His season derailed on the third snap of the Green Bay Packers' third game. On a bad ankle, Davante Adams leaped for a pass. He landed awkwardly, barely hop-skipped off the field and didn’t return for a month.
That Monday night game between the Packers and Kansas City Chiefs was the impetus for what became a dismal season. Adams sprained his ankle the previous week and had no business being on the field against the Chiefs, later admitting he returned before his ankle was ready. It became a costly mistake.
Adams missed all of October, the second month of his second season. For a receiver still developing, the lost time was invaluable.
“From an injury standpoint,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said, “it was the ankle initially. But we don’t make excuses. When we line up and play, we’ve got to play at a high standard.”
Adams never hit that high standard in 2015. The Packers' offseason MVP caught 60 yards just twice in 13 games. He scored one regular-season touchdown, two fewer than his rookie season.
Finally, he gathered some momentum in January. Adams caught four passes for 54 yards in the Packers' regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, one of four games he exceeded the 50-yard mark. He caught a touchdown pass in a wild-card win at Washington the next week, but more misfortune soon followed.
Adams sprained his knee in Washington when he rolled onto his back after a catch, and tight end Richard Rodgers flopped on top of him. He was forced to watch the Packers' divisional playoff loss in Arizona. It was a fluky injury, the kind of thing that would go wrong at the end of a frustrating season.
“Having two things that really stopped me from playing,” Adams said, “I’ve never really had to deal with that before. But you learn to put up with it. You learn to stay mentally tough throughout that process, and I think that’s something that could help me (going forward), as a guy who plans on playing a long time in this league.”
Adams’ struggles were so severe, it’s fair to wonder about his future in the league. Maybe 2015 was a blip and nothing more. Maybe he recovers next season and rediscovers the skills that made him a second-round pick in 2014. But Adams’ inconsistency gave plenty of reason for doubt.
When healthy, Adams failed to live up to the “offseason MVP” billing coach Mike McCarthy handed him during the summer. Adams dropped 10 passes in his second season, a year after dropping four as a rookie, according to Pro Football Focus. He dropped 16.67 percent of catchable passes thrown to him, the 10th-worst drop rate in the league.
Adams heard the criticism. The “trash” talk, he called it. No, Adams said, this season wasn’t what he wanted. But he ignored the “outside noise” and kept playing. Adams hopes his final two games — eight catches for 102 yards and a touchdown against Minnesota and Washington — can be a small springboard into a successful 2016.
“I know what I’m capable of,” Adams said, “and I know those are the types of things I can do. So it’s not like I personally needed that. But at the same time, it’s something that’s good to put on display and kind of remind people. People get caught up in the games when things didn’t go how I wanted them to, but stuff’s going to get blown out of proportion. They don’t care about different variables that might factor in, but you have to learn to block that out and be positive and figure out what you can do next.”
One of those variables certainly was the weight of expectation.
While Adams dropped more passes than in his rookie season, he also caught more. His 50 receptions and 483 yards in 13 games were a small improvement over his 38 catches for 446 yards in 16 games in 2014. With different circumstances, his second season could have been viewed in a more successful light.
But Adams needed to provide more than a marginal gain when star receiver Jordy Nelson’s season ended in August with a torn ACL. It was unfair in hindsight, but Adams suddenly became an expected savior for the Packers’ offense. He went from being the No. 3 receiver to the top perimeter weapon, a role James Jones quickly assumed instead.
Nelson said it was a “challenging” situation for Adams. When the Packers used a second-round draft pick on him in 2008, Nelson had the benefit of easing into the offense. He caught 55 catches for 686 yards and four touchdowns in his first two seasons.
In the same time, Adams had 88 catches for 929 yards and four touchdowns. Through their first two seasons, Adams had three more catches than Nelson had targets.
“I was blessed when I came in,” Nelson said, “I had a lot of veteran receivers. So I didn’t really have to play until — spot play — until later in my career, where I could just grow and get better and watch those guys and learn. So Davante getting thrown in last year and this year is very tough. People don’t understand, especially playing with a guy like Aaron, the pressure that’s on, the accountability that’s out there. To be perfect on everything you’re doing is hard for a young guy.
“He’ll continue to grow. I think he’ll learn from this year like everyone does, and he’ll get better.”
A heavy burden doesn’t have to be crippling for young receivers. Look at what Greg Jennings did after the Packers used a second-round draft pick on him in 2006. On 24 more targets than Adams, Jennings combined to catch 98 passes for 1,552 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
So there are two ways to view Adams’ struggles. He was a young receiver thrust into a major role before he was ready, only to have injuries derail him. He was also unable to meet expectations when his ankle stopped becoming an issue.
Adams represents a significant investment from general manager Ted Thompson, which is why his job will be safe entering next season. The Packers will have to evaluate what went wrong in 2015 when determining how much they can expect from him next fall. Adams said he’s confident the organization still trusts him, despite a disgruntled fan base.
“The way this game is,” Adams said, “they hate you, and then as soon as you make a play, they’re back to loving you. It’s just a matter of time. You just have to make plays and block out the outside noise and keep playing. My coaches and my quarterback, they already know. The outside people, they’re the ones who need reminding.
“My teammates and everybody (inside the team) already know what I’m capable of. I don’t feel like I need to prove anything to them. Obviously with practice and things like that, you want to show Aaron that you’re going to make those catches so he’ll keep throwing them. But I’ve done things like that on a consistent enough basis that he knows that.”