GREEN BAY – The play that made this week possible, that beat the Cleveland Browns and simultaneously unfurled the red carpet for Aaron Rodgers’ return, began with modest expectations.
On the sixth play of overtime Sunday, coach Mike McCarthy called a receiver screen. It was, in the words of Davante Adams, “a play to try to get us closer in field-goal range.”
Adams did a little more than that.
He caught Brett Hundley’s pass 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage. As a pair of Green Bay Packers receivers blocked in front of Adams, Browns defensive end Myles Garrett disengaged from left tackle David Bakhtiari. Garrett, the draft’s No. 1 overall pick last spring, wrapped two arms around Adams, but the Packers receiver spun out of the arm tackle.
Adams didn’t stop running until he was through the tunnel leading to the Packers' locker room.
“I didn’t feel anybody right on my heels,” Adams said, “and if they were, I was digging. I was determined to get in there.”
DOUGHERTY: Sky's the limit with Rodgers' return
The Packers' playbook will expand this week in Carolina when Rodgers returns from injured reserve. Adams likely will remain at its center. For all the chemistry Rodgers and receiver Jordy Nelson share – “there’s a lot of juice left in 87,” Rodgers said this week – Adams has established himself as the Packers' most talented receiver.
In a long line of people Rodgers thanked for making his return possible, he made sure to include Brett Hundley. His backup guided the Packers to three wins in seven starts, keeping the team afloat. No teammate deserves acknowledgement more than Adams.
In the final year of his rookie contract, Adams has done something that wasn’t guaranteed at the season’s onset, proving capable of being an offense’s top receiver.
“He's making a lot of money this year,” Rodgers said. “Hopefully we pay him sooner rather than later. He's a talented guy who has just proven it week after week.”
Consider Adams’ production in Cleveland, as singular a performance as a receiver can present. At halftime, Adams had been held without a catch and the Packers' last four drives had ended with three punts and a kneel-down. The Browns focused their defense on stopping the Packers' run game, flooding the box with seven and eight defenders.
In the third quarter, the Packers made a game-winning adjustment. It started on their first play, a quick pass left that Adams caught at the line of scrimmage. He turned it upfield for 6 yards, side stepping Browns safety Kai Nacua’s tackle.
The play foreshadowed the rest of the half.
Adams finished with 10 catches for 84 yards after halftime. Two catches came at the line of scrimmage, and three came behind. He produced 68 yards after the catch, and an incredible 44 yards after contact, thanks to five broken tackles.
In the Packers' overtime win the previous week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Adams had similar production. Of his four catches, two were caught at the line of scrimmage. Of his 42 yards, 32 came after the catch, thanks to a pair of broken tackles.
At no time has Adams’ playmaking been more evident than on Sunday’s game-winning touchdown. On a 25-yard gain from scrimmage, Adams had 26 yards after the catch. He had 23 yards after contact.
“Big playmaker,” Nelson said. “Obviously, we know what he can do, especially when he has the ball in his hands. He’s very hard to tackle, strong guy, quick guy. That was a big play.
“Obviously we ran it to get a few yards, and then when he gets the ball in his hands, he can do what he did.”
Adams has caught deep passes occasionally during Rodgers’ absence. There was the 44-yard, game-sealing reception from Hundley down the right sideline in Chicago. He beat cornerback Brandon Carr’s press-man coverage for an early 33-yard reception against the Baltimore Ravens. In Pittsburgh, Adams used a double move to get free down the right sideline, catching a 55-yard touchdown pass.
Of course, Adams finished that score juking Steelers corner William Gay, then outracing two more defensive backs to the goal line, with 22 yards after the catch and 15 after contact on the play.
Those are the receptions receivers live for, going deep. Without Rodgers, there were much fewer opportunities in the vertical passing game. A No. 1 receiver produces by any means necessary.
Adams put up numbers the past eight games despite playing with a backup quarterback. With Hundley, he caught 46 passes for 543 yards and five touchdowns. Ten receptions (21.7 percent) came at the line of scrimmage, producing 212 yards after the catch (39 percent) and 101 after contact (18.6 percent).
“He’s tough to guard,” Rodgers said. “It’s tough to guard him one-on-one. When teams want to bring five-man pressure, to keep myself or Brett when he was out there in the pocket, you’ve got some one-on-one matchups on the outside. He’s done it to a lot of the best corners in this game.”
“He’s done it every single week, made plays.”
Basketball was Adams’ first love. Often, the Packers receiver harkens back to his high school days, breaking ankles on the court. He still breaks ankles on receiver screens, only these crossovers don’t come off the dribble.
Adams said he focused this offseason on becoming more of a playmaker. More and more, the Packers have gotten him the football with quick passes near the line of scrimmage, allowing him to create in the open field.
“It’s something I’ve talked to the coaches about before,” Adams said. “Any time you can get the ball in the playmakers' hands in open space, that’s the type of things that can happen. It’s just a matter of when you’ll be able to bust one out. They’re not all going to be touchdowns, but if you’ve got run solutions and stuff like that, eight yards is an amazing run, and it’s an amazing catch, too. Especially if you catch it at the line of scrimmage. So the more we can do with that, the better.”
Adams’ route tree will expand over the final three games, so long as Rodgers is throwing him passes. He already was blossoming this season with Rodgers. The last pass his MVP quarterback threw him produced a game-winning touchdown in Dallas.
His quarterback’s broken collarbone could’ve struck a blow to Adams’ open-market value. Instead, what he did while Rodgers was out positions Adams for that hefty payday. With 828 yards on 69 catches with three games to go, Adams is on pace for his first 1,000-yard season. His nine touchdowns are tied with Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham for second in the league, the same position he finished last season.
Adams smiled when asked about his quarterback’s endorsement Thursday. No, he hadn’t heard what Rodgers said, but he has thought about what could be coming this spring – if not sooner.
“I’d love to stay here,” Adams said. “It’d be beautiful. Obviously, playing with the best quarterback, so being in that situation would be great. So it’s just a matter of getting all the business side figured out.”