Facing a third-and-goal in the second quarter of a Christmas Day game against the Cleveland Browns, the Green Bay Packers sent wideout Davante Adams into the slot. Cleveland brought a blitz, leaving him one-on-one with safety Richard LeCounte, and Adams did a samba on top of the hashmarks while Aaron Rodgers backpedaled and lofted a ball to the middle of the end zone. The dance got Adams the separation he needed; an instant later, he brought in the 9-yard touchdown pass. It was one of two scores on the day for Adams as he helped Green Bay to a 24-22 win, the fourth in a five-game late-season streak that clinched the NFC’s top seed.
Afterward, Rodgers divulged that Adams had drawn up his own route in real time, via a kind of football ESP. “He didn’t do what, basically, is on the paper football offense,” Rodgers said. “He did exactly what I would have wanted to tell him.”
Coming off off a first-round bye, the Packers open their playoff run against the San Francisco 49ers as the league’s most bankable contender. They feature the likely back-to-back MVP and own the second-highest offensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average in the NFL, and their injury-hobbled defense brings back Pro Bowlers Za’Darius Smith at outside linebacker and Jaire Alexander at cornerback. FiveThirtyEight gives them a league-best 25 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl. But their most notable deficiency — a receiving corps that thins out quickly — doubles as an endorsement of the player who papers over it, and who may be the most important non-quarterback in football. Other high-scoring title hopefuls employ slot guys, downfield burners and jump-ball daredevils. In Adams, Green Bay has all three, and whatever else they need him to be.
The question of who is the best receiver in the NFL usually hinges on preference. You could side with yardage over scores (Julio Jones in 2015), airborne artistry over top-end speed (DeAndre Hopkins in 2017) or game-breaking quickness over a classic frame (Tyreek Hill in 2018). The past couple of years, Adams has simplified things, settling into the highest echelon of just about every category of catching there is. Over the 2020 and 2021 regular seasons, he put up 2,927 yards, second only to Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson leaguewide, and tallied 29 touchdowns, the most in the NFL. Adams looks the part of a slot receiver — all quick slips and soft hands — but he’s parlayed the skill set into mastery of all trades. This season, he ranks in the top 10 in total yardage in short, intermediate and deep routes alike. Against man defenses, Pro Football Focus grades him as the fourth-best target in football; against zone, the best. Cooper Kupp is the only other pass-catcher in the league to match Adams’s region-by-region output, but though the Rams All-Pro has him outpaced in yardage and scores, PFF gives Adams the edge in all-around value.
At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Adams is physically ordinary, at least on the scale of all-world receivers; coming out of Fresno State in 2014, he ran an unremarkable 4.56 40-yard dash. He has since progressed from Discount Jordy Nelson to Destroyer of Defenses by honing whatever edge he could find to as sharp a point as he could muster. Scouring tape of Keenan Allen and onetime Russell Wilson favorite Doug Baldwin, Adams has pilfered and then improved upon (by way of his trademark hop) the finest line-of-scrimmage releases in the world. His work at the top of routes brought Chad Ochocinco to tears. Fans go gaga over the contested catches — the “late hands” that keep a defender from getting an ETA on an incoming throw, the toes anchored to the last sliver of pre-sideline grass — but Adams prefers to get the job done early. “If you can put yourself in a position where it’s essentially a route on air, that’s the Jerry Rices and these guys of the world,” he said in a 2020 interview with NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger. “You watch all the film, you never see anybody hanging all over them.”
Versatility is supposed to come at the expense of expertise, or vice versa, but Adams’s reel insists otherwise. It’s hard to pick out a signature. The prettiest plays are the back-shoulder sideline shots, where Rodgers aims the throw behind Adams and he pulls an invisible parachute, whipping around to grab it while his defender tumbles off into oblivion. The steadiest are the quick screens: a full-body flick and a 7-yard gain, seemingly whenever he and Rodgers want it. The hardest to televise (and to cover) are those downfield routes when Adams has time to work the long con, tracing one line and then, snap, inside-outing into open field. (“Head and eyes, really dig” is how the receiver describes the sell.) By the time the camera finds him settling under a Rodgers looper, his defenders are massaging the kinks out of their necks.
Adams’s play would be impressive in any context, but it’s all the more so given how desperately Green Bay needs it. Adams averages 97.1 receiving yards per game; no other Packer manages even 40.1 Tom Brady throws his deep shots to Mike Evans and his seam routes to Rob Gronkowski, Patrick Mahomes can toggle between the blurry Hill and the burly Travis Kelce, and even the Kupp-heavy Rams have seen Odell Beckham Jr. score six touchdowns since his November arrival. For Rodgers, Adams is the go-to field-stretcher (76 catches of 20-plus yards on the season, the third-most in the league) and red-zone stalwart (seven touchdown receptions inside the 10, tied for third-most); when the screen game is working, he’s functionally the team’s biggest rushing threat too. It’s no surprise that, when Adams missed a late-October game against the Cardinals due to COVID-19 protocols, Rodgers posted his third-lowest passer rating on the year. “Nobody I’ve seen has that ability to continually reinvent himself even inside of a game, and set routes up the way he does,” Rodgers said.
That’s the story of the Packers’ offense: Everyone knows where they want the football to end up, but nobody knows how it’s going to get there. Back in Week 3, Green Bay trailed the 49ers by a point, with 75 yards of field to cover in 37 seconds. Adams might as well have been wearing a neon helmet. Still, on the first play of the drive, he head-and-eyes-ed his way to a dead spot in San Francisco’s deep zone, and Rodgers found him for 25 yards. A spike and an incompletion later, Rodgers again hit Adams on an in-breaker. The two had covered 45 yards in 21 seconds; Mason Crosby kicked a game-winner as time ran out.
It’s not an ideal distribution of labor. The Packers, like every club, would prefer a smidge more flexibility to their attack, a tandem or trio to fill out pregame graphics and force safeties into decisions. “I’m not getting singled up … especially in gotta-have-it moments,” Adams said. But you get the sense that he’s not complaining: the tougher the challenge, the better the one-man show.
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CORRECTION (Jan. 20, 2022, 3:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misidentified a player to whom Davante Adams was compared. It was Jordy Nelson, not Jordy Evans.