trying to make a case that Thompson can part ways with Saturday after this season and open up competition at the center position, with Deitrich-Smith penciled in at the top of the list.
Let’s also not sweep the State of the Packers under the rug. A plethora of injuries have left the Packers with holes, some of which may need to be filled with the draft. The injury to Andrew Quarrless and under-performing of Jermichael Finley may make tight end a Day 1/Day 2 priority. Derrek Sherrod’s critical injury may mean Thompson may have to spend yet another first round draft pick on a tackle. Running back, linebacker, defensive line, and even wide receiver might be priorities to replaces injured or departing players.
And, this is the offseason where contracts come home to roost. With big payouts and decisions due on Aaron Rodgers, BJ Raji, Clay Matthews, and Greg Jennings, it means there isn’t going to be a lot of money under the cap for proven veterans to come in and do what Saturday has done: be a stopgap while waiting for younger players to develop.
And the last pure center drafted by the Packers was Jason Spitz back in 2006, with only three centers drafted since 2000. Given the amount of pressure Rodgers has been under this season, and the number of sacks he’s already taken, the Packers aren’t going to be happy drafting another mid-round center and hoping he develops. You don’t invest tens of millions of dollars in a franchise quarterback, then not ensure at least some level of protection for him.
So, all eyes will be on Dietrich-Smith this afternoon, as well as for the remainder of the season. And no one knows the consequences better than he does.
“It’s not fun sitting out on the street hoping that one day someone’s going to give you a call. Or knowing that you might be better than somebody that’s playing,” Dietrich-Smith said. “It definitely clears up your attitude as far as your work ethic and what you need to be doing to make sure you’re on the team. Because that’s the biggest thing. How do you approach your job and how you’re going to contribute to the team.”
With a wife and family to support, Dietrich-Smith is one of a long line of NFL players that receive the adulation that comes with the hope of being the answer to a sticky situation. It’s an adulation that quickly disappears when those expectations are not met, and the team (and fans) move on quickly to the next possible solution.
Evan Dietrich-Smith is on the cusp of a lot of things: establishing himself as a competent NFL starter, making a case for the starting center job outright next season, and insuring financial stability for himself and his young family. He’s also teetering on the brink of becoming what thousands and thousands of NFL players have become over the years: forgotten.
Here’s hoping that EDS takes the reins and cements himself as a guy the Packers want to keep around. Heaven knows they would love to fill in that position depth chart next season without having to waste any more money or draft picks. But even moreso, it would be nice to see a young kid like EDS go the route of Kurt Warner and defy the odds as an undrafted kid who squandered his early chances away, yet took his last one and ran with it.
C.D. Angeli is a longtime Packer fan and feature writer for CheeseheadTV. He is also the co-host of the weekly live Packer podcast Cheesehead Radio. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.