Janis hopes for bigger role after Hail Mary
It was after Jeff Janis temporarily saved the Green Bay Packers' season. After he tracked quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ pass like a center fielder chasing a pop fly, running 20 yards with the ball in midair. After he electrified the entire organization, somehow catching a second Hail Mary on the same drive.
When Janis got up from the end zone turf in Arizona, that’s when the Packers' No. 6 receiver realized whom he wrestled the football away from. It was All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson.
“People kind of mentioned that,” Janis said two days later as he cleared out his locker inside Lambeau Field. “That’s pretty cool to be able to do that against one of the best players in the league. It was pretty crazy."
A “big confidence boost,” Janis called the final drive of his second season. The kind of drive that can push a fledgling receiver over the top? Maybe.
A football field is 100 yards. Janis caught two passes totaling 101 to pull the Packers into a tie at the end of regulation Saturday in what eventually became a 26-20 overtime loss in the divisional playoffs.
It couldn’t have happened without some luck. You don’t see many Hail Marys. You almost never see them send a playoff game into overtime with no time left on the clock. You never, ever see them twice on the same drive. But this was more than good fortune.
In two plays, Janis showed all the skills that made it so maddening when game after game passed this season without him getting a serious opportunity.
There was the 4.3-second, 40-yard dash speed — getting behind the Cardinals' defense for a 60-yard catch on fourth-and-20 from the Packers’ 4-yard line.
There was the 6-foot-3 height and 37 1/2-inch vertical — reaching to the sky for the final Hail Mary.
There was the strength — taking the football away from Peterson and holding on when he hit the ground.
“I think the biggest thing,” Janis said, “is it tells me to myself that I can play. When you have a confident player, I think that helps. You see some of the premier receivers in the league, they’re confident guys because they know that they’re good. There’s a difference between cocky and confident. To be able to have that confidence and know that you can make plays, it’s big.
“I’m going to channel that and bring it into next year and take off from there.”
At the end of a frustrating season, Janis admitted he needed a confidence boost. Perhaps the most puzzling part of the Packers’ offensive struggles was why their big, strong, fast receiver couldn’t get on the field. While Janis was dominant as a gunner covering punts, his 132 snaps were only a hair more than Jared Abbrederis’ 100.
Abbrederis started the season on the practice squad, battled injuries and played only nine games. Janis was available for all 16.
It wasn’t like the Packers had a logjam of talent at their receiver position. Without Jordy Nelson, they failed all season to stretch the field with their passing game. Davante Adams, a second-round pick in 2014, battled injuries and struggled to produce anything more than dropped passes all season. James Jones was productive, but not a true No. 1 threat.
The one thing the Packers' offense needed was speed. The one thing Janis definitely had was speed. It seemed like a perfect marriage, but the wedding never came.
“Sometimes in the back of your head,” Janis said, “if you’re not getting very many reps, you kind of lose your confidence and think to yourself, ‘I don’t know if I can play at this level.’ When you actually get out there and get reps and make some catches, make some plays, yeah, it reminds you of college again. ‘Man, I can play out here.’”
In his season-review news conference this week, coach Mike McCarthy shed some light on Janis’ lack of opportunities. He said Janis “struggled” in the preseason, a slow start after his rookie year. McCarthy brought his receiver into his office at least once for a film session.
McCarthy watched Janis develop and learn throughout the season. When the Packers finally had no choice but to put him on the field, he was ready. Janis replaced Randall Cobb (bruised lung) in Arizona and finished with seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns. A “tremendous” game, McCarthy called it.
What impressed the coach most was how Janis contributed without being removed from his role on special teams.
McCarthy said his receiver was “gassed” by the end of the game.
“If there was ever a picture of one your teammates putting it all out on the field,” McCarthy said, “you definitely saw that on the last catch, on the Hail Mary. Playing special teams and playing that many snaps, and that many deep crossing routes was something we really wanted to do a lot of against their defense, and we weren’t able to do as much as we would like in the second half.”
As he reflected back on the season, McCarthy said he was pleased with Janis’ growth. Maybe it’ll help in the long term that the former seventh-round pick wasn’t thrust into a big role immediately.
Jordy Nelson, a former second-round pick, started only six games in his first three seasons. He played 235 snaps in his second season, not much more than Janis played this season. Nelson said a receiver can benefit from gradually transitioning to the NFL, especially in Green Bay.
“There’s more to being a receiver and playing in this offense than being athletic and making plays,” Nelson said. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s unbelievably talented and can make plays. You can see it on special teams, and you see it on the last drive, but there’s a whole mental aspect to this game. Everything is built on trust.
“It takes time. So he’s going to build it over years. That’s the benefit I had, that’s the benefit Randall (Cobb) had, that we weren’t thrust into it right away in Year 1 and Year 2.”
Even Saturday, Janis’ disconnect with Rodgers was clear. The Packers were driving early in the second quarter, until they met a third-and-8 at the Cardinals’ 10-yard line. Janis ran a corner route into the end zone. Rodgers threw an out route toward the sideline. Incomplete. The Packers settled for a field goal.
Janis said he and his quarterback were both at fault. Neither was on the same page, he said.
“Me and Aaron talked about that on the sideline after that,” Janis said. “It’s a combination of letting the DB get underneath me, and just not knowing where he was going to place the ball.”
Trust is hard to build without exposure. Janis hasn’t had much with his quarterback. The practice reps are few, he said. So he had to rely on team meetings.
Janis said he would take notes of Rodgers’ observations during film study, trying to see the game like his quarterback. It finally paid off in the last game of the season. Rodgers threw 11 passes to Janis on Saturday. He had a 146.8 passer rating on those throws, according to Pro Football Focus. It was the highest rating among all Packers receivers.
Two days later, Janis looked back at the game. Yes, he said, his production should earn Rodgers’ trust. A least “a little bit more,” he said. Janis hopes what happened Saturday will lead to more opportunities in his third season.
“Hopefully I’ll get a bit more involved in the offense next year,” Janis said. “I don’t want to be the guy that’s saying I need to be starting or anything like that. Just to be able to help the offense a little more next year would be nice.”