The Seahawks Know You Want Them to Let Russell Wilson Cook

Seahawks OC Brian Schottenheimer talks about how he and Russell Wilson are getting better together, and why that meant airing it out in Week 1. Plus, quarterbacks are running it a ton and looking deeper into the recent top-end running back contracts.
By Albert Breer ,

Brian Schottenheimer was showing the play Monday, mostly because it was one of Seattle’s best—and Russell Wilson’s best—on a fantastic opening Sunday for a reenergized offense.

It came with 1:43 left in the first quarter. The call was a zone-read run.

At the snap, Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun took two hard steps toward Wilson. On the call, Wilson’s job is to read the edge player. If he stays with the quarterback, Wilson hands off. If the edge guy goes with the back, Wilson keeps the ball and runs to the space the defender vacated. Problem was, Oluokun’s play was to cloud Wilson’s read and, with a split second to ID that, the ninth-year quarterback saw it.

So he pulled the ball from Chris Carson’s belly, Olukon went with Carson and Wilson scampered into an opening you could drive semi through, cleared out by the quarterback’s vision for the play. Twenty-eight yards later, Seattle was in the red zone.

Too often, we think of the cerebral parts of a quarterback’s job just involving the passing game. But this run play—one that set up a 19-yard screen pass for a touchdown on the next snap, giving Seattle a 14-3 lead that left Atlanta chasing the rest of the afternoon—required Wilson to think and react faster, be tougher and act with more discipline than almost any pass play would.

So that was one point Schottenheimer wanted to make while going over the play again on Monday. The other one was, well, a little less serious.

“We gave him a hard time—he went running and 94 caught him from the backside!” Schottenheimer said, on his way out to practice on Wednesday. “So we were giving him s--t about that. Some big D-lineman caught him from the backside! But it was like a 28-yard run. … One of the best plays we had.”

Sure enough, the tape shows that too. Atlanta DT Deadrin Senat, all 305 pounds of him, rumbled all the way down the field with Wilson, and yanked the 31-year-old down from behind at the 19-yard line. And Schottenheimer, in his third year with Wilson, has a comfort level with his quarterback now where he can give him crap for it in a meeting.

The larger point here, though, remains. On a day when so many in Seattle were getting what they’ve long been asking for—to see an offense more centered on what Wilson can do as a passer—the principle remained the same.

Seattle’s ideal on offense is to be able to pull whatever lever it needs to. It just so happened that on Sunday, pulling the Wilson-the-gunslinger lever resulted in 322 yards and four touchdowns through the air.

Good to know that’s there for them.

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We’re ready to get you ready for Week 2. Inside this week’s GamePlan, you’ll find …

• Power rankings!

• A look at quarterback rushing numbers.

• A dive into running back pay.

But we’re starting with Wilson, the Seahawks and where they go from here, after beating Atlanta down, and with the Patriots on the horizon on Sunday night.

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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Just so you know, Schottenheimer’s heard it too. He even has your favorite Twitter catch phrase down. He’s aware. People want a more Wilson-centric offense.

“You can imagine, I get asked that a ton,” he said, laughing. “Literally, that’s what everyone talks about out here in Seattle—the whole let Russ cook thing. … The bottom line is this, there are some things we went into this year saying, O.K., look, as we play, what gives us the best chance to win? And the philosophy here has never changed. Pete’s won a lot of different ways. The Seahawks have won a lot of different ways.

“When we were brought in, we were brought in to do what? Fix the run game. That’s why I was brought here—let’s fix the running game. Well, then you’re here and you see, O.K., we did that. We led the league in rushing. Then the next year, we’re a little more balanced.”

The numbers, to Schottenheimer’s point, check out. Seattle led the league in rushing in 2018 and moved into the top 10 in total offense last year with a more balanced attack—they were fourth in rushing, 14th in passing, and sixth overall.

What’s next, the Seahawks third-year OC hopes, is unlocking one of the NFL’s best players.

And that means not just letting him throw it more. It means unleashing all of Wilson on the league, something, they hope, just started to happen on Sunday. In the quarterback poll we ran last week, Wilson was just as overwhelming a pick for second place as Patrick Mahomes was for first—Wilson appeared on 48 of 53 ballots ranking who those surveyed expected to be the top five QBs at the end of the year, which was 22 more than any other quarterback not named Mahomes.

What’s more, the coach Wilson’s facing Sunday, Bill Belichick, said on Thursday morning, “I think, in a way, he’s underrated by media and fans. I don’t know, I don’t see anybody better than this player.” That’s a sentiment that, for his part, Schottenheimer wholeheartedly agrees with.

