DAVANTE ADAMS TROTTED back to the Green Bay huddle, then barked out an order to Aaron Rodgers.
Throw it again, he remembers yelling.
Running back Aaron Jones recalls a more solicitous Adams on this evening in October 2017. In Jones’ version of events, both Adams and Rodgers tapped their jerseys, each extending to the other a silent apology. My bad, they meant to say. But Rodgers? He hews closer to Adams’ account. He offers a wisp of a smile, remembering his wide receiver’s pointed directive. Throw. It. Again.
“Not only did he want the ball,” Rodgers says now, several years, and a few hundred passes to Adams, later. “But he wanted me to throw it a little bit better.”
So forgive Adams his lapse in decorum, because Rodgers clearly does, and because the Packers trailed 31-28 in JerryWorld, and time was very much running out. Then zoom in. This mostly forgettable play from this mostly forgettable night shows how this season’s best quarterback-wide receiver tandem was forged.
On first-and-10 from the Dallas 12-yard line, Rodgers had lofted a fade down the left side in Adams’ direction. But it was low and inside, and the best Adams could do, ensnared as he was in a tangle of limbs, was try to bat the ball away from his defender, lest it be intercepted. But he wanted that ball again, only higher and outside this time. Which is precisely where Rodgers lofted it on Take 2. The Packers ran it back with 16 seconds remaining, a fade down the left side once more, and this time Adams leapt, snagged the football, pirouetted midair, then landed both feet in the blue end zone paint for a touchdown. In celebration, he chucked the ball with so much mustard that it might’ve hit Jerry Jones’ Texas-sized video board had he had the foresight to aim it that way.
Here’s the moral of this story: Adams gets Rodgers in ways so eerie they border on witchcraft, and this was the moment their sorcery was laid bare. Survey just about anyone on the field that night. Jordy Nelson says so. Jones does too. Rodgers makes three.
Just don’t ask Davante Adams.
IT’S NOT THAT Adams doesn’t appreciate why so many point to his touchdown against Dallas that day as Exhibit A in their case for what makes his connection with Rodgers special and different, and, yes, somewhat eerie. He told Aaron Rodgers, former Super Bowl MVP, what to do! And Aaron Rodgers, future gold jacket wearer, listened!
It’s just that there’s a different play — on the same drive, in fact — that he considers more emblematic of this bizarre, synchronized magic he has dabbled in with Rodgers over the years. Rewind the tape. Before the game-winning touchdown on the high and outside fade, before the missed connection on the low and inside fade, the Packers took the field way back at their own 25 with a minute and change to go. The offense had stood idle on the sideline for 8:43 of game clock time — a damn near eternity in regular old time — watching the Cowboys drive 79 yards over 17 plays to take the lead.
Back on the field for the first time in ages, Rodgers looked at Adams on the opening play of the drive, then looked at the defensive back guarding him. Adams, mind reader — or just extraordinarily adept interpreter of looks directed at defensive backs — got the point. “He looked at the DB a certain way,” Adams explains. He sort of explains. He at least tries to explain. “Almost to say, like, this is a situation where I need to throw that back-shoulder ball, like I did earlier in the game.”
Adams, now crystal clear (somehow) on exactly what Rodgers meant (but didn’t say), released much wider than he normally would have otherwise. And because he did not try to get on top, as instructed (apparently), Rodgers threw a perfect back-shoulder ball that dropped into Adams’ arms before the wide receiver did a half-twist, burst forward a few more feet, and then skipped out of bounds for a first down of 14 yards.
He and Rodgers didn’t need prosaic things like, say, words to talk to each other. No, their thoughts traveled via osmosis, or at least the hyper-understanding and knowledge that many years together affords. And that’s why Adams still puts this play on a pedestal, unheralded as it might be by anyone but him.
“I think this one was a little bit more impressive as far as the nonverbals,” he says. “Just a look and knowing what he wanted.”
There’s a hazy, quasi-mystical aura that settles over any discourse around the mind meld Adams has managed to nurse into existence with Rodgers since he arrived in Green Bay in 2014. It’s “hard to explain” and “you can’t really understand it,” and “it just sort of happens,” and, oh yes, it’s “hard to explain.” Their wordless connection, perhaps appropriately, seems to defy words. Or at least words that elucidate much of anything.
But that, too, is the point. If just anyone could understand these dark arts, anyone could be a magician. When Adams and Rodgers break from the huddle, their inner thoughts remain fused, locked, one, and the only people who could plausibly know those inner thoughts are Adams and Rodgers. Jones, for example, will be on the field, hear one run-pass option called in the huddle, then watch as an entirely different RPO unfolds seconds later.
“They’ll just give each other a nod, and something big happens,” Jones says. “They’re in each other’s heads.”
