GREEN BAY, Wis. – Evan Dietrich-Smith hears all the nice things Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy are saying about him and does what he always does.
He gets back to work.
Two years after he was cut by the Packers at the end of training camp and spent most of the season looking for work, Dietrich-Smith has become indispensable in Green Bay. Versatile enough to play any spot on the offensive line, the Packers have so much faith in their main backup that they have no plans to water down the offense for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions despite losing starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga for the rest of the season with a hip injury.
"I'd hope they'd be saying that," Dietrich-Smith said Wednesday. "... I've got to continue to do what I do, which is just go out, work hard, look at the film and just improve every day. Figure out the things you've got to improve on, how you can improve your game, what can you do to make yourself stick around. Because this game is a vicious game. Nothing is guaranteed around here."
No one knows that better than Dietrich-Smith.
After being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Idaho State in 2009, Dietrich-Smith seemed to carve out a niche for himself with the Packers. He played in 13 games as a rookie, and made an appearance in the NFC wild-card game. Most of his time was spent on special teams, though the coaching staff thought enough of him to use him (albeit briefly) at both guard and center late in the year.
But he didn't even make it out of training camp the next summer, getting waived in the final round of cuts.
"I was kind of going wild and just enjoying being in the NFL and stuff like that," Dietrich-Smith said.
Picked up by Seattle, he was released a month later without getting into a game. For the next 2 ½ months, Dietrich-Smith waited for someone — anyone — to call, vowing he would do things differently the next time he got a chance.
"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," he 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.
"You realize this is a job. This isn't something fun like it used to be," he added. "People support their families by doing this job, and there's guys out there that are willing to take your job if you're willing to give it up. So you've got to make sure you're doing something to earn it every day."
The Packers re-signed Dietrich-Smith on Dec. 31, 2010, and he was on the roster for Green Bay's Super Bowl run, though he was inactive for each game. Last year, however, he played in all 16 games, getting significant playing time after Josh Sitton got hurt in the Thanksgiving game in Detroit. That, of course, was the same game when Ndamukong Suh stomped on Dietrich-Smith's arm, drawing a two-game suspension. Suh later called Dietrich-Smith to apologize.
Dietrich-Smith started the next three weeks at right guard, then was the starting left guard for the Dec. 25 game against Chicago — the only game all year that Rodgers didn't get sacked. Rather than kicking back and relaxing after the season, Dietrich-Smith spent the spring and summer in Green Bay, where McCarthy said he was "probably one of our best performers." Dietrich-Smith continued working at all of the line positions, knowing his ability to plug any hole is what makes him so valuable.
Sure enough, when Bulaga dislocated his hip against the Cardinals, McCarthy never hesitated. He put Dietrich-Smith in at left guard, allowing T.J. Lang to shift out to right tackle. Rodgers wound up throwing for four touchdowns and 218 yards against Arizona. His only sack came in the first half, before Bulaga got hurt.
"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."
He always is. Dietrich-Smith may have job security now, but he never forgets what it was like when he didn't.
"The past is the past and you've got to grow from your experiences," Dietrich-Smith said. "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."
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