“We get what a great player Russ is,” he said. “But the bottom line is every game is gonna be different based on the opponent we’re playing. There were some things we saw in the last game that we liked on first and second down against the Falcons, to throw on the early. And it sounds like coachspeak, but it’s not, it’s truly what we believe. We play New England this week, it could be different.

“We realize that Russell Wilson is one of the top two, three, four players in the NFL. We realize that, and we expect him to play that way no matter what we’re asking him to do, whether it’s throwing the ball or handing the ball off.”

To be sure, it was more of the former against Atlanta. On the Seahawks’ first five first downs of the game, Schottenheimer called a play-action pass, a run play, a screen, a dropback pass and a play-action pass—making for a 4-to-1 pass-to-run ratio. In the end, Seattle called 38 pass plays to 20 runs, and Wilson connected on 31 of his 35 throws for the aforementioned 322 yards and four scores.

He also led the team in rushing, with 28 of his 29 yards in the area coming on that one run.

For a Pete Carroll team, that’s different. But Seattle’s been building here for a while. In 2018, Wilson only reached 35 attempts twice—both losses. He got there six times last year, and the Seahawks were just 2-4 in those games. So to be able to play that way, and do it not in an effort to come back, but as part of a plan to win, has taken a little getting used to.

And part of that is building the kind of rapport that it took for Schottenheimer to give Wilson a hard time in that meeting on Monday. The fact is, the better these guys know each other, the more they see the game through the same eyes, the more they’re able to do on the field together.

“We’re really tight,” Schottenheimer said. “We have a great relationship. That doesn’t mean we always see eye-to-eye on everything. But the cool thing now is going into Year 3, we’ve been able to communicate and talk things out, and we’re both probably better listeners now than we’ve ever been with each other. I listen to him more than maybe I did Year 1; he listens to me maybe more than he did last year with some things.

“So the relationship is amazing, and I do think that certainly helps. That is real. Any time a quarterback and a coordinator have been together for a significant period of time and you’ve been through different things and you’ve learned each other. And s--t, we played one playoff game in ’18, and then two last year, you’re talking about 35 games of real football, now 36. I mean, we understand each other better. We read each other differently.”

That showed up in the comfort level that Schottenheimer, and the Seahawks, had in going to Wilson to build an early lead, and really leaning on him throughout—because that’s how Seattle saw the matchup. And there were also smaller moments where the connection between coach and quarterback revealed itself.

One play, a crucial snap near the end of the third quarter, showed that. It was first-and-goal from the 7, and as soon as the chains were set, because of that background they have with one another, both Schottenheimer and Wilson knew what the call would be—a throw out of a 3-by-1 set, with tight end Greg Olsen the lone receiver to Wilson’s right. Wilson likes the play and Schottenheimer earmarked it for the red zone, so going to it was academic.

“When we got down into that area and we saw the hash and the spot and the down-and-distance, he anticipated that play was coming,” Schottenheimer said. “And when you look at it, we didn’t get the look we wanted.”

The wrinkle: Safety Keanu Neal didn’t cheat over to Carson, flaring out of the backfield, as Seattle thought he would and, as a result, Neal wound up subtly disrupting Olsen’s route. Because of that, Wilson basically had to be perfect, with full knowledge of where the ball needed to be even as Neal was in Olsen’s way, a circumstance that also gave corner A.J. Terrell time to close and shorten the window he was throwing into.

“His feet had to be right, he had to be on perfect timing, he had to make the perfect throw, and put it on Greg’s body to protect him,” Schottenheimer said. “And then you watch the execution of it, I mean, that ball literally sticks in Greg’s facemask almost. If you ask Greg, it was like Boom! And the ball was on him. Luckily, he’s got great ball skills. That’s a cool one.”

And it’s an example all at once of what’s happening here—Wilson’s talent meeting with his relationship with his play-caller, meeting with his knowledge of the game being better than it’s ever been before. He knew the call was coming, he knew the challenge the defense was throwing at him, he knew what he had to do as a result of that, and then he had the talent to get the ball right where it needed to be.

Which is why, really, this is more Wilson’s offense than it’s ever been before.

As Schottenheimer says now, “There’s nothing we don’t allow him to do—fixing, changing, points, all that stuff.”

That Olsen throw made the score 28-12, and the Seahawks’ lead stayed in double digits for all 20 minutes left on the clock after that—and there’s no question Wilson was everything Seattle needed him to be to get there.

Maybe the Seahawks need him to be something else this week. But knowing that he can be what he was in Week 1? That’s a pretty good indication now of who he’s become as a quarterback, regardless of how anyone else thinks it should look.

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Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

POWER RANKINGS

1) Kansas City Chiefs (1-0): Opening Night looked pretty easy for the Chiefs. And that’s not because the Texans are bad. It’s because Kansas City, as it stands right now, is really, really good.