But Jones is there on that same field. He’s in that same huddle. He has seen that same nod. Doesn’t he have a semblance of a clue about what has transpired?!
“Not the exact play,” he admits. “I just know something special is about to happen.”
It makes sense, then, that no one besides Adams — save, perhaps, Rodgers — would catalog in their memory Rolodex a 3-year-old, visually unspectacular, otherwise run-of-the-mill pass-and-catch against Dallas in Week 5. Adams and Rodgers’ mind-reading escapades have resulted in touchdowns (many; 18 scored by Adams in 2020, tying a franchise record), and catches (also many; 115 this year, breaking a franchise record), and memes (Rodgers’ bewildered face after Adams caught a pass with one hand while a defender ripped the glove off his other hand). It hides in plain sight, this language spoken and understood by two, and indecipherable to the rest of us simpletons. To teammates like Aaron Jones. To former teammates like Jordy Nelson, who once spoke his own language with Rodgers, too.
Adams spent the formative years of his NFL career — his first four seasons — binge-watching the “Jordy and Aaron show,” as he dubs it, digesting the ways Nelson, one of Green Bay’s original mind readers, could communicate with Rodgers without speaking, how he became an extension of Rodgers, as if Rodgers had sprouted an alien, but useful, third arm. (And what a show it was. Nelson and Rodgers wound up Green Bay’s second-most prolific duo ever with 469 completions — until Adams came along and eclipsed them, and the Brett Favre-Donald Driver hookup (486), with a franchise-best 498 catches — and counting — from Rodgers.
They eventually became so enmeshed, the line where Rodgers ended and Nelson began grew so blurred, that when young receivers had a question for Rodgers — What was he thinking? What kind of route did he want run? — Rodgers would defer them to Nelson, wanting to hear Nelson’s take, then offer swift validation: Yep, what he said. Adams saw that, saw that Nelson could make a mistake once — he’d keep running through a zone, say, and Rodgers would throw the ball, thinking Nelson had stopped — then never make that mistake again, without a word from Rodgers himself.
Mostly, he saw how Rodgers responded to Nelson in those moments. Rodgers perked up. His body language changed. So Adams filed that away for later use, then went back to the business of finding his place in this league as a young receiver. Particularly because he was a young receiver who — spoiler alert — wasn’t doing all that well.
Adams didn’t set out to be Rodgers’ best friend forever or anything. There were no trust falls. No late-night, soul-baring confessions, a campfire crackling in front of them. (“Honestly, I don’t think that they spend much time together outside of the facility,” says fellow Green Bay wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling.)
There didn’t need to be, Adams had learned. Nelson and Rodgers operated like identical twins with a cosmic connection, but their bromance was always a touch over-dramatized. “This will be mind-blowing to some people, but I’ve never had a glass of scotch with him,” Nelson says. “I’ve played golf with him. We’d do dinners. But it wasn’t like every Thursday night we went out.”
Adams and Rodgers didn’t need to be attached at the hip, then. They just needed to think like they were. So Adams did the mundane, tedious work of watching Rodgers, and listening to Rodgers, and remembering what Rodgers did and said. How do you remember how to walk? It’s muscle memory. So it was with the art of reading Rodgers.
“We can jump back to a game from 2015 and he’ll say, ‘Run it like that one time where it was third-and-10 and you had the stutter going,'” Adams says. “And I’ll know exactly what he’s talking about.”
As one does.
They are, in other words, in the world’s most picture-perfect marriage. A blissful, finish-each-other’s sentences, can’t-get-enough-of-each other union. And the road to Super Bowl LV runs through Lambeau this year — first up, the Rams — right as Adams and Rodgers are playing their best, most in-sync football as a duo to date.
FULL TRANSPARENCY ALERT: Adams and Rodgers didn’t have a meet-cute at Lambeau Field, nor did they form an insta-connection. Adams didn’t parachute into Green Bay from the Bay Area and unlock the mysteries of Aaron Rodgers’ beautiful mind. No, for a spell, their partnership was fruitless enough that Adams descended into the netherworld of NFL bustdom.
His mother, Pamela Brown, eschewing the advice of anyone who has ever existed on social media, does read the comments section. In Adams’ second year in the league, she came across a Green Bay fan’s tweet calling her son the worst receiver in the NFL. Brown responded (“I just went in and said a whole bunch of stuff that I probably shouldn’t”) and a few hours later, she received a text message from Adams: “Mom.” That was the last time she engaged the haters.
But if the bust discussion was premature, it was also, at the very least, grounded in merited concern. Adams was not very good. In fact, he was quite bad.
“It was just a s— show all around,” he says.
