Aaron Rodgers played the majority of his career sans a defining latter half. Sometime this season, that changed. It became Rodgers-to-Davante Adams.
In his seventh season, Adams cemented his status as the best wide receiver Rodgers has ever played with — apologies, Jordy Nelson — and placed the tandem on an all-time track. Adams has caught 498 of Rodgers’s passes, more than any other receiver. His 6,018 yards from Rodgers rank second to Nelson’s 6,919, as do his 57 touchdowns to Nelson’s 65. Adams is 28, and Rodgers is showing no signs of slowing down at 37, invigorated by the offense of second-year coach Matt LaFleur and the front-runner for this season’s league MVP.
The Packers’ duo can burnish their splendid resume Saturday, when Green Bay hosts a divisional-round playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams at Lambeau Field. Rodgers-to-Adams may not be at the level of the paramount quarterback-receiver duos. With a few more seasons approaching this one, in which Adams caught 115 passes for 1,374 yards and 18 touchdowns despite missing two games, it could be headed there.
“I don’t know if they’ve been together quite long enough,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, now an NFL Network analyst. “It’s kind of been the last couple years where Davante has separated himself to become one of the greats at the position and maybe the best in the league. … I definitely think they can get there. Give them a few more years together like this year, and you’ll hear people talk about them that same way.”
Playing for the Arizona Cardinals, Warner experienced that kind of connection with Larry Fitzgerald. There is a tell, Warner said, when a quarterback and receiver reach a rare height. He saw it last year with the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees and Michael Thomas and sees it with Rodgers and Adams now. Even when a play creates an easy possible completion elsewhere, the quarterback still feels more confidence in rifling a pass to his seemingly covered wide receiver. They know each other so well — and have such talent — that he’s not really covered.
“There are certain players and the relationship between certain players that can go to another level,” Warner said. “That’s kind of how I felt with Larry. I just knew what Larry was capable of doing in terms of being about to control his body, the way that he released and got into certain positions. Because of that, the definition of open expands for certain players when they’re coupled with a very accurate, talented quarterback that can put the ball where they want it. That to me is what I see with Davante and Aaron.”
‘It’s just special to watch’
The relationship between Rodgers and Adams has “evolved like crazy over the years,” Adams said. Their connection on the field has made them close friends off it. They constantly chatter at practice, discussing the nuances of how a route should be run and holding each other accountable for the tiniest mistake.
When the Packers drafted Adams, he assumed their nearly 10-year difference in age would stifle their relationship. Over the years, he has come to believe it has strengthened their bond.
“His greatness, what he’s achieved, it’s allowed me to see what greatness is about,” Adams said during a news conference this week. “Because I’ve seen a lot of guys be really good at their position and not continue to elevate and want more than what they’re currently doing. I think that’s why you end up MVP when you’re 16 seasons in, when you always find a way to get better and keep making people around you better.”
After the Packers steamrolled the Tennessee Titans in Week 16 as Adams caught 11 passes for 142 yards and three touchdowns, Rodgers wrote him a note. He told Adams how important Adams is to him, how much he values their friendship and how impressed he is with the way he inspires the team.
“I’ve said for so long that Charles [Woodson] was the best player that I played with,” Rodgers said then. “It’s probably time to start putting Davante in that conversation because he is that type of player. He’s a special player.”
Rodgers and Adams would be great regardless of who they played with, but their skill sets align to allow each other to unlock the full capacity of their gifts. Adams is genius at shaking a cornerback at the line, but a quarterback without Rodgers’s sudden release and accuracy wouldn’t be able to fully exploit the openings he creates. Rodgers sees plays evolve in real time, but it would be rendered moot without a receiver of Adams’s intelligence who recognizes it along with him.
There is a difference, Warner said, between successful quarterback-receiver combinations and tandems such as Rodgers and Adams. A lot of duos can be successful running plays as designed. Rodgers and Adams operate beyond the structure of a play call and therefore expand what might be possible on a given down.
“Aaron could throw this play 10 different ways based on what this defender does,” Warner said. “Some guys are just going to be running the route, and they never have the ability to adjust. They might win that route most of the time, so the quarterback and receiver are great at that. But they don’t have that ability within a play. Him and Davante together, it’s just special to watch.”
Adams started to see it early in his career. Rather than robotically running the play, Rodgers gained a sense for Adams’s moves and, when necessary, gave him more time. Rodgers could wait because of his otherworldly arm strength and sudden release.
