FIRST AT INDY, NOW IN GREEN BAY, CENTER JEFF SATURDAY HAS BEEN THE FULCRUM OF THE NO-HUDDLE OFFENSE, THE NFL'S MOST DYNAMIC ATTACKING SCHEME
This is an article from the Sept. 24, 2012 issue
So many things are different for him in Green Bay. Walk away and leave some stuff outside your locker room cubicle—shoes, a binder, an iPad—even for a few minutes, and a staffer swoops in and puts it all neatly away. Back in Indianapolis, where Jeff Saturday worked for 13 years, where he snapped more footballs to the same quarterback than any other center in NFL history, where he won a Super Bowl ring, where he lived for most of his adult life and where his three children were born—back there he could set up a little home away from home right outside his dressing area and nobody would disturb it all day. In Indy he practiced at a gated facility out on the edge of town; he saw fans only on Sunday. Here in Titletown practice is at Lambeau Field, and fans crowd the parking-area fence line every day, beseeching players for autographs and pictures.
The Packers have a celebrity quarterback, just as the Colts did. But in 13 years together, Saturday and Peyton Manning forged a relationship that more than one teammate compared to a marriage. The two debated strategy, play calls and blocking assignments in the meeting room, on the practice field and in games, right up until the moment Saturday launched the football between his legs. "Jeff had equal say with number 18," says former Colts guard Ryan Lilja, who played with Manning and Saturday in Indianapolis from 2004 through '09. "And Jeff won his share of those battles." Saturday's input is vital in Green Bay, as well, but there have been adjustments: different languages for identifying defenses, for audibles and for snap counts, and different techniques in pass protection and run blocking. And quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a veto power that Saturday isn't accustomed to. "I handle all the adjustments," Rodgers says.
"More difficult than I expected," says Saturday, 37, of the transition. "Thirteen years. It's hard to break old habits."
Last March, Saturday, an unrestricted free agent, signed a two-year, $7.8 million contract with the Packers. They were compensating for the loss of seven-year starting center Scott Wells, a younger player who had joined the Rams for $13 million guaranteed. Saturday was the obvious choice. "We run a lot of no-huddle, he had played in a no-huddle or muddle-huddle offense," says Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson. "We thought he would be a good fit."
There's more to it than that. The center has always been an integral part of offensive strategy; blocking schemes and pass-protection changes have long been called from the inside out. But in the modern era of high-tempo passing games and no-huddle offenses, a quick-thinking and clearheaded center—who can also block a 350-pound nosetackle—is essential. Saturday was among the first, and is arguably the best, of the check-with-me generation of quarterbacking centers, a bridge from Jim Otto and Mike Webster to football's future.
Yet beneath the chaos of change, there is just enough solid ground to keep Saturday within his comfort zone. He has been the old man in the room for longer than most NFL players' entire careers. He has played 199 career games, first among starting centers and 12th among active players who don't kick a ball. "I got to Indianapolis in 2004, and Jeff was the grizzled veteran back then," says Lilja. Now Saturday plays between veteran guards T.J. Lang, who was 11 when Saturday broke into the NFL in 1999, and Josh Sitton, who was 12. "We ask him what pro football was like when they ran the ball, back in the 1990s," says Sitton. Lang repeatedly wonders how Saturday made the transition from leather helmets.
There is still a ball on the ground, the epicenter of every play from scrimmage. There is a defense to scan, calls to make (albeit in that new language) and bodies to block. There is a good team trying to win a second Super Bowl. There is that moment when Saturday squats and puts his hand on that ball and the game waits until he moves it. And with every snap, with every protection call, with every pancake (or missed) block, Saturday extends an unlikely career that began with multiple pronouncements from NFL scouts that he would never play a professional down, and which will probably be celebrated on some future summer weekend with a bust in Canton.
His football beginnings were promising yet nearly stymied, a recurring theme. Jeff was born on June 18, 1975—a Wednesday, alas—to Jimmy and Leslie Saturday in the Atlanta suburb of Tucker. His father was a funeral director and his mother a secretary, and they divorced when Jeff was still very young. His mother married Doug Grantham when Jeff was 10, went back to school and was a teacher for three decades. Saturday reveals these basic details only grudgingly. (And he claims no knowledge of the etymology of his unusual last name, except to say that at least one of his grandfathers was adopted and that most of his blood flows from somewhere in Western Europe.)
Saturday played guard and defensive tackle for coach Ron Gartrell at Shamrock High in Decatur, where he also lettered four times as a wrestler. "Eighty percent of our offense was behind Jeff," says Gartrell, now the coach at Stephenson High in Stone Mountain, Ga. "On defense we put Jeff on one side and all our other good players on the other side, because teams ran away from Jeff."
