GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jeff Janis could not get comfortable.
Ice bags wrapped to his body, he squirmed and shifted in his seat, waiting for the Green Bay Packers’ charter flight home from Phoenix to take off. His back was killing him.
“I could barely sit,” the wide receiver recalled Tuesday.
Inside, Janis wasn’t sure how to feel that night in January. There was disappointment, to be sure, knowing that the Packers’ season was over following an overtime playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals. But there also was a sense of accomplishment, knowing he’d stepped up with seven receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns when injuries had decimated the receiving corps. On the Packers’ final possession, he’d caught a pair of passes – a 60-yarder on fourth-and-20 from the Green Bay 4-yard line, and a 41-yard Hail Mary that tied the game and forced OT (and injured his back).
Then quarterback Aaron Rodgers strode down the aisle and stopped before him.
“Hey,” Rodgers said to Janis. “Good job.”
Suddenly, his back didn’t hurt nearly as much. And while Janis’ work is far from done when it comes to earning his quarterback’s trust and confidence, those three little words that night meant everything to him.
“Just coming from him, that’s huge,” Janis said, reliving the moment after Tuesday’s minicamp practice – which the Packers conducted without Rodgers and 14 other veteran players. “Any time you can get anything out of Aaron that compliments you, that means a lot, just because I know that doesn’t come easy. He expects a lot out of us. Any time you can get anything like that, it’s important.
“[I remember thinking], ‘I think he’s really starting to trust me a little more.’”
There may not have been a more oft-discussed storyline this offseason than Janis’ ongoing quest to convince Rodgers and the Packers coaches that he merits more playing time. It’s the result of a confluence of several factors: Janis’ knack for making plays, from nearly every one of his preseason receptions going for touchdowns to his confidence-boosting plays against the Cardinals; his remarkable popularity with fans; Rodgers’ notoriously high standards and expectations for his wide receivers; and Janis’ obvious natural athletic ability.
But herein lies the problem: Rodgers abhors mental mistakes. In games, on the practice field, in meeting rooms – he hates them. And while Janis is smart – he graduated from Saginaw Valley State with a 3.4 grade-point average and scored a 30 on the Wonderlic intelligence test – his ability to learn on the football field hinges on him being on the field, and making mistakes there.
“[Football] is different for me. I can look at stuff, but for me it’s totally different when you’re actually out on the field running it against defenses that are moving around, disguising things,” explained Janis, who hadn’t been in the locker room during a media access period throughout organized team activities. “For me, it’s getting reps and doing it, messing it up, and getting corrected. Because once you make a mistake, you remember that more than anything else. I think taking reps, making mistakes in practice, getting corrected and doing it over and over, that’s how I get better.
“It’s tough, because sometimes, my first two years, you’re not getting a lot of practice reps with him, so it’s hard to get out there with him. And then, when you do get out there with him, if you make one mistake out of three reps that you get with him, it doesn’t look good. You just have to make sure that every rep you get with him, you’ve got to make sure you’re spot-on.”
Janis said he believes Rodgers’ demanding, perfectionist nature sometimes is misconstrued by observers because they see his initial, angry on-field reaction after a player makes a mental mistake. What those observers rarely see, Janis said, is how Rodgers deals with the player afterward.
“I’m definitely not a person who’s going to respond well to just screaming and yelling at me. I would rather we talk it over, go over it and what I should do better next time,” Janis said. “In the heat of the moment, I know he gets upset, but I think he does a good job on the sidelines and after the play and away from the play [of] talking to me and telling me what he has to say."
Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who coached quarterbacks and wide receivers together last season, said Rodgers has made a concerted effort to take more of a “big brother/coach-type” approach with his receivers this offseason. Associate head coach Tom Clements said Tuesday afternoon that Rodgers continues to make that a priority.
“I think you have to understand that players have different capacities to do what you want them to do,” said Clements, Rodgers’ closest confidant on the staff. “Whether it’s on a physical basis or a mental basis, you have to work with them. You just have to try to get on the same wavelength. And when things start clicking, and you make a play, that’s when the confidence starts going [up].
“He’s an old, grizzled veteran now, and he’s trying to bring those guys up to a level of a Jordy [Nelson] or a Randall [Cobb]. Those guys are easy, because they’re smart, they know the game, you tell them something one time and they’ll do it. Other guys, it’s not always like that. You just have to remain patient and try to get them to the point where you want them to be.”
And that’s the point Janis continues to strive to reach.
“He just has a high level of expectation. So guys that don’t reach that, he’s not sure if he can trust you on the field or not,” Janis said. “So [you’re] just trying to build that trust, and last year, yeah, it helped. But this is a new year, and I’ve got to keep doing it.”