It was Week 6 of the 2012 season, and Russell Wilson was in trouble.
The rookie third-round quarterback, given the starting job by the Seahawks after a stellar preseason, was struggling in a limited passing offense. He failed to break the 200-yard mark in any of his first four games, and though he did manage 221 yards in Seattle's Week 5 win over the Carolina Panthers, he'd thrown one touchdown and five picks in his previous two games. Wilson was struggling on third down especially, and the Seahawks were starting to wonder if it might be better to have him spend some time on the bench and replace him with Matt Flynn, whom the team had signed to a lucrative contract in the offseason.
Complicating matters was the fact that in Week 6, the Seahawks would be facing the New England Patriots, always a tough out for any opponent. Wilson, who had completed 63 percent of his passes, with 6.52 yards per attempt and a 5/6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, went to head coach Pete Carroll during the week of preparation for New England and asked that he be "let go" in Seattle's relatively conservative offense.
"He completely agreed. 'OK, I’m going to let you go,'" Wilson recalled on Wednesday. "That was that type of thing. I’m better when I can just play ball, I think. I’m not a closed-minded person -- I just want to have it all on my plate and just go for it. I think that lets me relax, to be honest with you, because I put all the work in, so when the game just comes to me, that’s usually when I play my best. That was something that went into that week we talked about ... Sure enough, we went for it and found a way to win."
They beat the Patriots 24-23, with Wilson engineering a 14-point comeback in the second half of the fourth quarter. Wilson had completed seven of 15 deep passes (20 or more yards in the air) for three touchdowns and two interceptions in his first five weeks, but he blew up against New England, with five completions on nine deep attempts for 200 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, per Pro Football Focus' metrics. It was the first time the Seahawks got a real sense of how Wilson could sling it in a complete passing game.
"I think he’s really, really unique, and he’s demonstrated that in everything that we watched of him, in everything that we met with him about before draft time, through Senior Bowl prep, everything that we ever saw," Carroll said after the New England win. "We were really taken by his poise, the strength of his character, and his outlook on what it takes to get it done. His personal drive is second to none, it’s really something. Now we watch him in the rigors of handling what’s going on here and he is just rock solid. He has not wavered, and he hasn’t blinked. It’s very exciting to see him play so well as we continue to develop as a team, and he had a huge day yesterday, and had a fantastic football game."
Those deep throws defined not only the result of that game but the direction of Wilson's NFL future.
The first came with 10:53 left in the first quarter: The Seahawks had the ball with first-and-10 at their own 31-yard line, and the Patriots lined up in a single-high look, with Tavon Wilson as the deep safety. Seattle had Golden Tate outside right and Sidney Rice in the slot, and Rice took advantage of a hole in coverage with an out-and-up when Patrick Chung handed Rice off to Wilson, who had gone deep to help with Tate. Russell Wilson recognized the double coverage up top and the opening underneath, and this was his easiest deep throw of the day -- a 29-yarder that put the ball on the New England 40-yard line.
On the next play, Wilson hit tight end Zach Miller with a 22-yard bullet. Miller got outside the coverage of linebacker Brandon Spikes with an up-and-out route from the right side of the formation,and Wilson timed the throw perfectly. Miller caught it before Chung and cornerback Devin McCourty could get over there.
Anyone who doubted Wilson's arm strength when he played at North Carolina State and Wisconsin had to eat their words with throws like this next one. With 4:25 left in the first quarter and the Seahawks at their own 16-yard line on third-and-9, Wilson rolled to his left to avoid pressure out of New England's 2-Man defensive look, and aired one out 50 yards downfield to receiver Doug Baldwin on a deep seam post in which Baldwin outran cornerback Kyle Arrington. This was a great concept against the Patriots' specific nickel coverage and perfect execution from WIlson and Baldwin. It's one of the prettier deep throws Wilson's made in his NFL career.