Gartrell has sent 26 players to the mighty SEC in his 25 years as a head coach, yet he couldn't sell Georgia or Tennessee on Saturday, who was 6'1" and 250 pounds. "They said he was too short and his arms were too short to play in that league," says Gartrell. Georgia Tech wasn't interested either. Gartrell called in a favor from an old friend, North Carolina defensive coordinator Carl Torbush, and the Tar Heels offered Saturday a scholarship.
It was 1994, a transitional time in Chapel Hill. Mack Brown had been hired as coach six years earlier, and after winning a single game in each of his first two seasons, he had guided the Tar Heels to the upper echelon of the ACC. Saturday became a starter during his freshman year, and over his final 37 games North Carolina went 28--9, including 21--3 in the final two seasons. "We were lucky to get him," says Brown, who left for Texas in '98. "He was so tough. And so smart. And he loved to play football."
Brown's roster was flush with future NFL players, particularly on defense. From 1996 through '99 eight Tar Heels defensive players were taken in the first two rounds of the draft, including three first-rounders in '98: tackles Greg Ellis and Vonnie Holliday and linebacker Brian Simmons. All three were classmates of Saturday's and faced him every day, as did Saturday's roommate, Nate Hobgood-Chittick, a defensive tackle who would play three years in the NFL and win a Super Bowl with the '99 Rams.
"Jeff kicked our asses all over the practice field," says Hobgood-Chittick, now a retirement specialist and financial planner in Los Angeles. "I could count on one hand the number of times I beat him in a one-on-one drill, and if it happened, I celebrated." As a senior, Saturday was named first-team All-ACC. But while many players in the Tar Heels' program prepared to move on to the NFL, the same issues that had made Saturday a lightly recruited high school player surfaced again.
In March 1998, Saturday worked out for NFL scouts and executives at North Carolina's pro day. It didn't go well, and afterward Saturday headed to Eastgate BP, a gas station with 12 pumps and three service bays, where he had worked for owner James Spurling since summer of his sophomore year in Chapel Hill. "The day the pro scouts were in town, Jeff comes walking into the store," says Spurling, now 54 and director of North Carolina's Kenan Memorial Stadium and the Tar Heels' football center. "I say, 'How'd it go?' Well, Jeff starts getting choked up and says, 'I guess I'll be pumping frickin' gas and fixing tires for the rest of my life.' He was really upset. The scouts told him he was too short and his arms were too short to block those big pass rushers. I told him, 'Shoot, man, you can't quit because of what one guy says.' Jeff tells me it wasn't one—it was all of 'em who said that."
Former offensive lineman Ernie Williamson, who played with legendary tailback Charlie (Choo Choo) Justice on the Tar Heels' 1946 Sugar Bowl team and was a fund-raiser for the university until his death in 2002, was also at the station that day. "Ernie was what we call an every-day customer," says Spurling. "He had coffee at Eastgate BP every morning." Williamson, 75 at the time, pulled Saturday outside, and the two sat on a wooden bench and talked for the better part of three hours.
Saturday wasn't drafted. The Ravens signed him as a free agent but cut him before the finish of minicamps. His career seemingly kaput, Saturday returned to North Carolina and took a job managing an electrical supply store in Raleigh. Hobgood-Chittick, also undrafted, landed on the Indianapolis roster during the '98 season. Late that fall he went to Colts president Bill Polian and told him about Saturday.
"I had no footing at all with that franchise, so I stood outside Polian's door in my dirty sweats, saying a prayer," says Hobgood-Chittick. "I walked in and said, 'There's a guy selling electrical supplies in Raleigh right now who whipped all those first-round draft choices at North Carolina every day.' Polian looked at me and said, 'I love it. Let's get him in here for a workout.'"
The spring of 1999 was an odd time for the Colts franchise. Jim Mora was in the second of his four seasons as coach in the playoffs? era. Indy had drafted bespectacled Arkansas All-America guard Brandon Burlsworth in the third round in '99 and saw him as a long-term starter, but he was killed in an automobile accident 11 days after the draft. Saturday, who had been invited to minicamp, got reps at guard and, in offensive line coach Howard Mudd's words, "wired" veteran defensive tackle Ellis Johnson.
Saturday made the Colts' roster in '99 and played 11 games at guard. After a season-ending playoff loss to the Titans, he approached Mudd and explained that his apartment lease was ending and he didn't know if he should renew it. "Hell, you're not going anywhere," Mudd said, and then he told Polian to pencil in Saturday as a starter for the next 14 years, which turned out to be an exaggeration by only two.
