In the days leading up to the Packers’ Week 3 game at the San Francisco 49ers, many wondered who exactly they had available to play left tackle against one of the premier defensive fronts in the NFL.
Green Bay already was without David Bakhtiari and had just lost Elgton Jenkins, the Pro Bowl left guard who had been filling in admirably for Bakhtiari while the All-Pro left tackle continued his ACL rehab.
Early that week, Rodgers found himself in a conversation with offensive line coach Adam Stenavich.
“I was talking to Steno, and I said, ‘Who do you want there?’” Rodgers recalled.
Stenavich replied with a one-word answer.
“He said, ‘Yosh,’” Rodgers said.
To which Rodgers said he replied, quizzically, “Yosh? Really?”
When Stenavich replied in the affirmative, Rodgers said he told him: “All right, let’s do it.”
It wasn’t so much that Rodgers believed in or didn’t believe in Yosh Nijman -- who had played all of 14 NFL snaps, several of them kneel-down plays, in his entire NFL career to that point. It was that Stenavich believed in Nijman, and Rodgers believes in Stenavich.
In his third-year as the Packers’ offensive line coach, the 38-year-old Stenavich has not only gained the trust of those inside Lambeau Field but has managed and developed one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
Heading into Sunday’s game at the Cincinnati Bengals (1 p.m., ET, Fox), the Packers (3-1) rank sixth in ESPN’s pass block win rate and 10th in run block win rate. Rodgers has been sacked only eight times in four games -- plus an unpenalized trip last week by Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt -- and he blamed some of those on himself.
And that’s without two All-Pros from last year -- Bakhtiari and departed center Corey Linsley -- and without the Pro Bowler Jenkins for half the season. For the last two weeks, the Packers have played with only one starting lineman who had played more than 160 NFL snaps coming into this season: right tackle Billy Turner. That’s a lineup with Nijman, second-year left guard Jon Runyan, rookie center Josh Myers, rookie right guard Royce Newman and Turner.
“Steno’s a fantastic coach,” Rodgers said. “He’s not just a good man, but he’s a really bright coach, and I think he’s got a future above offensive line coach, for sure. I’m proud of those guys and that they battled really well.”
‘We battled together’
Stenavich wasn’t overly successful as a professional player. In fact, he never really made it in the NFL unless practice squads and preseasons count.
An all-Big Ten offensive lineman at Michigan, Stenavich entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers in 2006.
The native of Marshfield, Wisconsin -- 130 miles west of Green Bay -- spent the final six weeks of the 2006 season through the end of the 2007 training camp on the Packers practice squad. He then had stints with the Dallas Cowboys (training camp 2008) and on the Houston Texans practice squad (2008-09).
It was during his first stint with the Packers when he formed a bond with Rodgers. Given that Rodgers was still Brett Favre’s backup, he spent most of time working with the backup offensive line -- a group that included Stenavich.
“That second group, I was always tight with those guys because we battled together,” Rodgers said.
Stenavich’s foray into coaching surprised some.
“I thought he was smarter than that,” said Terry Malone, Michigan’s offensive line coach during Stenavich’s career. “But I was really glad to hear when he started his coaching path.”
One of Stenavich’s former teammates, Packers right tackle Mark Tauscher, wasn’t surprised. In fact, he believes Stenavich’s playing career lent itself better to coaching than someone who had a long run in the league.
“A lot of guys, especially if they have a long career, they don’t want to do that,” said Tauscher, a member of the Packers Hall of Fame. “Obviously, Adam has been able to thrive as a coach, and I think a lot of that is he had to prepare so hard as a player. The way you move guys around now and have to play two or three spots, I think it’s perfect for him because that’s what he had to do.”
Perhaps most impressive, according to Tauscher -- who remains close to the team by hosting a daily radio show on ESPN Wisconsin -- was how Stenavich won over the veteran players he inherited in 2019.
“It’s never easy when you have a new offensive line coach, especially replacing the longest-tenured assistant coach in Packers’ history,” Tauscher said, referring to former O-line coach James Campen, who is now with the Texans.
“But when you have a new head coach and you have a new system, it’s different than just a new guy coming in and running the same stuff. With how Adam has done it and been able to weather this [injury] storm this part of the season, he obviously knows what he’s doing. It’s been pretty doggone impressive what he’s been able to do in his time in Green Bay.”
‘A nervous wreck’
To watch Stenavich coach and to listen to him talk, he appears like the calmest coach on the sideline. Nothing has fazed him or his assistant, Luke Butkus (yes, he’s from that Butkus family), so far, even with all the new faces on the line.
At least, that’s how it looks on the outside.
“You could have David and Bulaga and Elgton and Corey and all those guys, and I’m still basically a nervous wreck before every game,” Stenavich said.
This week, the Packers might get Jenkins back; he returned to practice on Thursday. Stenavich, Butkus and head coach Matt LaFleur will have to weigh whether to keep Nijman at left tackle and put Jenkins back at his regular left guard spot, or go back to Jenkins at left tackle until Bakhtiari returns.
Whatever Stenavich decides, it sounds like it will be just fine with Rodgers.
“Once he saw that I was pretty convinced about my decision, I think it made him feel better,” Stenavich said. “When Elgton went down, my gut told me, 'This is the right decision,' and coach LaFleur supported it. Once I explained it to [Rodgers], he was good to go."