It was anything but a routine play -- unless your name is Russell Wilson.
With 5:20 left in the first half of the Seattle Seahawks' 27-17 Week 5 win over the Washington Redskins, the third-year quarterback had a first-and-10 at the Washington 45-yard line and a lot of pressure in his face after the snap. Wilson ran to the right, where Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan had closed off any lane for throwing or running. Then, as he doubled back to the left, Wilson had to outrun linebacker Brian Orakpo, who had beaten left tackle Russell Okung on an inside move. For a lot of quarterbacks, that would have been a sack and a reset, or a quick throw out of bounds to avoid a negative play.
Not for Wilson. He eluded Orakpo and threw a well-aimed prayer up to third-string tight end Cooper Helfet, who had run all the way from the right side of the formation to a spot on the left-side numbers of the Washington nine-yard line. That wasn't the designed route, but Helfet understood that when you have a mobile quarterback, you'd better be ready to break off your route and help him make something happen. The result, in this case, was a 36-yard completion.
The first thing that is easily discernible about a play in which a mobile quarterback successfully breaks away from the script is what happens to a defense. Coverage maps are shredded, defenders go off assignment, and gaping holes are created downfield as everyone tries to get their heads around the fact that they're back in the sandlot.
Wilson did it again with 2:33 left in the fourth quarter. Again, Kerrigan broke through the left side of Seattle's offense, forcing Wilson to improvise. Again, Wilson outran Kerrigan. Again, Wilson got the throw off before Orakpo could get him on the other side (though in this case, he was aided by Okung's uncalled hold). Again, Wilson went off the map for a big gain, this time to Marshawn Lynch, who mirrored Wilson to the left to create the two things every such quarterback needs -- an opening and an opportunity.
This play resulted in a 30-yard gain and caused ESPN's Jon Gruden to say from the Monday Night Football booth at FedEx Field, "That might be the greatest play I've seen Russell Wilson make, and that's saying something. This play has no chance. He's running dead to his left -- how he sees these receivers under intense fire, I have no idea."
Gruden's brother Jay, who happens to be the Redskins' head coach, was equally effusive.
"They did the zone read, and did a little more than they'd shown in the past," Gruden ruefully recalled. "That's no excuse. We were ready for the zone-read. We'd practiced against it. But some of the keepers -- they faked the outside zone, and he was reading the backside pursuit, and that's where he hit us on a couple of them. Just a true-blue fake outside zone, and he just kept it on his own. Russell's one hell of a player. He kept a lot of plays alive, unlike anything I've seen in a while, and he's won a lot of games for them because of that."
“We got beat by a better team,” Washington safety Ryan Clark said. “We got beat by, as far as I’m concerned this weekend, the best player in the NFL. Russell Wilson made every play he had to make for his team to win, and we didn’t.”
"Best player in the NFL" is taking things a bit too far, but it's understandable that Washington would feel that way after Wilson gashed them for 201 yards and two touchdowns in the air, and added a Monday Night Football record 122 yards rushing. The Green Bay Packers felt the same way after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick set the NFL record for quarterback rushing yards in a game with 181, supplementing that effort with 263 passing yards and two touchdowns through the air in a 45-31 divisional playoff win in 2012. Plays like this had the Packers on a string all day long.
(H/T: Bay Area Sports Guy)
"We didn't make any adjustments," Packers defensive back Charles Woodson said after the game. "I just think when the game is going the way it is, you've got to try something different. It's hard to just continue to do the same thing over and over again, and continue to get burned. We need to figure out: Could we have done something differently as far as our game plan was concerned?"
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman sees Wilson in practice all the time and has to deal with Kaepernick at least twice a year, and as he recently told me, that doesn't make it any easier -- especially as these types of quarterbacks become more developed throwers.
"I mean, it’s tough," Sherman said. "Just like playing Aaron [Rodgers], A-Rod, he finds a way to create space, create time, for his receivers to get open and it puts a lot of stress on the defense. You have to trust that everybody plasters to the receiver that is nearest to him. Because when he scrambles out, it creates more time, and defenses aren’t built to last five, six, seven seconds down the field. Guys have to find whatever guys are in their zone and stick to them. Sometimes that’s difficult, because some guys aren’t in a zone or someone is right behind them and you’re chasing them down anyways.