Last March, Saturday went to dinner in Green Bay with coach Mike McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen. It was awkward, like a first date. Saturday had been in one place for 13 years, and the Packers seldom recruit unrestricted free agents. "About halfway through the meal everybody gets quiet," says McCarthy, "and then Jeff says, 'Guys, I don't know what to say, I've never been on one of these things.' Hell, I didn't know what to say either."
Yet matters were relatively simple: Green Bay needed a veteran, cost-effective center who could work in a complex offense with a brilliant quarterback. The Colts were starting over and didn't want to sign Saturday except for a front-office job. ("I'm sure I'll go back and talk to [owner Jim] Irsay about that someday," says Saturday.) Manning wanted Saturday in Denver, but the Packers wanted him more. The deal was done quickly, and Saturday has bought a house in Green Bay.
Every weekend of Saturday's 13 seasons in Indianapolis mocked the scouts who deemed him unfit for NFL success. (There are only three starting centers in the NFL lighter than Saturday's program weight of 295 pounds and only two shorter than his listed height of 6'2".) The fact is, his skill set is not easily measured at a pro day or the NFL combine. "Great balance, efficient footwork," says Lilja. "And did you ever shake the guy's hand? His hands are like meat hooks, and he plays with no gloves, gets in there and locks on a guy's chest and the guy is finished. Never loafs for a single play. Never makes excuses. Plays hurt." (Saturday has missed only six games in his career and none since 2009; he has never undergone major surgery, just a single right-knee scope two years ago.)
Mudd says, "He's got exceptional quickness because he was a wrestler. And he gets lower than the other guy." From Saturday's Indy days, Mudd summons up an image of Saturday's "tipping over" behemoth New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork on the Joseph Addai touchdown that sealed the Colts' trip to the Super Bowl.
But just as important is Saturday's work from the neck up. "Incredible psychological stability," says Mudd. "I believe the really good players don't rise to the occasion, as people like to say; they're just not as adversely affected by the situation. Jeff is very, very seldom out of control under the stress of the moment." (That was also apparent during the 2011 lockout, when Saturday, a member of the NFLPA executive committee, was a steadying presence during the long, often acrimonious negotiations.)
Saturday sat recently at a small conference table at Lambeau and described his job. "You stand over the ball and watch the defense coming onto the field," he says. "Is it base? Is it nickel, is it dime? Is it three down or four down? I communicate that to the guards and to Aaron. Then Aaron goes into his play call and takes command. Then you block the 325-pound guy in front of you and chase the ball down the field, pushing the tempo." The snap itself has quirks. Rodgers likes a shotgun snap with no spin (as did Manning); he wants Saturday's butt high on straight exchanges, so that Rodgers doesn't have to squat too low, which would compromise his ability to backpedal quickly.
Everything evolves by the week; it's all new. "You can't learn everything in training camp," says Saturday. Center and quarterback are present in the first meeting of the week, 7:30 on Wednesday morning at Lambeau. They trade ideas; Rodgers continues to help with translation. In the Packers' first preseason game, Saturday heard a word for the snap count that meant snap early in Indy but means snap late in Green Bay. He snapped early. It hasn't happened since.
The Packers are 1--1, after last Thursday's 23--10 win over the NFC North rival Bears. According to Profootballfocus.com, Saturday's pass blocking in two games has been nearly flawless (just one QB pressure allowed), his run blocking not so stellar. But the sample is small. A year ago Saturday ranked fifth in run blocking among all centers, for a Manning-less Colts team that went 2--14. The year before that, at 35, he ranked fourth. "To be honest, I was anxious to see if he still has it," says Sitton. "You wonder about it. But he's been finishing blocks, getting the job done."
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga says, "He's pretty good for a guy who's light in the butt."
On a recent afternoon at Lambeau, Saturday wrapped that aging, undersized butt in a brown shower towel and dispatched a series of teammates in backgammon, until at last Rodgers took a seat across from him. "You sure you want to do this?" asked Saturday. "I'm hot, you know. I'm not losing." He shook a pair of white dice in his meat-hook hands, an old man settling into a new home.
They Like To Move It
Where does speed figure into the wins column? A five-year snapshot of teams' quick-strike abilities (the number of scoring drives they accomplished in fewer than four plays) suggests that better teams—playoff teams—get down the field fast. Here, the top 10 quick-strike teams in each of the past five years, and how deep they went in the postseason.
Chris Burke breaks down a Packers no-huddle drive from their Week 2 win over the Bears, at NFL.SI.com