Jordy Nelson knew what was coming next. The ball hadn’t even crash-landed on the Don Hutson Center FieldTurf, and Nelson already knew what Jeff Janis was in for.
It was early on in Monday’s practice, and Janis, the Green Bay Packers’ promising rookie seventh-round wide receiver, was coming off an NFL preseason debut that had seen him score on a 34-yard catch-and-run in the team’s victory at St. Louis. That touchdown, from backup Matt Flynn, had merely been an extension of the big play-per-day training camp Janis had had after missing the first week because of a bout with shingles.
But virtually all of Janis’ snaps to that point had come with Flynn, Scott Tolzien or Chase Rettig at quarterback, and now, in the first 11-on-11 period of practice, he was playing with Aaron Rodgers and the first-string offense.
On his first play, Janis ran a go route from the right side. He took an inside release off the line of scrimmage, but with the call and the coverage dictating that he get outside the numbers and closer to the sideline, Janis stayed inside as Rodgers threw the ball to where he was supposed to be.
“I knew it honestly right when he did it,” Nelson said with a knowing smile.
Rodgers’ reaction was one of unmasked annoyance and frustration. When his set of reps for that period ended, he walked up to Janis and told him what he’d done wrong. The conversation was brief, the point was made quickly. Wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett added his $.02, too.
“I think at some point you have to let these guys know that performance is so important in the preseason, but if you want to make this team, you have to perform when you’re with the first-string,” Rodgers explained Tuesday. “There’s really a couple offenses. There’s the offense on paper, and then there’s the offense the way the first-team runs it. You have to be able to be non-robotic when you’re out there, have quick reactions, and see the game the way I do and the way our offense runs most efficiently.
“I’m going to hold those guys to a high standard when they’re out there with us, and we’re trying to round out that group right now, so the guys that are going to be able to emerge and separate themselves are the guys that are going to be able to make the proper adjustments and run the routes the way that I want them to and the way Edgar wants them to. Because, if you’re going to be the fourth or fifth or sixth receiver on this team, you’re going to get a chance to play with me in the regular season.”
And for Rodgers, that’s a matter of trust. If he can’t count on you to be where you’re supposed to be, if he doesn’t think you’ll make the right adjustment or correct read, then, frankly, he doesn’t want you on the field with him. Right now, none of the young receivers, from second-round pick Davante Adams on down the depth chart, has earned that trust.
“Some people think you get what you tolerate. I like to look at it like you get what you demand,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday. “There’s definitely a standard that’s been set.”
Harsh? Perhaps. But because they deal with arguably the two most demanding people in the building – Rodgers and Bennett – on a daily basis, the receivers understand it’s just the way it is.
“Certainly our relationship, we are very demanding and we want the very best. We’re both competitive,” Bennett said of his relationship with Rodgers. “We know what it’s supposed to look like and what goes into that. And the hunger – not being satisfied, not being complacent – that’s important. He wants to be great. We want to be great. And we’ve got to push those guys in that room to be great. Because again, you talk about standards, well, that’s the standard. That’s what’s expected. Not meeting those standards is going to be addressed.”
Although, not always in the same way. At the start of camp, tight end Brandon Bostick ran the wrong route during a red-zone drill, resulting in an incompletion. Rodgers chewed him out upon his return to the huddle – and then threw the very next pass to him for a touchdown, which was followed by praise from the quarterback.
“I was down for a little bit [after the incompletion] and then he came back to me,” Bostick explained. “So it was definitely a confidence-booster. He said, ‘Be more focused next time and you won’t have that problem.’”
Rodgers learned early lessons on leadership as a freshman quarterback at Butte College, where one of his teachers, Russ Critchfield, taught him the importance of understanding that different players need different buttons pushed. But that doesn’t change what you demand from them; it simply means you need to deliver the message in different ways.
“If you’re not in the place you’re supposed to be when he’s expecting you to be there, you’re going to mess up him, you’re going to mess up our offense, you’re going to throw things off,” said wide receiver Randall Cobb, who ran the wrong route as a rookie in the 2011 regular-season opener against New Orleans – but still got the pass from Rodgers and turned it into his first NFL touchdown.
“If they want to be on the field, they have to understand that. When it comes down to it, he’s our guy, he’s going to be out there, he wants the guys that he can trust out there – the guys that he knows are going to be in the place they’re supposed to. Just being able to communicate with him and understand what he wants from us is big for receivers.”
Asked if he ever got on Rodgers’ bad side with such mistakes, Cobb laughed.
“Oh yeah. All the time,” he said. “You just have to continue to work and do everything you can. Of course there were growing pains. I don’t think it was until my second year that I actually had his trust.
“I know there were times when he probably hated having me on the field. Like, ‘Why do they have this guy out here?’ But that’s how it goes. It takes time. It’s not something that can happen overnight, it’s something that grows over the course of years.”
Nelson, who is one of Rodgers’ best friends and carpools with him to Austin Straubel International Airport for road games, has been there, too.
“Sometimes it comes off the wrong way, but I think of something I learned a long time ago – ‘You’ve got to take what they’re saying, not how they’re saying it,’” Nelson said. “I think sometimes if he saw himself, he wouldn’t like it. But it’s the way he is. He demands perfection. And that’s the way he demands it. So you learn to deal with it, you learn to accept it, and you want it.
“I don’t mind it. Sometimes it looks bad, and I think he would acknowledge that, too. But that’s how he is, and that might be why he is where he is right now and why we perform the way we do as a team.”
Nelson said Rodgers will usually pull players aside after chastising them, whether it’s in the meeting room or locker room afterward or following practice on the way back to the facility. But that doesn’t change the expectations for the next day.
“It’s really all about one thing. It’s about mental preparation,” Rodgers said. “The physical mistakes can happen. There’s going to be drops at times. We’re not quite going to be on the same page every single time, but if you cannot line up right, if you can’t get the checks and if you can’t get what you’re supposed to do every time – then there’s no way you can possibly be on the field when I’m out there.
“Those guys understand that. I’m very demanding in that way, [with] high expectations for them and their mental preparation just like Edgar does. Edgar drills those guys every day about every position. They need to know X, Zebra, E and Z and R and where to line up and motions and splits, proper route-running fundamentals. And if those guys can’t cut it, then there’s no way they can possibly be on the field. It doesn’t matter how physically talented there are.”
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.