In the far corner of the Green Bay Packers’ locker room, Jeff Janis holds court. There are 10, 15 reporters hovering around him. Television lights shine in his eyes.
The questions never seem to change. How much will you play this week? Are you the spark the Packers’ offense needs? Earning Aaron Rodgers’ trust? Everyone wants to know when the former seventh-round receiver will get consistent snaps, most of all Janis.
This week, there’s a sense of inevitability. Mike McCarthy foreshadowed “changes” after the Packers’ latest loss. The next morning, he said Janis had earned more opportunities. A couple days later, after the media throng disperses, Janis is asked if there’s a sense of … “finally”?
“Yeah,” Janis said, “a little bit. Whenever you can get on the field, it’s obviously a good thing. Nobody wants to sit on the sidelines and watch.”
Janis never thought the transition from Division II football to the NFL would be easy, but his past two years would test anyone’s patience. Go back to last season's training camp. His two touchdowns were enough to earn a job on the 53-man roster, but no role on the field. Janis played only 15 snaps as a rookie.
Still, he learned. Matured. Developed. This August, Janis had three more touchdowns. Caught 10 passes for 149 yards. When the regular season began, nothing.
Janis has played more than a quarter of his team’s snaps in only one game this season. That came after rookie Ty Montgomery sprained his ankle in the first half against the San Diego Chargers. With second-year receiver Davante Adams also out because of a sprained ankle, the Packers had no choice. Janis had to play.
He caught two passes for 79 yards against the Chargers, leading the Packers in receiving. It looked like a breakthrough. Instead, Janis played four snaps over the next four games.
Every time it looks like Janis finally has earned a role, he hasn’t. Coaches say he needs to be consistent in practice. Janis shakes his head. For all his size, speed and strength, it’s not enough without acumen.
“Being able to use your body,” Janis said, “and use what you’re given is a big thing. That’s still what I’m learning how to do. Being big and strong and tall and all that means nothing if you can’t use it. That’s just something that is going to take reps, time just to figure out how you can use your body to the best of your ability.
“That’s something that everybody in the receiver room is trying to help me do, and Aaron, too.
In the past month, receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said, the lightbulb has started to turn on for Janis. He’s running crisper, cleaner routes. There are fewer mistakes.
Slowly, Janis’ consistency in practice has led to more snaps. He played 20 at the Minnesota Vikings, 12 against the Chicago Bears. In both games, his biggest plays came on special teams: a 70-yard kickoff return against the Vikings, a 64-yard kickoff return against the Bears.
Janis was listed as the starting kick returner this week. A foot in the door. Van Pelt said he has seen Janis’ success on special teams build confidence as a receiver.
“I think any time you step on the field and you have success, you’re going to have confidence," Van Pelt said. "That comes with it. Jeff has had success now in the return game, and I think that does carry over to the offensive side.”
Janis admits confidence is an important part of his game. Over the past two years, his has never been higher than now.
It starts in the meeting room, he said. With few reps on the practice field, Janis has had to find other ways to earn Rodgers’ trust. It has helped, he said, for the Packers to have quarterbacks and receivers in dual meetings.
With the film rolling, Janis is able to gain perspective into how Rodgers sees the game. On certain plays, Janis said, Rodgers expects receivers to run routes a specific way. Rodgers will ask questions, and receivers better have the right answers. If not, trust isn’t built.
Janis hasn’t always had the right answers.
“I don’t know if he’s ever ripped into me,” Janis said, “but just body language-wise you know when he’s mad at you. You know when you’re wrong, and you know what to do next time. I think that’s the biggest thing, is realizing when you’re wrong and talking with him about it, and then going out and fixing it.”
More and more, Janis is fixing it. He’s making plays on special teams. The game is slowing down. His speed is making a difference.
None of that means Janis will become the player fans envision. At the very least, he’ll get an opportunity.
“I think he’s had some really good practice days,” Van Pelt said, “and he’s run some really good, clean, crisp routes in the games when he has the opportunity. So those are the things you look for to have the confidence and trust to put a guy out there. He’s earned that through practice reps, and he’ll get more opportunities as we move forward.”
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