Heading into the next-to-last game of the regular season, coach Mike McCarthy made the unorthodox move of benching Saturday, with 202 career starts, in favor of Evan Dietrich-Smith, with no career starts at center.
The move didn't pay big dividends at the time.
It is now.
Dietrich-Smith is the league's ninth-ranked center, based on the rankings at ProFootballFocus.com. Last year, Saturday ranked 24th. Dietrich-Smith has provided some much-needed horsepower to the running game. They're averaging 5.5 yards per rush on middle-left carries and 4.6 on middle-right carries compared to 3.1 and 3.2 last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com. According to the league's media-only stats site, the Packers are averaging a full yard per carry more up the middle compared to last year.
"My guy's not making plays so I feel good about it," Dietrich-Smith said on Thursday. "As long as my guy's name's not getting called every play, that's all I'm worried about. Just making sure that we're moving the ball, keeping the tempo up. There's always things that I can improve on but I've been happy with what I'm doing."
Tempo was a big deal when Aaron Rodgers was at quarterback and the offense thrived with a no-huddle approach. It was Dietrich-Smith who was in charge of hustling to the football. After all, nobody else can get lined up until the center is lined up. The faster Dietrich-Smith got to the ball, the faster the rest of the offense could get lined up. And that meant more time for Rodgers to survey the defense.
It's a different challenge with Scott Tolzien at quarterback.
"The kid does a good job," Dietrich-Smith said. "He's good at communicating, making people understand what's going on out there, getting us in the right plays and making sure the calls are coming in right. I think as a whole, we all kind of communicate a little extra when Aaron's not out there but … it's the same process. We've got the same guys in. We've just got to make sure he knows where we're going. Other than that, it's all the same as with Aaron. We point ourselves in a direction, he acknowledges it, then we go."
Dietrich-Smith's rise from backup to trusted leader started late last season. The Packers had gotten a taste of Dietrich-Smith's potential during seven starts at the guard slots in 2011 and 2012. How would he fare at center? The Packers threw him into the fire for the final two regular-season games and both playoff contests. He performed so well that the Packers didn't address the position during the draft.
"It's always important knowing that someone can go in there," offensive line coach James Campen said. "We have a lot of history with Evan. To see him take command of the offense and get the (linemen) up to the line of scrimmage, get people set, drive the tempo — that's part of his job requirement. ‘Let's go.' Obviously, it's encouraging and he's built off of that."
It's quite a rise, considering he didn't take his job seriously enough and played himself right out of town in 2010. Now, he's playing on a one-year restricted free-agent tender and is looking at a payday with an in-season extension or as a free agent.
"You don't get to play in that kind of atmosphere, going against good teams." he said of his late-season experience. "I think it kind of sured everyone up that I can get the job done and that's what I was going out there to do. I knew coming into this season that I had to keep building on that, and I think I've done a good job of doing that."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.