Adams spent basically all of 2015 playing on a bum ankle, which is not ideal for any receiver, and especially one like him, who relies on misdirection and getting his feet outside of his framework. But his hands went bust too, uninjured though they were. He dropped six out of the 92 passes thrown to him that season, tied for seventh-most in the league, and Pro Football Focus ranked him 118 out of 119 receivers who played in at least 25% of their team’s snaps. (Fed-Up Green Bay Twitter User wasn’t all that off base, in retrospect.) All told, Adams and Rodgers connected on 57.2% of attempts sent his way in the wide receiver’s first two seasons.
Rodgers, Adams says, was one of the people who circled the wagons tightest around him back then and who helped him regain his equilibrium when the ground beneath was quaking. That Rodgers transitioned from steady hand to the world’s most vociferous Davante Adams champion makes a certain amount of sense, then. This season, Rodgers has, in no particular order: said he’s scaled Jordy Nelson-like heights in his connection with Adams; proclaimed Adams to be Charles Woodson-level dominant; and pretty much enthused Adams completes him. “I’m better because of him,” Rodgers said last month. “As a person and as a quarterback.”
If Rodgers is feeling starry-eyed these days, it has something to do with this: Adams finished the year with four games in which he recorded 10 receptions, 100 yards and two touchdowns, a single-season NFL record. Meanwhile, Adams and Rodgers are connecting. And connecting and connecting. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Adams had 63 more receptions than any other Packer, the biggest gap between any team’s top two pass-catchers in 2020; he was targeted on 34% of his routes, the highest rate among wide receivers since 2012; Rodgers and Adams connected on 76.7% of attempts this season, the second highest rate in the past 20 years among quarterback-wide receiver duos with at least 150 attempts. They’re not the first duo to reach mind-bending synergy (Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, most glaringly), but they’re scaling similar heights.
Ask those around Adams — his coaches, his teammates, his former teammates — beyond his ESP with Rodgers, what separates Adams from other receivers in this league, and they’ll tell you it’s … literally separation. His ability to create space from the defender, his knack for being open: All. The. Time.
“Here lies the man who never gave a DB a break,” Adams envisions his future career tombstone saying. “Every single route that I take, I take a million percent serious. I’m gonna try to abuse you on every single route.”
To touch on the obvious, these are athletes who are exceptional at what they do. They would be just fine, mind meld or no mind meld. Adams would still get separation off the line like few other receivers in the league. And the famously cerebral Rodgers? Does he need someone to get on his level?
“He doesn’t need it,” Nelson says. He’s Aaron Rodgers, is what he doesn’t say. Of course he doesn’t need it. “But it makes life a lot easier,” he adds.
The point, in Adams’ mind, is that it’s these two with this connection. Without it, would they be great? Of course. Without it, would they leave a reservoir untapped? Of course.
“He’s the best quarterback in the NFL and I’m the best wide receiver in the NFL,” Adams says. “And the way that we jell, I don’t think that anybody else is doing it quite like us.”
LONG BEFORE ADAMS could read Rodgers with a look, or dust off a years-old play his quarterback referenced in a flash, his preschool teachers offered a plausible — in retrospect — explanation as to why he’d go on to perform mental gymnastics with aplomb.
He had a photographic memory, the educators at Stanford’s Bing Nursery School told Brown about her 5-year-old son. Pretty much anything he read, he’d remember.
“Maybe it goes back to that photographic memory,” Brown says, trying to divine how Adams has achieved one-brain status with Rodgers. “When he studies someone, he remembers everything. I guess he studies him.”
In truth, he’s been playing some form of mind games for almost as long as he’s been at this. He convinced his mom to let him play football when he was around 10 years old, thanks to a peer pressure offensive. Adams called Brown one day from his after-school program and asked to tag along to his friend’s Pop Warner practice; that friend’s father drove him home armed with an application to join the league. Despite a slew of reservations (Davante, you’re too frail, you’ll get destroyed out there; Davante, I can’t even afford cleats), she relented. For one, her reservations were met with rebuttals: Adams promised that if he ever cried, she had his blessing to remove him from football altogether; his friend’s father offered to chip in for accoutrements like cleats. For another, Brown figured the surest way to shield her son from the pitfalls of East Palo Alto was to keep him exhaustively occupied with sports. Theirs was a small city, but a hard one to rise above. In 1992, the same year Adams was born, East Palo Alto recorded more per capita murders than any other city in the United States.
“A lot of talent comes out of East Palo Alto,” says Josh Harper, Adams’ old teammate from Fresno State, who grew up in nearby Union City, California. “But there’s a lot of talent that doesn’t make it out of there too.”
So she abided Adams’ newfound zeal for football, frailty and all. (“He’s always been like his dad’s family,” Brown says. “My family, we have meat on our bones. His dad’s family, they’re tall and slim.”) And she nursed him through broken bones in his left arm, thrice fractured in the exact same spot — twice while playing football; once in a pickup basketball game — then made him run track and field while his arm healed to keep him active.
