In receiver Davante Adams’ first regular-season game with the Las Vegas Raiders, against the Los Angeles Chargers, the ball distribution from quarterback Derek Carr went about as expected. Carr threw to his former Fresno State teammate 15 times, and Adams caught 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. That’s about what you’d want from an above-average quarterback throwing to the NFL’s best receiver, particularly a receiver for whom the Raiders gave up as much as they did.
In March, the Raiders gave the Green Bay Packers their first- and a second-round pick — the 22nd and 53rd selections in the 2022 draft — for Adams, and they then signed Adams to a five-year, $140 million contract with $65.67 million in guaranteed money. Adams chose his college teammate over Aaron Rodgers, and given the ways in which Adams can just scorch any pass defense, it was clear that the Raiders saw Adams as the final key to unlock their passing game under new head coach and offensive shot-caller Josh McDaniels.
In the Chargers game, that was the case. Since then, it has not been — and it has not been in a clear fashion. Against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, and against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3, Adams caught a total of seven passes on a total of 15 targets for 48 yards. Adams did catch a touchdown pass in each of his games, but given the fact that the Raiders are now 0-3 in games they’ve lost by a total of 13 points, one wonders how that might be different if Adams had been more productive in either of those last two games.
The most glaring and ugly statistic here? Carr has targeted Adams on six passes of 20 or more air yards, and Adams has no catches on those targets. Zero, zip, nada. Last season with the Packers, Adams was one of the NFL’s better deep receivers, catching 13 passes of 20 or more air yards on 27 targets for 453 yards and two touchdowns.
If that isn’t the most glaring and ugly statistic regarding this new partnership, it’s only because this one is.
Adams ranked 14th in DVOA and second in DYAR last season.
Through three games in 2022, he ranks…
*checks for a fourth time*
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) September 28, 2022
In the Raiders’ 24-22 loss to the Titans on Sunday, receiver Mack Hollins had a career day, with ctaches on 10 targets for 158 yards and a touchdown to Adams’ five on 10 targets for 36 yards and a score. Hollins excelled with deep catches, and all of that got him on this week’s Secret Superstars team.
That’s a nice story, but Adams is now the one who’s being treated like a secret to his own coaches and quarterback. And the issues go further than the simple idea that the Raiders are using Adams as a decoy to open things up for other targets.
Let’s get forensic, and work to the heart of this unexpected dysfunction.
The Raiders aren't using Adams' superpowers on the field.
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
In the 2021 season as Aaron Rodgers’ best buddy, Adams was the league’s most consistently dominant receiver when running slants whose name was not Ja’Marr Chase. Adams ran a league-high 80 slant routes, catching 18 of 21 of those passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns.
This season, Adams has run just nine slant routes, catching three passes on four targets for 26 yards. There was this 22-yard play against the Chargers, where Adams used the route as he usually does to display his preternatural understanding of timing and leverage to leave his defender (cornerback Michael Davis in this case) in the dust.
Adams was also lethal in Green Bay’s offense with the backside dig — where the receiver shows a vertical route to start, and then cuts sharply inside in the intermediate part of the play. Even on these relatively simple concepts, the timing is just… off. Adams has one backside dig catch this season, in which he found a designed opening underneath Tennessee’s Cover-2.
The deep passes look completely uncoordinated.
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
I should amend the horrible deep passing stats from Carr to Adams. One catch has resulted from those deep targets. Problem is, the ball went to the wrong guy.
This season, Derek Carr has attempted six passes of 20 or more air yards with Davante Adams as the target.
One catch has resulted from those targets.
That catch was by Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. pic.twitter.com/oK4LL8S1nX
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) September 28, 2022
With 4:11 left in overtime against the Cardinals in Week 2, Adams ran from outside right in a reduced split through the heart of Arizona’s Cover-3 defense, and he was about as open as any receiver could be. The problem in this was that Carr threw it late, and safety Jalen Thompson was in a better position to catch the ball, which he nearly did. Which would have left Carr with no receptions and two interceptions when targeting Adams deep.
It’s also possible that Adams is re-adjusting to Carr’s more deliberate release after years of benefiting from Aaron Rodgers’ quick delivery.
Which leads us to the more global problem. If you’ve ever been in a foreign country, armed with nothing but grit and a language dictionary, you’ll understand.
This will eventually work, but not without some ugliness.
(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
There’s a language barrier in the Raiders’ offense, and it comes from three different countries, to so speak.
With McDaniels, Carr, and Adams, you have three people speaking three entirely different offensive structures. Carr was used to Jon Gruden’s highly-schemed West Coast passing game. McDaniels comes from a Patriots offense with roots in Erhardt-Perkins, and a high rate of pre-snap motion and option routes. Adams comes from a Packers offense that, under Matt LaFleur, had morphed into a structured timing-and-rhythm passing game which leans on the run and draws heavily from RPO concepts.
Quarterback and receiver responsibilities. The timing and options of routes. Verbiage of play calls. From system to system, these things are all different, and no matter how great McDaniels is as a creator of offense, and Carr is as a quarterback, and Adams is as a receiver, there are going to be rough spots until and unless everybody is speaking the same language.
While Adams was praising the complexity of McDaniels’ offense before the season started, he might be feeling constricted right now in the moment. And he probably wouldn’t be the only one.
“Well, just the fact that everybody’s a threat out there,” Adams said in July about why this offense would work well for him. “Obviously, pretty much every pass you have a number-one read or whatever, but you can get the ball from anywhere. You can be a guy that’s setting up another guy, but the coverage can dictate that you get the ball. So, it kind of keeps guys’ minds and keeps you alive within every route.
“I’ve been a part of [offenses], whether it was college or early in my [NFL] career… where you know you got to ‘dummy route’ as they say. But there are really no dummy routes in this offense and the whole coaching staff, they got a brilliant football mind. It keeps every guy alive in the offense, but you know you can get [the ball] and there are so many different things that kind of marry up and keep the defense honest and makes it pretty tough for the defense to know what’s coming.”
So, without the “dummy” routes, it isn’t a situation where Adams is asked to be a decoy for the benefit of others. It’s not something that really shows up on tape, anyway. It’s more that, while the defense doesn’t know what’s coming, Adams and Carr and McDaniels are in a position where the offense doesn’t always know what’s coming, either.
There are all kinds of instances in which great players go to new offenses and struggle at the start. Tom Brady in Bruce Arians’ and Byron Leftwich’s offenses with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 was a fairly epic example. That offense was not great in the first half of the season, it bottomed out in Week 9 when the Bucs lost 38-3 to the New Orleans Saints. From there, Arians and Leftwich altered their plan to better fit what Brady was used to, and things got a lot better in a big hurry.
McDaniels’ ability to bridge these barriers will decide if, when, and how quickly his offense will look like we all thought it would. Until then, Davante Adams is in a receiver purgatory he never imagined.