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Packers have not re-captured offensive rhythm after Davante Adams’ return

No, the Packers offense isn’t worse with its best receiver ... or at least it doesn’t have to be. So far this season though, it has been. Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers have to get it figured out.

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers
The Packers offensive ceiling is higher with Davante Adams, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been better with him on the field this season.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When Davante Adams exploded for 10 catches and 180 yards, Aaron Rodgers likewise busted out of what had been, by his standards, a rut. In week four, the Green Bay Packers quarterback fired 422 yards on a helpless Philadelphia Eagles defense who had no answer for Adams. The football gods have a cruel sense of humor because Adams left that game with a turf toe injury that would keep him out a month, but that wouldn’t hinder the Packers offense.

If anything, Rodgers pushed that momentum forward without the team’s best receiver. Since he’s come back, they’ve featured him in the passing game to limited success. In losses to the 49ers and Chargers, Adams turned 23 targets in 14 catches for just 84 yards and has seen 10+ targets in each of the last three games since his return.

Let’s state this at the outset: Adams didn’t “ruin” the Packers offense and the group isn’t actually better without him, at least not at its best. But they’ve struggled to reincorporate him in the offense and recapture the magic Rodgers and Co. produced spreading the ball around.

Just how big is the difference? I asked The Athletic’s analytics guru (and noted Aaron Rodgers truther) Ben Baldwin for offensive splits and the numbers, to be sure, are staggering. Without Adams, the Packers are 3rd in EPA per play, 3rd in success rate, 6th in drop back EPA, 3rd in rush EPA, and 8th in run success rate. And over that four week period, the Packers, Texans, and Vikings were clustered head and shoulders above the NFL in offense.

Playing with their most dynamic skill player and No. 1 receiver this season, the Packers are 18th in EPA per play, 21st in success rate, 19th in drop back EPA, and 25th in drop back success rate, despite ranking 13th in rush EPA and 7th in success rate on the ground.

Those are a bunch of numbers to show that the offense hummed with Adams off the field and struggled with him. Ben Baldwin, who crunched the numbers, added the caveat of small sample size and opponents—Minnesota, Denver, Chicago and San Francisco are all in the “with Adams” cohort—but this still offers useful insight. Or perhaps on the flip side, it begs for some.

How is this happening? Why can’t the Packers keep playing as if they had been on steroids with Adams back in the fold?

The most common suggestion is Rodgers relies too much on Adams. When he’s in the progression, he’s the read to the detriment of the rest of the skill players. And when Adams isn’t in the game, Rodgers must rely more on the offensive structure itself to do the work. Throw to the open guy rather than focus on No. 17.

But after watching specifically for this phenomenon since Adams returned, I still see little evidence to suggest Rodgers is passing up open receivers or eschewing play design to get Adams touches. The problems start with LaFleur, but essentially follow the same through line as the Rodgers-Adams relationship.

With Adams on the field, the Packers play more traditionally. More 11 and 12 personnel, less motion, fewer bunches, and in short, less LaFleur. This Green Bay offense looks more like the McCarthy iteration with Adams on the field, starting with his breakout game against the Eagles. When the offense scuffles, this is LaFleur’s default setting. They call their “get back” plays which usually feature heavy RPO and screen game, as well as traditional Rodgers shotgun dropback game. Jet motion falls by the wayside, play action falls flat, and creativity in personnel becomes an afterthought.

Such differences in approach aren’t an esoteric exercise in philosophy; they have real, tangible differences. ESPN’s Seth Walder found that pre-snap motion, where the motion man stays in motion until the snap, was a statistically significant source of improvement for offenses. In other words, pre-snap movement like jet and orbit motion, foundational parts of a theoretical LaFleur offense, don’t just make the Packers better; they make every team who uses it better.

This failure of vision appears to be a result of an oversimplification of mindset combined with a lack of honesty internally about the current physical state of Rodgers. Plenty of coaches including LaFleur’s predecessor in Green Bay, will go to staple, basic plays to get back on track. LaFleur quite literally calls these “get back” plays and they too often look like McCarthy-era concepts. Rodgers isn’t the same player he was, able to leap tall slot blitzes in a single bound. He can’t carry them on his own anymore. Even what he was doing during that brilliant stretch without Adams came with great aid from the offensive philosophy and design. Rodgers didn’t have to do much with Aaron Jones torching linebackers in the open field on sluggo’s.

On Sunday? Jones saw just one target and had no catches. LaFleur said this was because the 49ers don’t allow for that with their heavy zone defense, but Richard Sherman insisted after the game San Francisco played much more man coverage specifically because they weren’t afraid of this passing game.

With numbers like they’ve put up with Adams, who can blame him?

The ceiling of the Packers relies on incorporating Adams and the best drive of the game against the 49ers most closely resembled the offense with their primetime wideout sidelined. But the touchdown, a flip pass to Adams off jet motion, rings as purely LaFleur, embodying precisely the type of play the Packers can point to and say, “See, we can do this.” It’s the mixing of LaFleur’s offensive pedigree and Adams’ skillset.

As we approach Thanksgiving, there’s still plenty of meat left on the bone when it comes to bringing this offensive approach closer to where LaFleur has lived, philosophically, most of his career, and further from the “Just let Rodgers cook” approach they’ve used a little too often this season. They simply don’t have the talent for that right now — and Mike McCarthy’s offense worked when the Packers had elite skill talent and was much more inconsistent when it didn’t for the same reasons.

LaFleur showed visible dejection with his own performance against the 49ers. He clearly understands the failings of the offense fall, at least partially, on his shoulders. The Packers aren’t better without Adams, but they have played that way because LaFleur leaned on his own abilities with play design and stacking concepts to fool defenses. Rather than taking the traditional coach route and “simplifying” the offense to McCarthy era days, with the offense struggling, he can go the opposite direction, trusting his own instincts and talent.

It’s time for him to fully put his stamp on this offense, discovering a way to meld his approach with a virtuoso No. 1 receiver. We’ve seen Adams destroy defenses when he’s rolling, and seen Rodgers torch teams without Adams. Finding a way to put those two things together may very well dictate the ultimate destiny of this offense, and by extension, this team in 2019.