"It creates a lot of stress in the defense in an incredibly tough situation."
It's a tough question for any defense when facing the new wave of mobile quarterbacks, but this kind of improvisational play puts untold stress on the offenses that profit from them, as receivers need to adjust to the reality that any play can break apart at any given time. For Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who's been bedeviling defenses with his own diverse skill set since he came into the NFL in 2011, it's all about the receivers being aware at all times.
"For me, it's just about being accessible when a quarterback leaves the pocket," Newton said. "A lot of receivers don't have an eye to come back to the quarterback when he's scrambling out of the pocket -- they'll leave the quarterback out to dry. I think my receivers do a great job of becoming available, and for blocking. Knowing that a quarterback can cut across the field and create with his running -- those guys have been great with giving me opportunities outside the pocket."
For Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin, it's as much about reading his quarterback as anything. It's his responsibility to not only follow Wilson, but also to time the adjustment from his standard route when all hell breaks loose in a productive fashion.
"You've got to know his tendencies and his body language," Baldwin said. "For instance, Russell has a certain body language when he's running a certain way, and when he's about to turn around and go in the other direction. For the most part, receivers can tell that when we're looking back. So, you've just kind of got to get a feel for it. If he starts running to the right, and we're running to the right, and he turns around and starts running to the left ... we have to start running that way. So if you can get a hint on his body language and which way he's going to go, most of the time you can head that way and get an early start."
Like anything else, this kind of receiver read ability takes time and reps.
"Yeah, you can tell," Baldwin said. "It's just ... in his running form -- sometimes, when he's running really hard to the right, you know he's going to keep running. But if he's jogging a little bit, and then he sees someone in front of him, you know he's going to turn around. We have specific rules for the scramble drill; however, in some instances, it's just backyard football. You're just trying to get open and create a throwing lane for Russell."
At Stanford, Baldwin caught a lot of passes from Andrew Luck, who's more from the Ben Roethlisberger school of mobile quarterbacks who can just as easily make a stick throw downfield with defenders hanging all over them. The contrast illustrates one important point -- not all mobile quarterbacks respond the same way, and their receivers must adjust accordingly.
"Luck isn't as agile, but one of things he would do when he took off running was that he would become like a fullback," Baldwin said. "He'd try to run guys over, and he did that a number of times in college. I know he's done it in the league, too. The difference between him and Russell is that Russell's more agile and runs more like a running back, where Luck runs more like a fullback."
The key to it all? The quarterback needs to run to throw -- he must keep his eyes downfield. As Wilson explained a few days after the Washington game, that's how these plays begin. Only then can the athleticism -- and in Wilson's case, a baseball background -- kick in.
"I think it’s huge in terms of our scramble game," he said. "I always want to keep my eyes downfield. I’m never really trying to run the ball. I’m trying to find guys. In terms of going left, being able to play baseball has helped me a lot, just making different throws. Playing second base, you have to go in the second base hole and still throw it to first base and make those types of throws. A lot of it is getting your shoulders around and anticipating where the guy is going to be and giving them a shot. Cooper Helfet did an unbelievable job of breaking away from the backside of the field and coming all the way across the field and made a great catch, got both feet inbounds."
I first became aware of the importance of receiver adjustment in chaotic plays when Tony Romo answered a question about how receiver Kevin Ogletree ran a specific route in the Dallas Cowboys' 2012 season-opening win over the New York Giants. With 1:07 left in the first half, Romo threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ogletree, but not before the receiver adjusted to Romo scrambling out of the pocket after Giants end Jason Pierre-Paul beat Dallas left tackle Tyron Smith to pressure him. Watch Ogletree move on a cross from the inside left slot and then move with Romo after the play breaks down.
"That's part of playing receiver here," Romo said. "You've got to understand that our offensive line gives us the chance to move around and do some things. When that happens, the guys who have a good knack and understanding where to move at those times obviously get themselves open and give me a good look. Kevin did a good job of that in the game. At the end of the day, it's about execution. Guys need to be in the right spots at the right time, I need to throw an accurate ball, and we need enough time to throw it. If one of those three are not up to par, then we're not going to be where we need to be in the passing game."
That's the true test of a mobile passing game -- not only that defenses struggle against it, but that offenses implicitly understand how the quarterback's moves change from play to play.