The offensive line is set, but not set in stone.
Calling it a “very tough decision,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy has selected Jason Spitz to start at center over veteran Scott Wells and Allen Barbre to start over Breno Giacomini at the right tackle position held for almost a decade by Mark Tauscher.
“The starting five tonight is the starting five that we’ll take into (Friday’s preseason game at) Arizona,” McCarthy said after Monday night’s practice.
That means veteran Chad Clifton at left tackle, Daryn Colledge at left guard and Josh Sitton at right guard will join Spitz and Barbre. Only Clifton and Colledge return as starters in 2009 at the same positions as 2008.
“If they keep progressing,” McCarthy said, “this is who we’ll line up with,” when the season begins against Chicago. “This is the five that we’re going to give a chance to generate the continuity that you establish when you do have five offensive linemen taking all the reps together. That will be determined clearly on production. If they continue to produce, we’ll continue to have continuity with these five and we’ll move forward. If it doesn’t, we’ve got guys that are chomping at the bit that are ready to go.”
Offseason injuries were major factors in Monday’s decisions. Wells required offseason shoulder surgery while Giacomini needed offseason ankle surgery. That meant Spitz, a starter at right guard for most of his first three NFL seasons, got all of the offseason reps at center and Barbre got all of the reps at right tackle.
Still, the decisions weren’t easy. Giacomini moved into a co-No. 1 status last week. Such decisions never are based on one play, but it certainly was a black mark against Giacomini that he allowed a sack to a reserve defensive end that resulted in backup quarterback Matt Flynn sustaining an injury to his throwing shoulder in the second half on Saturday against Buffalo.
“Breno, I think his response kind of told the whole story, McCarthy said. “‘Couldn’t we compete one more week?’ Breno’s coming on but we just feel Allen’s further ahead.”
Even on a one-a-day schedule as he was brought along slowly after the surgery, Wells shared the No. 1 reps at center with Spitz during practices and games. Wells, a sixth-year pro, had started 42 of a possible 48 games at center over the previous three seasons.
“Scott Wells has graded out at a very high level,” McCarthy said. “Scott’s probably one of our top three or four linemen as far as grading out so far in the preseason, so that was a very difficult situation as far as determining which starter to go with, because Scott has been a starting center for us, has played a lot of football here.”
The decision no doubt was a bitter pill to swallow for Wells. The former seventh-round pick has defied the odds throughout his career. This offseason, he added about 15 pounds of muscle to give him the strength both he and the coaching staff thought he needed as the Packers attempt to become more physical on offense. All of that hard work and a strong preseason, however, were not enough for Wells to retain the job.
Wells, who signed a five-year, $15 million contract in November 2006, is due a base salary of $1.5 million this season. His cap figure of about $1.85 million is reasonable as a backup, though he likely would have value in a trade. Duke Preston, a free agent signed from Buffalo in the offseason, is a better value in terms of money (two years, $2 million) and versatility (center and guard), though Wells has clearly had the better camp, though Preston has been fine in the games.
“Scott’s a professional. I didn’t expect him to be excited, and he was not,” McCarthy said. “We talked one-on-one at length about it. He had a few questions, I answered them very honestly, and he understands why we made that move. We feel very comfortable about our whole offensive line as a group. Definitely a lot better than we have in the past. We’re very fortunate to have two starting centers on our football team.”
Spitz has lined up as a starter next to Wells for most of his three seasons.
“We’ve a very close group,” Spitz said. “On a personal level, it’s tough, but it’s a business and you’ve got to come in, you’ve got to put that stuff aside, you’ve got to out there and work. Because ultimately, we’re here to win games. That’s the most important thing.”
While Spitz was matter-of-fact about winning the job at center, Barbre was beaming. The third-year player from Division II Missouri Southern State was supposed to challenge Daryn Colledge at left guard last summer, but that battle fizzled before it got under way. Given a second chance – and quite possibly a last chance in Green Bay – to win a starting job, Barbre held off the hard-charging Giacomini.
A holding penalty last week notwithstanding, Barbre played well in both preseason games and was a major reason why quarterback Aaron Rodgers had so much time to dissect the Browns’ and Bills’ defenses.
“It was a great feeling, a great sense of accomplishment,” Barbre said. “I achieved a goal that I set for myself – one of my many goals. That’s just one of them. I’ve got to keep stacking them. I want to keep working hard and keep getting better, and you never know. I feel like I’m not even close to reaching my potential.”
Had Wells beaten out Spitz, then the coaches would have had to decide between Spitz and Sitton at right guard. While McCarthy downplayed it, giving the job to Spitz over Wells – despite Wells’ strong preseason – shows just how highly the coaches think of Sitton. A fourth-round pick last year, Sitton had beaten out Spitz at right guard last summer, only to suffer a sprained knee in a preseason game at Denver. He wound up starting two games last season but never really was a factor.
“I feel good about the work I put in this offseason,” the 322-pound Sitton said. “I think it’s just a direct product of what I’ve put in and being coachable and being able to do get the job done.”
A bad game, however, could change everything. Wells should know that more than anyone. In McCarthy’s first year, 2005, Wells opened the season as a reserve at guard behind Adrian Klemm. By midseason, though, Wells had supplanted Klemm and started the final eight games of the season.
“We made a decision my first year here that didn't stand, that lasted a couple of weeks,” McCarthy said. “It was very close. Whether it was Spitz at guard, Wells at center, that was definitely a combination we looked at. But we felt last year Josh had earned a starting position at guard, lost that due to injury. We felt that he has improved. He’s a physical player on that right side, and that’s probably the reason why we did go with him.”
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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. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.