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Packers winning without Adams, but re-incorporating their star will dictate ceiling

Getting young, unproven receivers reps while winning games may be helping Green Bay on the margins, but ultimately the fate of this offense rests on what it looks like with its best receiver on the field.

Oakland Raiders v Green Bay Packers
Green Bay’s offense caught a rhythm without Davante Adams, but still needs him to reach its ceiling.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The fate of the 2019 season for the Green Bay Packers won’t rest on the heart-warming story of Allen Lazard or Jake Kumerow overcoming long odds to become useful NFL players. Watching them catch passes from Aaron Rodgers in a virtuoso performance on Sunday allayed fears this team would struggle without their top targets. And Green Bay hasn’t, going 3-0 without Adams and over the last four weeks, leading the league in EPA (Estimated Points Added) per play. They’re third in total offense by DVOA and fifth in passing despite not having Adams nearly half the season. But those stories, and their experience, is unlikely to move the needle relative to the Packers’ chances of winning games in December and January.

They need Davante Adams for that.

Football cliches will point out how important it is for Rodgers to build chemistry with backups, and how that helps build their confidence for bigger games. Beating the Raiders in October so badly you got their No. 1 cornerback traded hardly translates to playoff moments. Getting Kumerow or Lazard, or even Geronimo and Marquez Valdes-Scantling these reps provides an endearing story, but it’s a marginal gain on the field.

This iteration of the Packers offense only goes as far as Adams takes it. He’s the field tilter, the player who can take over games by himself when the defense can’t stop, say ... an athletic tight end or a bulldozing running back. Being reminded Rodgers can still play like he did in his perfect passer rating stint against the Raiders certainly helps, but simply reincorporating Adams into this team won’t be seamless.

At least one fringe benefit to this prolonged absence comes in the form of refinement of this offense by the non-Adams receivers. Matt LaFleur referenced the polishing of details in the scheme, perfecting the nuances and getting on the same page with adjustments. No doubt, that provides value. There will be plays in big moments where Green Bay needs someone other than Adams to make a play and being 100% on the details only makes that easier.

But that’s a marginal benefit. It’s not nothing, but it’s not really something either. It doesn’t suddenly propel them past the Saints or the 49ers as NFC favorites. Assimilating Adams back into this version of the offense very well could.

Over the last few weeks, the Packers offense mirrors myriad basketball teams over the years. A star goes down, the team leans on a more connected, move-the-ball approach, and wins a bunch of games without its best or second-best player. There are ESPN and FS1 segments wondering if they’re actually better without this star, almost always completely ridiculous assertions. Luckily, we’ve been spared this miasma of hawt taekez.

To be sure, Adams running a clear-out for Aaron Jones draws more attention from defenses than Lazard, but does LaFleur still call that play if Adams can be an option? Would Rodgers still look to his side if he could throw to No. 17 instead? The best version of Adams was him being fed the ball against a hapless Eagles team, a version of the offense that more closely resembled the McCarthy era Packers teams with Rodgers picking out matchups and firing rockets. On Sunday, by contrast, LaFleur went to his full arsenal of tricks, with shot plays to running backs and fullbacks, double-moves to Kumerow, and play-action shots to MVS.

While we saw something close to that balanced offense before Adams’ injury, it wasn’t anywhere near as efficient with him in the lineup. More than likely, that deficit stems more from a lack of cohesion and execution than anything related to Adams specifically. To be unequivocal, the Packers offense should be better with Adams on the field than without him. But it will require a re-acclimation process, or at the very least, discipline from the coach and quarterback to stay the course.

If this offense keeps its structure, but simply replaces Allison with Adams, it’s hard to imagine a defense can stop it. Human nature would make it easy for LaFleur to revert, for Rodgers to simply rely on his security blanket and target Adams nearly every throw. But that might not be what’s best for the offense as a whole. It’s a balance we’ve yet to see the the Packers find and until they do, we can’t assume they will.

Finding ways to score without Adams, one would think, serves as a much tougher proposition and yet the Packers have managed with flying colors. In the the process, LaFleur demonstrates outstanding adaptability. Let Aaron Jones carry the load against the Cowboys and Lions, then let Rodgers sling it against the Raiders despite the injuries outside. Each week, the Packers play their opponent rather than blindly running their offense, the latter approach being one that McCarthy wore as a badge of honor. He felt like they should be able to run their stuff and beat any opponent, and for a while they could. LaFleur’s willingness to be malleable reflects a kind of humility, a willingness to subvert one’s ego in “the scheme” in order to call the best plays to win.

If he, Rodgers, and this offense can bring that same mentality to the reintegration of Adams, whenever that may be, this Green Bay offense can return to Rodgers MVP levels of play, as we saw Sunday. We know the Packers can win games without Adams, but there’s no intellectually honest argument they’re better without him, even if they’ve statistically been better without him. The ceiling of this offense rests on how effectively they can balance what they’ve been with what they could be. If they accomplish that balancing act, what they could be are NFC favorites even without trading for any other help at the position.