GREEN BAY, Wis. – If you’re looking for reasons why the Green Bay Packers finished 13-3 and will host the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs on Sunday, perhaps a starting point would be Jace Sternberger’s sprained ankle.
About a year ago, as Sternberger was getting ready for the NFL Draft, he started dealing with some back problems. His agent, Mike McCartney, referred him to Joe Tofferi, a trainer and soft-tissue specialist based in Wausau who had been working for years with another of McCartney’s clients, quarterback Kirk Cousins. With Sternberger training in Texas, the two never connected. When the Packers drafted Sternberger in third round of this year’s draft, he got a congratulatory text from Tofferi.
“I still don’t know what this dude looks like and he reached out to me right after I got drafted,” Sternberger said.
In the final game of the preseason, Sternberger suffered an ankle injury that landed him on injured reserve. He reached out to Tofferi, who quickly made the 100-mile trek from Wausau to Sternberger’s place in Green Bay.
“I had never been hurt so I called him immediately,” Sternberger said. “I started seeing differences in my body in a month. My ankle was healed and everything was doing great, and then I started losing weight. When me and Aaron got close, I told him, ‘Joe knows his (stuff). This guy’s a beast.’”
Jones had shown signs of being a beast. In his first two seasons, Jones led the NFL with 5.50 yards per carry. However, three knee injuries sidelined him for five full games and greatly reduced his workload under former coach Mike McCarthy. New coach Matt LaFleur arrived in Green Bay with a desire to run the football. That meant a career-changing opportunity for Jones – if he could stay healthy to take advantage.
In the NFL, the greatest ability is availability.
“If you’re not available,” Jones said, “then you’re no good, pretty much.”
When Sternberger invited Jones over to meet Tofferi at the start of the season, he jumped at the chance.
“I got off the table and I loved it, and he’s been working on me ever since and keeps me right,” Jones said.
Twice a week – the players’ day off on Tuesday and either Friday if the team is traveling on Saturday or on Saturday if it’s a Sunday home game – Tofferi commutes from Wausau to Green Bay to work on Jones, Sternberger and rookie quarterback Manny Wilkins.
The sessions are extensive, ranging up to a couple hours on each player. They are especially impactful for Jones, who plays a wickedly violent position. The payoff came in the Packers’ biggest games of the season. In the Week 16 win at Minnesota, Jones matched his career high with 23 rushes. He turned those into 154 yards and two touchdowns as Green Bay clinched the NFC North title. Six days later at Detroit, Jones carried the ball a career-high 25 times and had 143 total yards to help Green Bay clinch the No. 2 seed. With Jamaal Williams unable to finish the Minnesota game, Jones played 52 snap – just the third game of 50-plus snaps in his career. With Williams out against Detroit, Jones played a career-high 75 snaps – nine more than in any other game.
After a grueling game on Ford Field’s artificial surface, Jones expected to wake up feeling the pain. To his surprise, he did not.
“It was weird because I wasn’t really sore after that game,” Jones said. “I took some shots and I thought I’d be sore and I was expecting to be sore because it was one of the more physical games that I had played in. But I was good, so it was kind of weird to me.”
That’s the goal, Tofferi said.
“It’s trying to get the body that he had the day before the game as quickly as possible,” Tofferi said while commuting back from Minneapolis, where he had been working on Cousins and receiver Laquon Treadwell. “The body has to understand that. Traditionally with a lot of athletes, they play in the game and then just kind of sit down for three days. It’s hard to get going again. We do a lot of soft-tissue work and stretching and hydrating and massage. The team does a lot of the same stuff but it’s adding a little bit more to that repertoire and doing it a little more frequently. The biggest thing is teaching him about his own body. When he feels like, ‘Hey, my hamstring feels tight,’ then he knows how to stretch it. If you understand how your body works, you can learn how to take care of it. You can have a million trainers but, at the end of the day, you’re kind of responsible for yourself.”
Tofferi was the director of strength and conditioning at the University of Detroit and a strength and conditioning coach for the Detroit Pistons before settling in Wausau because of his son, who recently turned 7. In Wausau, he founded Train 4 Your Best, where he focuses on corporate wellness and sports performance of local athletes when not working with his dozen NFL clients. By happy coincidence, Cousins signed with the Vikings in free agency in 2018 and the Packers drafted Sternberger in 2019, so he’s relatively equidistant from those teams’ players.
“I just try to be a complement to the great staffs they have in the building already,” Tofferi said.
Because of Jones’ strong play, the Packers earned a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs. It was a break appreciated by the players after the grind of a long season. But, after watching the first of Saturday’s wild-card playoff games, Jones said he was antsy to start playing.
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That’s a strong testament to the impact of Tofferi’s work after getting 52 touches, and taking who knows how many hits, the previous two games.
“The other day, I was so happy because he had 25 carries,” Tofferi said. “For him, that was a huge leap to show that, ‘Hey, I can carry the load if need be.’ Then again, he got tackled 25 times. He doesn’t run out of bounds. He’ll put his head down at 195 pounds and get into somebody. So, his body changes every day. During the season, it’s about what that moment presents. If we can get that body back as quickly as possible, then Week 17 doesn’t feel like a drag. It’s like, ‘I’m ready for the playoffs.’ To see him finish the regular season like he did is a testament to how hard he works on his body.”
After getting a combined 249 touches his first two seasons, Jones had 285 in 2019. He finished seventh in the NFL with 1,558 yards from scrimmage and first with 19 total touchdowns. When the Packers needed Jones at his best, he delivered. On his 25th touch and in his 72nd play at Detroit, he caught a screen pass, broke two tackles and gained 31 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.
“The NFL is so hard on them,” Tofferi said. “Aaron is the toughest kid. I’ve had thousands and thousands of athletes in my career and he’s the toughest kid I’ve ever met. I watch all the games and I watch some of the film and I don’t know how he gets back up. The goal is to make sure he has the same body every day so he can get better at practice and perform at his highest level and stay in this league as long as he can. You can only do that if you stay healthy and perform at the highest level.”
Staying healthy, of course, was the big question hanging over Jones’ head entering the season. He had played in only 24 of a possible 32 games in his first two seasons. Due in part to that injury history, Jones had only four games of 15-plus carries in his first two seasons. This year, Jones emerged as one of the NFL’s elite players, a true game-changing weapon who not only survived a 16-game season but thrived. While the playoffs are Jones’ overwhelming focus, he’s put himself in position for a huge payday when his contract expires after the 2020 season.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” Jones said. “Availability is one of the biggest things here and in the league. I made it one of my goals to play 16 games. To do that – 16-plus, I want to continue to play and stay healthy – that was one of my goals. To put all the doubters and the naysayers and everybody who was saying, ‘Oh, he’s injury prone or he’s this and he’s that’ to bed, it’s a good feeling. It’s a good feeling.”
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