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Why Aaron Rodgers is a poor fit for Davante Adams

Originally titled “Davante Adams is a Poor Fit for Aaron Rodgers.” Changed to be more accurate.

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This started as a post about how Sterling Sharpe might be overrated, but while writing it, a few things became apparent pretty quickly.

  1. Sharpe’s efficiency stats were rarely good, but this was through no fault of his own, and it’s not news.
  2. Sharpe is obviously great on film, but there’s not really a way to quantify that, and simply writing that “Boy, Sharpe looks great on film” is also boring.

It’s not Sharpe’s fault that he played for a poorly-run franchise in a less efficient era of passing, and it’s not his fault that Mike Tomczak was his quarterback for a large chunk of a season. That post was bad, boring, and more than a bit trollish, so I binned it, but it did lead to a better question.

Much like Sharpe, everyone loves Davante Adams on film. Much like Sharpe, Adams is rarely efficient (according to DVOA), and more often than not, his accomplishments take the form of counting stats like touchdowns. Unlike Sharpe, Adams has spent his entire career with sure-fire first ballot hall-of-famer Aaron Rodgers. So, why exactly does the tape tell us one thing, while DVOA tells us quite another? As it turns out, the answer has as much to do with 12 as it does with 17.

It’s generally taken as a given that just about any receiver should succeed with Rodgers, but that’s not the case. Rodgers has his weaknesses and his tendencies, and the vast majority of them clash with the strengths of Adams.

Where Adams is good vs. Where Aaron Plays

Here is 15 minutes of Davante Adams’ release off the line.

Adams’ skill at getting off of the line of scrimmage is easily his best, and perhaps the best in the league. What this means, functionally, is that Adams is regularly wide open early in the play, which should make both he and Aaron Rodgers extremely efficient.

Davante excels in the first 2.5 seconds of the play. Unfortunately, Aaron does not. Aaron likes to hold the ball and wait for a big play to develop, which worked much better when Jordy Nelson was around. To illustrate this, Football Outsiders breaks down DVOA by route type. I urge you to scroll to the “Broken Plays” section of this article on the 2016 season, and focus on Nelson, who is second in DYAR on broken plays while leading the lead in broken play targets. You should then move to Davante Adams, who is last in DYAR on broken plays, while being tied for 3rd in the league in targets (behind Nelson and Mike Evans).

You hear so much about Rodgers’ trust issues with receivers, but I think that’s less about “being in the right place at the right time” than “understanding Rodgers in a broken play.” Nelson started to tail off in 2017 (with help from Brett Hundley), leading to his eventual release, but Adams, notably, did not improve on broken plays, putting up a -9 DYAR and a -33.5% DVOA on 5 targets.

In 2018 (note: 2019 route stats are not yet available) with Rodgers back under center, Adams made some improvements, posting a career-high 14.4% DVOA on broken plays, but notably still trailing Jimmy Graham’s 19%. If you’re wondering why Graham was so popular with Rodgers while also being so ineffective, here is your answer. Graham, for all his faults, was there for Rodgers when plays broke down.

Time to Throw

Existing on broken plays is just a bad idea. In 2018, Adams tied for the league lead in 11 targets on broken plays. The Packers almost always have someone leading the way in broken play targets when Rodgers is healthy. This worked fine with Nelson, but without that preternatural connection they shared, Green Bay is just a conventional team when the play breaks down, and conventional teams are all bad at this.

Pro Football Focus’s Timo Riske put together a study of EPA based on time holding the ball. Riske’s conclusion is that efficiency tanks after 3 seconds. Even when throwing from a clean pocket, efficiency still tanks after 3.5 seconds. I highly recommend reading the entire post, which is definitely about Aaron Rodgers without focusing on Aaron Rodgers.

The effect is constant whether a play uses play action or not. Riske hypothesizes that this is simply due to the play’s structure breaking down. EPA rises as a play approaches 3 seconds, and deep runners finish their routes, but after all routes are run, even a good improvisational quarterback suffers outside of the structure of the play.

Last season, only five quarterbacks held the ball longer than Rodgers. Like all numbers, these require context. For instance, it’s pretty obvious why Lamar Jackson tends to hold the ball longer, and his unique ability to run the ball likely makes this tendency a net positive. As previously mentioned, play-action buys you an extra half second, and some of the players ahead of Rodgers play for teams that use play-action more frequently.

Some do just hold onto the ball too long, and Kollman’s conclusion is that young passers like Daniel Jones just don’t process information quickly enough. And then there is Rodgers:

Rodgers is mentioned in tandem with Wilson as two outliers, but these two are clearly not the same. Wilson makes great use of this mobility to hit big plays when things break down. In 2018, Wilson finished 3rd in DYAR on broken plays with 123. Rodgers, who led the 2018 season with 44 broken plays, tied for 21st with 0 DYAR.

Structure, Adams, and Young Receivers

Adams has improved in this facet of the game, to his credit. This isn’t surprising, as Adams has proven to be one of the hardest workers in football and his general improvement since his rookie year is nothing short of amazing. That said, broken plays remain a waste of his talents. If anything, Adams’ ability to get himself open in structure should serve to limit the number of plays that break down.

If you take a cursory look at plays run in structure in 2019, you notice that almost all of them are also a waste of Adams’ talent. Matt LaFleur loves to use Adams as a decoy to spring tight ends and lesser receivers. That’s all fine, but what is not fine is that Adams is not receiving the same courtesy. Instead, “easy” throws to him tend to be bubble screens or the much-reviled slant/flat. Getting Adams the ball before he’s run a route is almost as big a waste as waiting too long, but the majority of his targets fall into these categories. If you are wondering why Adams suddenly excels close to the end zone, it’s simply because the compressed field forces Rodgers to make quicker decisions and stay within a real offense, where Adams thrives.

As broken plays require either outstanding chemistry or elite mobility from the quarterback (or both) to produce efficient results, young receivers do not fare well in the Green Bay offense, losing touches to fossils like Jimmy Graham. You might think a burner like Marquez Valdes-Scantling would excel when a play breaks down, but it’s not enough to simply take off deep, especially as pressure begins to develop. Rodgers reliance on sandlot football, along with the turnover in the receiving corps, are some of the biggest reasons for his decline, and there is not really a good fix for the former problem. Developing chemistry along the lines of what he had with Nelson takes years, and Aaron Rodgers will likely be retired by the time he develops “proper” chemistry with Equanimeous St. Brown.

Adams as Savior

The best thing Matt LaFleur could do going forward is to get Rodgers to buy into a more structured attack. I personally have grown tired of watching Rodgers get upset at receivers who were not where they were supposed to be when it’s clear that only Rodgers and Rodgers alone actually knew where they were supposed to be. Rodgers’ decline into a hyper-conservative see-it, throw-it quarterback keeps his picks low, but also comes with the cost of not using one of the best anticipation receivers of the last five years as any other successful team would.

Quarterbacks have big egos, and change is difficult for people with big egos. I’m sure Rodgers wants to continue to play his way, but his way doesn’t work in the modern game. The gains from play-action are now widely known, but achieving them requires structure. Coaches are able to scheme easy throws at a higher rate than ever before, but benefiting requires playing in structure.

You have the best receiver in the league for the first 2.5 seconds of every play. Learn to play within structure.

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