Here's Wilson rolling to his right on that same drive. Four plays after the 50-yard completion, Wilson hit Baldwin again for a 24-yard touchdown pass in which he had to adjust his timing for the fact that Baldwin fell down out of his break in the slot.
"Doug is a tremendous player," Wilson said after the game. "He tripped and got back up and kept fighting and got down the field. The offensive line did a great job of protecting long enough so I could extend the play just a little bit and find a one-on-one matchup with Doug. He gets past his guy and he goes and attacks the football. That’s what we work on every day."
I asked Baldwin this week if that catch would go in his top five of all time, and the fiery receiver said that it would not.
"I don't think it would be on my top five, because I actually slipped on that play, and it's embarrassing."
Still, it was on Baldwin to jump up and make the catch with Arrington all over him.
Now, on to the fourth quarter. With 9:17 left in the game and the Seahawks with first-and-10 at their own 17-yard line, Wilson did a great job of climbing the pocket (something that he does with more regularity than some might assume) as Rice from the right slot and tight end Anthony McCoy from the left side of the formation ran a deep crossing route under Tate's deep seam route from the right side. Defensive back Sterling Moore, playing single-deep in New England's zone coverage, was forced to come up to cover the crossers, and Tate had a one-on-one with McCourty outside for a 51-yard gain. Add in 15 more yards for a roughing the passer call on Spikes, and this play actually moved the ball from the Seattle 17 to the New England 17.
And then, the coup de grace, with 1:27 left in the game: Wilson stepped up in the pocket and threw a 46-yard bomb to Rice over New England's two-deep coverage, putting the Seahawks in the lead for the first time in the game. The Patriots made it to their own 28-yard line on their next drive but couldn't convert a fourth-and-17, and Wilson had his signature win with that 24-23 comeback.
"It was a heck of a throw," Rice said in the locker room. "When I came out of my break, the whole time I was looking at the ball in the air and it was so pretty. I was just running, I was like, 'You've got to catch up to it, you've got to catch up to it,' and I was able to track it down."
It was the fifth time in his first six games that Wilson had the ball late in the game with the result on the line, and it continued an amazing streak: The Seahawks have held a lead in every game Wilson has ever started for them.
As safety Earl Thomas said after of his quarterback, "If guys didn't believe in him, I guarantee they believe in him now."
With the Super Bowl XLIX matchup less than two weeks away, both McCourty and Arrington are well aware -- as they were then -- how Wilson can break through deficits and limitations to produce remarkable results.
"He does everything," McCourty said of Wilson on Thursday. "I got to play against him in college and what he did in college he was able to still do in the NFL -- whether it’s buying time to throw the ball down the field, or escaping and get a big gain, or even sitting in the pocket and throwing great balls from there. He’s tough because he can do everything well. He’s a guy I think that people probably doubted because of his size, but he’s proved that there’s nothing at the quarterback position that he can’t do.”
“You always have to do a great job of what we call plastering and spying on the guy," Arrington said of Wilson's combination of pure throwing skills and mobility. "If you decide to be in zone but if you’re in a man [coverage], obviously, until the whistle is blown you’ve got to keep your eye on your man."
On Wednesday, I asked Wilson about that game, and what it meant to him.
"To go back to my rookie season, it seems like forever ago," he said. "But to go back to my rookie season, and to play the Patriots, I truly think that was one of the biggest games for me personally -- just to be able to come back against a great team and to take the lead throwing the ball to Sidney Rice. Tremendous receiver makes a big-time play for us to win the game with about a minute and a half left. That was a huge comeback for us. I think that was kind of the momentum-starter for the past three years, really, to be honest with you. I think [Seattle's overtime win over] Chicago [on Dec. 2, 2012] was another big game for our offense and for me personally. So, I think back to those games and just remember the experience, the grit that it takes to win, especially against a big-time quarterback like Tom Brady and their football team and what they do so well.
"They’re always on it, they’re always ready to go, and so we’re going to have to play our best football."
If Wilson plays his best football against the Patriots, at least they can say they've seen it before.