Handle With Kid Gloves
A few days after Rams rookie Janoris Jenkins and a teammate were instructed to run the bleacher stairs at Candlestick Park last November, their punishment for violating team rules, former NFL great Aeneas Williams and Jenkins had a man-to-man summit. There was Jenkins, 24, chiseled, tattooed, bursting with scattershot energy; and Williams, then 44, a soft-spoken pastor and the father of four.
Williams was part of a small army of mentors that had been assembled by the Rams and Jenkins’ family to help the rookie cornerback find the straight and narrow. Jenkins had been kicked off Florida’s football team as a junior in 2011 following three arrests in two years, including involvement in a bar fight, and spent his senior season at Division II North Alabama. The move cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Deemed by many to be a first-round talent, he fell to the second round and was taken by St. Louis with 39th overall pick. The slip-up in November, reported later as a curfew violation, ended in him watching the Rams tie the 49ers from the bench.
“I got the sense from Janoris that he was taking it very seriously,” says Williams, a four-time All-Pro defensive back who played 14 seasons with the Cardinals and Rams from 1991 to 2004. “He was very disappointed that he had let the team down. He was contrite about what he had done.”
But contrition doesn't always mean immediate change. Eight months later, and it doesn't sound like the 24-year-old has ditched the training wheels. “When you take on the youngest team in the league, there’s positives because you’re young, got a lot of energy and a lot of talent,” says St. Louis general manager Les Snead. “The negative is it takes a little more energy to develop and raise them. A lot of toddlers running around, a lot of changing diapers.”
Jenkins certainly played like a first-rounder in 2012. He had four interceptions, three returned for touchdowns, and also scored on a fumble recovery. In the history of the NFL only Devin Hester and Ken Houston have scored more non-offensive touchdowns in a single season. The Rams named Jenkins their rookie of the year.
Still, he has been slow to shed the reputation for immaturity that he earned at Florida. Those in his support circle would have preferred that he spend more of his first full offseason in St. Louis, but instead Jenkins stayed predominantly in Orlando with the mother of one of his four children. He did, however, satisfy the team's offseason program. They would have liked for him to return to St. Louis in shape for June OTAs. Instead, second-year coach Jeff Fisher says Jenkins was underweight. “He wasn’t where we wanted him to be,” Fisher said during those workouts. “There was a significant fluctuation in his weight. He got smaller. But he’s back to where he should be and he’s had a really good week.”
Jenkins said he needed downtime after a marathon year. In the space of 12 months he went from Division II to the Senior Bowl to the NFL Combine to rookie camp to the regular season, in which he started 14 games. “I had a great summer,” he says. “I spent most of it with my kids, just relaxing. Everything’s been coming fast for the last year. I didn’t come back [to St. Louis] until I had to be back. I’ve never had much time with my kids, so I had the opportunity and I took advantage of it."
He also apparently took advantage of some of the spoils of his new wealth, posting a selfie on Instagram, for instance, with a gold chain around his neck and gold jewelry over his teeth and captioned “Strip club ready.” Social media has added a level of scrutiny that didn’t exist in Williams’ day, and it does Jenkins no favors. Says Williams: “If Janoris was playing in a time where there wasn’t all this stuff ... there’s just so much more exposure, with everything being watched.”
Jenkins’ self-documentation on Twitter and Instagram includes pretty much everything under the sun: from community service to late-night road trips to pictures in which he appears to lick the soles of new-bought Jordans, and to posing with those ubiquitous gold chains. It was jewelry that led to Jenkins’ May 2009 arrest for resisting arrest in Florida after a fight—he told police that assailants tried to steal his chains. He now says such squabbles are behind him.
“I’ve got to take advantage of being a pro,” he says. “I’ve just got to be a man and make the right decisions. I don’t feel no pressure. I feel like they’ve got the right people around me. I understand what’s at risk.”
Snead and Fisher hope to make a living on several mercurial investments not unlike Jenkins. They grabbed former Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree, who was arrested for DUI a few days before the combine, at the end of the first round this year. The Rams were the only team to take a flier on troubled wideout Titus Young after his release by the Lions, but realized he was too big a handful when, on the heels of a successful interview with the team, he blew up on an airport security official over his missing ID.
Veteran Cortland Finnegan, who played six seasons for Fisher in Tennessee, rejoined his old coach in St. Louis last year, signing a five-year, $50 million contract to play opposite Jenkins and, now 29, tutor him. Finnegan’s a powderkeg on the field, but Jenkins looks up to him. “He’s a great leader,” Jenkins says. “You try to (pick the brain of a veteran) like Cortland because he understands the game. He’s funny too.”
In a morbid way, maybe. Finnegan told USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Garafolo last year that his dream retirement scenario would be a “double concussion.”
“That’s Cortland,” Jenkins says. “He’s going to give you something laugh about.”
For good reason, the Rams aren’t relying on Finnegan to mold Jenkins on his own. “We do have some vets,” Snead says. “Plus I tell everybody, not only are the coaches touching the player, but the training staff, community relations, strength and conditioning staff, the nutritionist...”
In the end, there’s only so much Snead, Fisher, Williams and the rest of the staff can do to police Jenkins. He’s got to decide if it’s worth it to return to Orlando or his hometown of Pahokee, a.k.a., “Muck City,” where more than 30% of families are below the poverty level. The Rams can’t force him to live in St. Louis, tell him who to hang out with or how to spend his Friday nights.
I wouldn’t call it 'worry.' Anytime you draft a player, you shouldn’t be worried. We’re not rolling the dice. It’s like investing in companies; I’m concerned, and we have a plan.” - Les Snead
Snead is ever cognizant of the bottom line, and the Rams have alternately taken a mentoring approach with Jenkins and reminded him he’s a business investment. In the offseason, Jenkins said Snead would text him once a week, telling him he’s glad to have him aboard and checking on his off-field life.
“I wouldn’t call it 'worry,' ” Snead says. “Anytime you draft a player, you shouldn’t be worried. We’re not rolling the dice. It’s like investing in companies; I’m concerned, and we have a plan.”
Part of that plan was to supplement the tutelage provided by longtime mentor Sandy Cornelio with strong personalities such as Williams, who mentors another young player on the team, but lately, with Jenkins, not so much.
“We initially had about four meetings, but there hasn’t been much contact lately,” Williams said last month. “We just were not able to connect, for whatever reason ... the scheduling. It’s really based on the willingness of the player.”
There’s a balance to be struck between the risk associated with employing a red-flag player and what that player can offer on the field. Jenkins can make the occasional innocuous misstep tolerable if he can improve his play the way Fisher expects him to. He says Jenkins was playing on instinct in 2012, and he’ll be working with a better knowledge of both the Rams’ defensive scheme and the opponents’ tendencies in 2013.
“He’s a smart kid, sits in the front of the room and understands football,” Fisher says. “Last year he was playing corner reacting. This year he’s playing corner and he’s going to know. He’s going to expand and anticipate and be that much more dangerous.”
Off the field, Snead’s trying to build a support network for Jenkins. On the field, his expectations from his corner in Year 2 are simple. “What’d he have, four touchdowns last year?” he quips. “I want to see eight.”