Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Magic of Russell Wilson

New to the Pro Football HOF, the jersey, pants, shoes and socks worn by Russell Wilson in Seattle's week 15 game at Buffalo. Photo from the Pro Football HOF web site.

As Seattle fans well know, Russell Wilson had a fantastic rookie year. His stats were exceptional: lots of production and great efficiency. He threw for 3118 yards and 26 touchdowns, the latter is a record he shares with Peyton Manning (and 9th overall in the league), and added on 489 yards on the ground with four additional scores. Even more impressive, he completed 64.1 percent of his passes (tied for 8th), averaged 7.93 yards per pass (4th), and compiled a passer rating of 100.0 (4th). Wilson was especially great down the stretch, especially in the last 11 games of the season (including two playoff games), when Seattle needed him to play well. In those games, he threw for 2460 yards, had a 21 to 4 touchdown to pick ratio, and put up a lofty 114.0 passer rating. In his Pro Bowl debut this January, Wilson threw three scoring passes and was arguably the best of the six quarterbacks in the game.

But it's not just about stats; Wilson had an impact on his team. In 2012, Seattle won four more games than the previous year. It's no coincidence the Seahawks were tough to beat with him at quarterback. Just look at all the close losses and the comebacks and Wilson's role in those games. He led five game winning drives in 2012, good for third in the league and 29th all-time. Under his leadership, Seattle won a road playoff game and was a heartbeat from a second road playoff victory against the NFC's number one seed.

In a larger context, I believe Wilson's rookie campaign is one of the best in the history of the league. Indeed, his 2012 season is on par with stellar rookie campaigns turned in by Benny Friedman (1927), Sammy Baugh (1937), Bob Waterfield (1945), Otto Graham (1946), Charlie Conerly (1948), Greg Cook (1969), Dan Marino (1983), Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Matt Ryan (2008), Cam Newton (2011), and Robert Griffin III (2012).

There are a number of things that make Wilson great. And the interesting thing is that these things portend well for his long-term development, not only his short-term success. Let's look like at some of the defining characteristics and traits of RW3.

1. Wilson doesn't make many mistakes. He threw 10 interceptions, which was fewer than the number of picks thrown by Pro Bowlers Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning, and only lost three fumbles. Those are fantastic numbers for a seasoned veteran, exceptional for a rookie passer. Football fans and experts shouldn't be surprised by these feats, however. As a freshman at NC State, he threw one (!) interception in 275 passes; and in his outstanding senior season at Wisconsin, Wilson tossed only four picks in 309 attempts. But again, it's not just numbers for Wilson. He reads defenses well, doesn't force passes, and rarely throws into double and triple coverage.

2. Wilson is a true passing quarterback. His running comes naturally, as he's such a good athlete, and complements his air game and is not done to compensate for any passing deficiencies. Indeed, if he loses a tick or two in his 40 time, no problem. Wilson has a strong arm, good touch, and is precise and accurate, and he can make all the requisite throws in the route tree. In 2012, the Seahawks ran the pistol offense about 10 percent of the time. (h/t to for the estimate) Which means, then, that Wilson operated overwhelmingly out of a standard pro offense.

3. Yes, Seattle designs qb sneaks and runs for Wilson, and he does take advantage of his athletic ability to make impromptu plays with his feet. This allows him to rack up yards, pick up first downs, and score some touchdowns. One of the downsides of mobile quarterbacks, though, is the severe punishment they continually take. Just look at the injuries sustained by quarterbacks like Mike Vick and RG3 in 2012. In Wilson's case, however, he does a good job of sliding feet first, getting down and out of harm's way. Furthermore, while Wilson scrambles in the pocket, buying time and keeping plays alive, he seemingly has an innate sense to avoid oncoming pass rushers. Particularly nifty is the reverse pivot he deploys to elude and escape defenders. Just look at this video (forward to the 40 second mark) of Wilson's move to shake DPOY J.J. Watt in the Pro Bowl. It's these kinds of moves that has led people to compare Wilson to the great Fran Tarkenton.

4. Often mentioned as a liability, Wilson's physical attributes are actually an asset. Sure, he's small, but he's also quick, fast, and elusive. For a quarterback, his ability to stop and start is rare, even superior to any of today's uber-athletic passers like Vick, Newton, RG3, or Colin Kaepernick. Additionally, Wilson's body type/frame, in particular, should help him over the long-term. He has a short, stocky, and muscular build, which, in my view, will likely prevent injuries from piling up over time. At bottom, it's hard to get a hold of Wilson, and when defenders do, he can take a hit.

5. As I noted above, Russell's first pro season included on-field dramatics, late game heroics, and super playoff performances. He's a big-game player. And that has helped to create a feeling, among his teammates, coaches, and fans, that he's special, magical. This is a quality that past greats like Roger Staubach and John Elway possessed. Like them, Wilson is a fierce competitor and inspires confidence when the game's on the line. These are rare and sought-after qualities.
6. Wilson also has the character and personality traits that guard against some of the pitfalls young NFL players often face, such as laziness and overconfidence. Wilson is mature, humble, and a leader. A part of that, sure, is that he produces on the field, which makes it somewhat easy for teammates to respect and follow his actions. But there are other things to consider. Wilson goes out of his way in interviews to praise teammates, coaches, and fans. He's quick to acknowledge when opponents play well. He takes the game very seriously. I've repeatedly heard stories about Wilson being the first one at practice and the last one to leave. And this goes not only for his football career, but his former baseball career as well. Wilson's coaches and teammates in the Colorado Rockies organization have constantly praised his work ethic, his desire to be great.
What are the next steps for Wilson? I see Wilson as one of the five to seven best quarterbacks in the league. But there are things he'll need to address. He has to show more consistency. If he wants to be the best, as I'm sure he does, then he must play at a high level throughout the year, from week 1 through week 17. He also has to guide Seattle further in the playoffs. Unfortunately, today's football pundits have decided that Super Bowl wins are the most important indicator of quarterbacking excellence. Unfair as it might be, Wilson likely won't be regarded in the same breath as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers until he hoists the Lombardi Trophy. And given the prejudices that still linger about Wilson's height, a Super Bowl win is probably even more important than usual to his status and legacy. Whatever happens in the future, I'm sure it will be fun to watch Wilson's continued development and progression.

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