GREEN BAY — An eight-month window between the playoff loss in Arizona and the season opener in Jacksonville allowed pundits of all calibers ample time to discover and rediscover cure-alls for the Green Bay Packers, whose offense dipped to 23rd in total yardage last season.
The majority of remedies involved the healthy return of wide receiver Jordy Nelson, felled by a torn ACL before the Packers took a meaningful snap in 2015. His absence stressed the performances of those around him, and those performers promptly tanked.
Other theorists believed a slender version of Eddie Lacy could reignite a sluggish running game. Still others placed their hope in the improved health of the offensive line or the play-calling reclamation by coach Mike McCarthy.
Not even the wackiest of prognosticators foresaw wide receiver Davante Adams as the elixir of life, yet here we are.
“You know, it takes a while for young receivers to really get used to how to play in this league,” said Bill O’Brien, coach of the Houston Texans, “and they’ve done a great job, Mike’s done a great job with him of teaching him how to run routes. He can run all the routes, he’s improved his hands, he’s an explosive player.”
On the strength of a stellar performance in Philadelphia on Monday night — he caught five passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns — Adams surpassed Nelson as the team’s leading receiver in 2016. He has, after one and a half years of injuries, inconsistency and indelible flashes of greatness, emerged as the kind of weapon general manager Ted Thompson hoped for when he expended a second-round pick.
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His production this season (58 catches, 776 yards, eight touchdowns) blows away everything he did a year ago (50 catches, 483 yards, one touchdown), and it would not be a stretch to label him the team’s best weapon considering his form in recent weeks.
“I never lost faith in him at all because he gets open a lot,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He’s obviously earned a lot of my trust this year and he’s playing very confidently. We love the way that he’s playing right now.”
The way he’s playing right now mirrors the statistical output from some of the best receivers in the league. Beginning in Week 7 against the Chicago Bears, when the Packers’ quick-hitting, dink-and-dunk offense was born, Adams has racked up 43 catches for 558 yards and five touchdowns in a six-game stretch. His per-game averages during that time are 7.2 catches for 93 yards and 0.8 touchdowns.
Some context: Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons, who sits atop the league receiving yards per game, has per-game averages of 5.9 receptions, 103.6 yards and 0.5 touchdowns.
A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals, who is second in yards per game, averages 6.6 catches for 96.4 yards and 0.4 touchdowns.
Next in line would be Adams, with players like Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, T.Y. Hilton and Amari Cooper lagging behind.
“I’ve shown (McCarthy and Rodgers) a lot since I’ve been here, and they know what I’m capable of,” Adams said. “A few down games or whatever, that kind of shaped the way people were kind of viewing my abilities. It’s not going to be the same for (McCarthy and Rodgers) because they see what I do day in and day out. They know the attention to detail I have and the focus that I have in improving my craft. I’m real serious about my job. I knew I had to come in this year and give it my all and come out swinging.”
By league standards, Adams, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 215 pounds, has fairly pedestrian speed after running the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds coming out of Fresno State in 2014. He lacks the extra gear to beat defenders over the top with quickness alone.
Adams offsets his lack of speed by winning routes at the line of scrimmage, a trait nurtured by an increase in one-on-one drills during practice this season. With precise cuts and finespun footwork he separates instantly from opposing cornerbacks. For the rest of the route he runs one or two steps ahead, just as he did on both touchdown receptions Monday night in Philadelphia.
“He’s got good hips,” cornerback Quinten Rollins said. “Real sudden, real fast-twitchy guy. He definitely makes you sit there and wait at the line of scrimmage.”
Said Rodgers: “He’s so good at the line of scrimmage and he’s got that quick-twitch ability. If you don’t have two solid feet and ankles, knees in the ground, you’re going to have a problem for a guy like Davante, not being able to do the quick-twitch stuff that he’s so good at.
“You’ve seen on the touchdowns he’s scored on slant routes. Being able to get that separation at the line of scrimmage. You’ve seen it on his releases, vertical releases that he caught the other night on the go-ball, that stuff he wasn’t able to do last year because of his injury — injuries.”
Injuries. Herein lies the reason for Adams’ dramatic improvement, at least according to coaches, teammates and Adams himself. A year ago, Adams sprained his ankle against the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 20. He injured it further one week later against the Kansas City Chiefs and missed the next three games.
Despite his return in Week 8 against Denver — he caught one pass for 8 yards — Adams said he was hobbled for the majority of the regular season. He could not explode off the line of scrimmage to beat defenders. He did not have the top-end speed to nullify his initial struggles.
Then he tore his MCL in the first playoff game against Washington. His disappointing season was over.
“I wasn’t playing the way people were expecting and I was expecting,” Adams said. “I was just kind of thinking as much as possible (about) how can I get back to the regular Davante while not being the regular Davante given I was hurt.”
Recovery from the torn MCL dragged into the summer, and Adams said the regular Davante did not return until late June or early July, during the five-week window between the end of OTAs and the start of training camp.
It was at that point, Adams said, that he no longer worried “about the pain of when I stick this foot down how it’s going to feel. I can just play and be free. I’m able to just go out there and not worry about how my body is going to react to different movements. I’m able to just play fast, and that’s when the production comes.”
Other teams have noticed. Adams, whose eight touchdowns are tied for fourth in the league, has seen opposing safeties shade to his side of the field. The Eagles, he said, went so far as to play bracket coverage at times with one cornerback and one safety assigned to Adams.
With increased production comes increased attention.
“I feel amazing,” Adams said. “I always told everybody once I was healthy I was able to produce. I’m not going to be perfect. I’m human. But I feel great right now so I’m just hoping to keep it rolling.”