Every contender's crucial flaw: Part III -- The Packers of it all
How do you go about replacing a player like Davante Adams?
This is part three of the ‘every contender’s crucial flaw series’. If you missed part one or two, you can read them here and here. This one is a little different. I intended to write about the Packers and concerns about their receiving room and a whole bunch of thoughts unfolded from there. We will be back to bouncing around the final teams in Part IIII.
This is no surprise. The Packers receivers (or lack thereof) have dominated the #discourse since the team shuffled Davante Adams off to Las Vegas.
Let’s get this out the way upfront: There is no replacing Adams. Not with an individual, not in the aggregate. Adams is the most impactful receiver in football. And no staff – anywhere! – did as good a job as Matt LaFleur and the Green Bay staff at three specific things:
Getting the best receiver in the game easy touches.
Deploying extra bodies to conceal their best receiver within the play design.
Leveraging the talent of Adams into easy buckets for everyone else.
Adams was not a one-man offense. But he was a one-man offensive philosophy. Everything the Packers put together in the passing game was to either maximize the presence of their star receiver or to utilize his reputational threat to clear space for everyone else on the offense.
Every. Single. Thing.
That could mean pick-and-flick-it single-man screens, glorified punt returns that played on the fear of defenses. It’s hard to overstate how much of Adams’ effectiveness came thanks to his reputation. He is (along with peak Antonio Brown) the best off-the-line, beat-the-jam receiver to have played in the past half-decade. That panics a defense. He’s just too sudden and explosive.
How do you counter that? You back up. You give your DBs a cushion. You shadow him with help. How did Green Bay counter that counter? One way: Picking it and flicking it to Adams whenever he saw a cushion, and letting the receiver go to work after the catch. Any time Adams was uncapped, he was getting the ball at the snap.
Those, right there, are reputational plays. They’re fear-based plays. And they’re easy yards for the Packers.
How else did LaFleur and co. tease production out of Adams while elevating everyone around him? They moved him around. 43 percent of Adams’ snaps last season came from the slot. A whole bunch more came from tight, condensed splits. When you have the best off-the-jam receiver in football, the best thing to do is to drag him into positions where people feel they need to jam him. The Packers knew full well he could not be stopped off the line, so they used the rules of opposing defenses against the defense: either Adams would be jammed (and win) in the most valuable neighborhood on the field, or he would be uncapped and get the ball now.
That’s one of LaFleur’s cheekier designs, and a go-to throughout 2021. The Packers would line up Adams as tight to the line of scrimmage as possible, almost as a tight end. If Adams was capped (a man over the top of him), Rodgers would check to a different play, often a run or some kind of deeper-developing play action (which skewed defenses’ tendency checks and made play action more effective). If Adams was uncapped, Rodgers would check to an immediate screen, with Adams releasing into the flat with a pair of perimeter blockers ahead. What was a defense to do?
Some teams talk about making sure the ball is in the hands of their best players. With Adams, the Packers lived it – and pushed it to its outermost extreme.
I ask again: How can you replicate that? The answer: You can’t, at least not without adding another similar-level player (they didn’t) or adding two to three-second bananas who could recreate some of what Adams brought to Green Bay in the aggregate (they didn’t).
The Packers offense since LaFleur joined has been centered in the Adams-Rodgers connection. They ranked first in DVOA in 2021 on passes over the middle of the field for the second straight season, though they threw down the middle less often than the average offense. The Packers offense was based on attacking outside the numbers, thanks to having a quarterback who could hit the low-percentage throws at a high-percentage clip. But by embracing the sideliners, they opened the middle of the field for their payoff, explosive plays. Rodgers was able to make the high percentage throws the most valuable throws; the Packers also led the league in EPA per play over the middle of the field.
Rodgers completed 40 of 54 attempts (74 percent!) on throws between 10 and 20 yards over the middle of the field last season, with five touchdowns to zero interceptions and a 146.8 (!!) passer rating – only a few marks from perfect. That is a ludicrous amount of output directly in the heart of the field. Without the dominance and versatility of Adams, it will be tough to engineer that production quite so easily.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Read Optional to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.