Jeff Janis, shuffling some 60 yards downfield, tracked Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ pass like a center fielder Monday afternoon.
He had beaten Sam Shields, running two, three strides past the Packers' top cornerback as Rodgers escaped the pocket. With Rodgers’ pass nearly scraping the Don Hutson Center’s ceiling, Shields scrambled to recover. He closed on Janis just in time to jump for the football, mirroring a point guard boxing out for the rebound.
What happened next was the clearest déjà vu. With Janis and Shields both in the air near the left sideline, Rodgers’ pass bounced off Shields’ hands. The football deflected straight in the air as Shields fell to the ground. Janis settled underneath it.
Make that three Hail Mary catches for the Packers receiver in 2016, six months after catching two on the same drive in the Packers' miracle, game-tying final possession at Arizona in the NFC divisional playoff game.
Three is more than a fluke. Three is a trend. Janis, it seems, is a magnet for Hail Mary passes.
“Jeff’s a big target,” coach Mike McCarthy said after practice. “I think the play he made today was really good concentration on his part, competing through the interaction with the DB and the tip of the ball, and keep playing. He’s a very strong wide receiver. I think that’s what surprises people, but he uses his strength and his speed.”
It is only June. No jobs are won in organized team activities, let alone games. For an offseason practice, Janis’ catch Monday could be more important than most.
For the 2014 seventh-round receiver with all kinds of physical talent, the battle has been earning Rodgers’ trust. Janis has all the speed, strength and size any quarterback could want. None of it matters if he runs the wrong route.
Rodgers didn’t necessarily show trust Monday — a summer interception doesn’t carry the same weight as the fall — but it certainly could have been a critical test for the third-year receiver. The two-time MVP quarterback doesn’t doubt Janis’ talent, he said. Before he can trust a receiver in a game, he needs to be consistent on the practice field.
“I need to see it in practice,” Rodgers said. “I’ve said it for a long time. I need to see those type of plays in practice. Had I seen that play in practice last year, I wouldn’t have been so apprehensive about the Hail Mary at the end of the season when the ball was in the air. But no, those plays are great.”
Janis’ catch over the Packers' top cornerback is precisely the type of play that could help build momentum as he tries to earn a bigger role for himself in the passing game. McCarthy said it “carries value.” A catch, McCarthy said, that inspires a quarterback’s confidence.
On its own, one catch only means so much. If more big plays follow this offseason, it could make a difference.
Rodgers opened up Monday about the hurdle preventing Janis from getting more opportunities in the offense.
“It’s about route-running and taking that jump in a comfort level out there,” he said. “When he can stop thinking so much and react more, you see the athletic ability. He’s obviously gifted very well with his athleticism, his jumping ability and his speed. He just needs to get to a level where he’s not thinking as much and his instincts take over.”
Janis has already secured a role for himself on the 53-man roster. He was one of the Packers best special teams players last season.
Now, it’s time for him to seize a bigger role for himself in the Packers passing game. Perhaps Monday was a step in that direction.
“Jeff Janis is doing a lot of good things,” McCarthy said. “He just needs to continue to progress through the fundamentals of the position. Special teams, he had an excellent year last year. Graded out as one of our top players. I’d like to see him take that same step as a wide receiver.”