GREEN BAY – In the span of four weeks, JC Tretter had done something remarkable.
He'd earned the respect and trust of Aaron Rodgers.
(Just ask the Green Bay Packers quarterback’s pass-catching teammates how tough that can be.)
And now, Corey Linsley will have to do the same – in a much shorter timeframe.
First, a little history: Rodgers had been skeptical about the center position after the organization allowed starter Evan Dietrich-Smith to walk as an unrestricted free agent, even though the four-year, $14.25 million deal he got from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($7.25 million guaranteed) in March hardly was cost prohibitive.
And so, when Rodgers spoke about the center position upon his arrival for organized team activity practices this spring, he was less than thrilled that he would be on his fourth opening-day center – following Scott Wells, Jeff Saturday and Dietrich-Smith – in four years. He also didn’t sound too keen on the idea of Tretter, who’d missed all of his rookie season after breaking his ankle in his first OTA practice, taking over such a vital position, even with veteran guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton there to help bring him along.
“It is a big challenge. It’s tough,” Rodgers said on May 29. “You’d like to play with one guy for an extended period of time. I thought that might be Scott, and then we brought in Jeff, which we knew was a short-term thing and then Evan, a guy who made some strides and played really well. [I] thought that he was going to be the guy of the future, but we went in a different direction and we’ve got to get one of these young guys ready.
“Hopefully we can get a guy who can stick for five or six years. I think as a quarterback you really appreciate when you can have some continuity there and some consistently as far as the same guy being there for multiple years.”
Contrast that with what Rodgers said just last week, when someone asked him if he was surprised that Tretter had been so impressive in the first two preseason games and ended any talk of a competition for the starting center job long before the Sept. 4 regular-season opener at Seattle.
“I think ‘surprise’ would be disrespectful to JC,” Rodgers said last Tuesday. “I think he's done a great job. I have no worries about him, no reservations with him starting the season as the guy and moving forward in that direction. He's a smart guy. He's done everything the way that we want him to do it. He's gained the trust of T.J. and Josh, which is hard to do, and myself.
“I think the three of us are important for the center because it's his two sideboards and the guy that's in his ear the most in myself. I'm really proud of JC. He's done a great job and he gives us absolutely zero cause for concern at the position.”
Now, there is plenty of cause for concern, after Tretter suffered a left knee injury during Friday night’s preseason game against Oakland that could sideline him for as long as six weeks. A league source said Tretter’s injury is an “impaction fracture,” and that all of the ligaments in his knee remain completely intact, meaning the injury is not season-ending. The Packers are hoping Tretter only misses a handful of regular-season games, but five to six weeks is the likely timeline.
In the meantime, Linsley is now front and center.
“JC’s done a great job stepping into that spot. He had to grow up fast, and he did,” backup quarterback Matt Flynn said. (Rodgers did not conduct interviews with reporters Sunday.) “Now, someone else has got to do it.”
That someone is Linsley, a fifth-round pick from Ohio State who has been working with the No. 2 offense, including with Flynn and fellow backup quarterback Scott Tolzien. The decision on the starting center had been so clear-cut that Linsley hadn’t taken a single 11-on-11 snap with the No. 1 offense until Sunday’s practice. Now, it’s his job for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve actually been very impressed with him. We spent a lot of time mentally this year with lots of walkthroughs, lots of time in the meeting room. I’ve actually been real impressed with him mentally,” Flynn said of Linsley. “I’ve spent a lot of time out there with him going through protection adjustments and things like that, I feel like he’s picked it up pretty well.”
A survey of Linsley’s teammates Sunday had them all referring to his brute strength as a blocker. But it’ll require more than strength to be effective against the defending Super Bowl champions’ defense in the opener.
“Corey’s a guy who’s shown physically that he’s capable of doing the job. It’s about making sure mentally that he’s sharp,” Lang said. “We’ll definitely spend some extra time. The timing kind of sucks just because it’s so late in training camp that we haven’t had a whole lot of reps together. This week, especially the fourth preseason game, I think history shows the starters won’t play a whole lot.
“It’s going to be extra stuff we’re going to have to do on the practice field and meeting rooms, making sure we’re trying to build chemistry in other ways outside of actually playing games together, because we won’t have that opportunity [until the opener]. It’s just going to take a little extra work by everybody to make sure that he’s 100 percent comfortable going out there.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Linsley has “a very good understanding of our offense” and insisted that his “game plans won’t change” with the rookie in at center. But Linsley himself acknowledged that he can’t afford to make the kind of rookie mistakes he’s made so far in camp.
“The urgency level is just through the roof,” Linsley said. “I’ve been working hard, but it’s a different animal out there with the 1s. I’ve got to fill in at the highest level. There’s no room for nonsense anymore and ridiculous mistakes. MAs (missed assignments) are out of the question.
“I’m going to work my butt off to get to that point where I earn [Rodgers’] trust and earn his respect. Regardless of the game situation, if you earn that guy’s respect and that guy’s trust, then I think everything will all right.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.