Because of that pesky, ever-fragile limb, he left football for a spell, but football never really left him. Jake Halas, the coach of Palo Alto High’s freshman football team when Adams was a ninth-grader, remembers Adams lingering around practice, tossing a football to himself with his one good arm. He’d sometimes lurk in the huddle as Halas broke the team down for the day, and the coach would think to himself, who is this guy, but let him skulk anyway, while the rest of the freshmen took a knee and listened to Halas pontificate on that day’s football exploits.
Adams did eventually return to the game, officially, as a junior in high school — not just late in the Wild West of college football recruiting, but practically a no-show. That delayed reentry toppled one domino, which hit another, which hit another, leaving Adams late to the party at each new juncture.
He was a mostly unknown wide receiver in high school, and received a grand total of two college football scholarships, the second of which he only earned from Fresno State because the school had ventured north to do some reconnaissance on Adams’ speedier counterpart at wide receiver. “I was a one-star recruit,” Adams once joked.
So he made his way to Fresno State, only to redshirt his freshman year in 2011. Then, in short order, he earned Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2012, and in 2013, his redshirt sophomore season, he amassed 1,718 receiving yards, setting a Fresno State record, and 24 touchdowns, the most in the country that year. But Fresno State is not Ohio State, nor Alabama, nor Clemson. At his mother’s home that spring, he watched the first round of the 2014 draft come and go without his name ever called, then made his family dress in all black the next day. His point: “This’ll be everybody’s funeral and they’ll pay for it eventually.”
And they did, even if the 31 other teams only realized it was their funeral five or six, or maybe even seven years, after their passing. When the Packers finally drafted Adams in the second round, they united him with a quarterback who also knew the sting of a draft-day snub, and landed a wide receiver who had an established history of doing exactly what he’d wind up achieving in Lambeau in a few years’ time.
At Paly, he came on late but came on fast. He turbocharged his connection with his high school quarterback, and Christoph Bono remembers to this day staying after practice with Adams to discuss what Bono was seeing as the passer and what Adams was seeing as the receiver, the two hell-bent on fusing those visions into one. Adams replicated those efforts at Fresno State, where he became Derek Carr’s preferred roommate for away games and brain-sharer in rapid succession.
“Derek would look at Tae, give him this little eye contact, and he’d know exactly what to do,” Harper says.
It’s the catchy hook of the earworm song that’s the soundtrack to Adams’ career: He knew exactly what to do. With a look. With a nod. With nothing at all.
One time with Bono? Kind of neat. Twice, with Carr? A coincidence. Three times, with Rodgers? Now that’s a full-blown pattern.
IN EARLY DECEMBER, Rodgers stood behind the line of scrimmage, a shade under 10 yards from Philadelphia’s end zone. The playcall was a jet sweep, and Adams didn’t expect to get the ball at all, but wide receiver Allen Lazard motioned to the right, bringing the Eagles’ defense with him, and leaving just one man — Darius Slay, who retreated a few yards back — covering Adams on the left.
Adams saw all this — the motion; the retreating — and thought, “This could be beneficial for us,” and, what do you know: His quarterback had the same take.
Rodgers jettisoned said jet sweep, instead firing to Adams. One more (wordless) exchange, one more touchdown — the 400th of Rodgers’ career.
Fittingly, perhaps, this milestone was achieved more by Adams’ brute force than it was Rodgers’ lightning-quick thinking. Once he let it fly, Adams was left to muscle his way nine yards down the sideline with a defender draped over him like a cloak. But that’s what can happen when you play with a Hall of Famer, especially a Hall of Fame quarterback, especially especially a Hall of Fame quarterback in Green Bay. He blots out the sun.
“It’s always, ‘What a great throw by Rodgers!” Valdes-Scantling says. “You don’t get the ‘What a great catch by Davante!’ It’s a gift and a curse.”
His admission comes with a slew of footnotes, pearls of clarification that he VERY MUCH APPRECIATES PLAYING WITH AARON RODGERS. He couldn’t ask for a better quarterback. It’s a high-class problem to have. But it’s a reality that is baked into playing in Lambeau right now.
“It’s definitely a thing,” Adams says. “It’s not really hard on me. That’s just one of the risks that you run with having a Hall of Fame guy like that throwing you the ball.”
When the prevailing wisdom, as Nelson points out, is that Rodgers can make any wide receiver look like a Pro Bowler, said receiver might be late in getting his due. It might take having a year like 2020 to finally and irrevocably puncture the public consciousness. Even if he’s averaged over 1,000 yards per season since 2016. Even if that receiver is a Pro Bowler in equal measure because of how he works with Rodgers, not just that he works with Rodgers.
After Adams fought his way into the end zone, he reunited with his quarterback, then kneeled while handing him the game ball, to pay his respects. Rodgers laughed off the gesture, and told his wide receiver to stand up.
He wanted Adams to be on his level.