“Even if I had a choice route or whatever it was, he would sit there on it, wait for me to make a decision and be able to fire it over there,” Adams said. “But if you have a guy with a lot less arm strength, those can end up picks. Him being able to work with me and say, ‘Hey, you go work him, and I’ll get it to you; I’ll be able to read your body language and fit it where it needs to go.’ I think that’s next level, and it’s obviously great with my skill set as well.”
‘He’s still using those basketball skills’
When he stands at the line with a cornerback across from him, Adams is an artist. His balletic footwork at the line is unmatched, and it allows him to defeat press coverage without using his hands and without a defensive back laying a finger on him.
His style derives from his athletic background. Adams was a basketball star in high school in Palo Alto, Calif., and didn’t play football until his junior year. Ron Antoine, his wide receivers coach at Fresno State, saw those basketball skills translate to Adams’s footwork and explosion in beating a defender at the line.
“He changed the way I recruit,” Antoine said. “Most receivers [coaches] or even NFL coaches, they want to know if he runs track because you get a [100-meter dash] time and that correlates to the 40 and how fast he is. Having coached him, I go out and watch their basketball film.”
Adams’s translation of moves from basketball to football was so direct that his college coaches had to instruct him to stop holding out his arms, as if he were subconsciously dribbling an imaginary basketball, when he released from the line.
“If you watch Allen Iverson play — dribble, dribble, quick step, crossover, burst to the basket — that’s what he’s doing,” Antoine said. “Now it’s got terms and I see people teaching it. We call it a hesi, or hesitation-type step. He’s almost pausing, and then when that [defensive back] takes a step, it’s like finding your way to the basket. He’s still using those basketball skills, getting to the rim. But now he’s getting to the football.”
Adams’s lack of experience led him to Fresno State rather than a traditional power, but his college choice became ideal preparation for the NFL. Derek Carr, now the Las Vegas Raiders’s starter, was entrenched at quarterback. From early in his career, Adams learned how to collaborate with a high-level passer.
When Adams earned playing time as a redshirt freshman, he ran routes precisely as his coaches instructed and shook defenders with ease. Passes came his way less frequently than he wanted. Antoine sensed frustration and gave him a lesson Adams carried into his relationship with Rodgers.
“There’s always a little space between how I want the route run and how Derek wants that route run,” Antoine told him. “If you want the ball, you have to close that gap.”
Adams and Carr began daily post-practice sessions, with Adams learning exactly how Carr wanted him to run a route. He deduced the difference, from the perspective of a quarterback, between a detail such as a firm plant at the top of a route or a one-two stutter step. Adams became one of the most prolific wideouts in the country as a redshirt sophomore, catching 131 passes for 1,719 yards and 24 touchdowns.
“If you went back and watched his college film, you’ll see some of the same things he had with Derek Carr, he has with Aaron Rodgers,” Antoine said.
Adams also brought to Fresno State the ability to line up in every receiver position. Adams could play on the outside alone and win one-on-one matchups. He could start in the slot and get open on option routes. He could line up in bunch formations and decipher coverages to understand which route to run and how. The Packers have used Adams in similar ways, lining up him across the field.
“That’s a reflection of his intelligence, his ability to grasp concepts and be able to move within the concept and understand the details of the play,” LaFleur said. “You don’t get that versatility unless you’re a student of the game, unless you’re always thinking about how best to attack leverages.”
The versatility may be especially valuable this week against the Rams and Jalen Ramsey, a player Adams called one of “three or four super-elite” cornerbacks in the league. Ramsey routinely shuts down the best wideouts in the league, but the Rams do not attach him to one assignment. By shifting Adams around the formation, the Packers can find favorable matchups.
On the occasions Ramsey lines up across from him, Adams will not concede. He expects their confrontations will be respectful but “heated.” Adams believes his style mitigates any defender’s ability to shut him down, super-elite or not.
“The way that I play is, I’m in the driver’s seat,” Adams said. “The best way ideally to stop a wide receiver in the driver’s seat is to get a jam on him and slow up their timing. But it just so happens that’s literally my strongest tool in my bag. I just bank on me being faster and a little bit more technical than whoever it is that I’m playing.”
As Adams pumps his feet Saturday at the line, Rodgers will glance over at him. Adams’s steps will be almost like a language, communicating to Rodgers where he plans to go and when. The other 20 players on the field might not realize it, but the two of them will be playing their own game.