2) Baltimore Ravens (1-0): Alright, so it was the Browns. But did Sunday give you any indication that John Harbaugh’s crew is ready to fall off in the least from where they were in going 14-2 last year? (Also, watch Lamar Jackson in the last minute of the first half. As I wrote Monday afternoon: very real progress there.)

3) New Orleans Saints (1-0): Drew Brees threw for 160 yards, the passing game was out of sorts in general, and the Saints still should’ve won that one over a good Tampa team by three scores. Which is because, in my opinion, the Saints have the most talented, balanced roster in the NFL.

4) Seattle Seahawks (1-0): You have to believe Pete Carroll’s defense is going to improve as new pieces in the secondary come together, and Wilson was otherworldly in Week 1. So they’re good now, and will get better.

5) New England Patriots (1-0): When you have 20 years of history like Bill Belichick does, and you look that efficient in Week 1, and like you have a credible successor to the Throne of Brady … you’re making my top five.

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THE BIG QUESTION

Can quarterbacks sustain this pace?

Amazing fact for you: Wilson was one of five quarterbacks to lead his team in rushing on Sunday, all five of whom won their games. And Wilson is probably the least striking example of what’s happening here, since he had just three carries for 29 yards. Here are the other four …

• Josh Allen, Buffalo: 14 carries, 57 yards, TD.

• Lamar Jackson, Baltimore: 7 carries, 48 yards.

• Kyler Murray, Arizona: 13 carries, 91 yards, TD.

• Cam Newton, New England: 15 carries, 75 yards, 2 TDs.

And on top of that, four of the five had passer ratings that exceeded 100. Murray was the one exception there, and he got it together late and threw it well down the stretch.

Of course, it was fun to watch. But we all know the history here, too. In the NFL, it’s very difficult for a quarterback to keep up that sort of pace.

And so it was that when I asked Sean McDermott, after his Bills beat the Jets 27-17, and Allen carried the ball 14 times, if he was worried about it. He thought for a second, then said, “I'd like to get the points up and that number down. How about that?”

It sounds good, but, McDermott acknowledged, it’s tough do in the heat of battle, when your quarterback has an ability to make a difference with his legs, and when he’s sometimes adding to the damage being done to him by taking off with the ball on his own, regardless of the play call. As a result, striking the right balance is easier said than done.

And that’s because whatever happens Sunday, whether it’s taking too many hits or not doing enough creatively to win the game, comes with a price on Monday.

“When you’re running the ball a lot, you’re inevitably gonna take hits,” ex-NFL QB Matt Cassel said on my podcast this week, after bringing the aforementioned stat to my attention. “And you try to protect yourself. But when you take hits, and especially between the tackles, we saw that a lot with Cam this week, it’s hard to believe that’ll be sustainable. Fifteen carries is a lot.

“It’s one thing where you get outside on a zone-read, you pull the ball, and you dive down and you protect yourself. But [Newton] took a lot of hits. There’s that catch-22, I saw it with Marcus [Mariota in Tennessee]. You want to take advantage of the skill set. And it gives you a great advantage to be able to run the ball and do the things he can do. At the same time, I saw the toll it was taking on his body.

“His AC joint got separated. He had a broken rib. All the things you expose yourself to as a runner at the quarterback position—when you become a runner, it’s open season and those guys are trying to hit you. It’s tough.”

Ultimately, all of that contributed to Mariota’s exit from Tennessee.

And validates a question that we may well be asking all year.

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Chuck Cook -USA TODAY Sports

WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

What all those running backs are really getting paid.

Amid the eternal social media backbiting on pay at the position, I’m not sure many people took the time to dig into what all these guys will really be making the next few years—instead rolling with “this team is screwed” quote tweets reacting to the initial wave of numbers on deals for Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook. So what are those guys really making?

To figure that out, I dug into the deals, and focused on the first three years of each one for two reasons. First, beyond three years, all the guarantees are gone and you have de facto team options—that really just serve as ceilings on what the players can make (if they aren’t worth the number, they get cut). Second, history at position shows you these guys need to get their money as fast as possible (Todd Gurley was cut less than 21 months after signing his deal).

So then, here is the first-, second- and third-year total cash for each of the aforementioned six, plus Chargers RB Austin Ekeler, since L.A. took a different approach at the position and let its starter (Melvin Gordon) walk to sign his backup at a much cheaper rate.

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas: $19.81 million, $29.41 million, $41.81 million.

Austin Ekeler, L.A. Chargers: $9.51 million, $13.76 million, $18.76 million.

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina: $22.33 million, $30.57 million, $39.17 million.

Derrick Henry, Tennessee: $15.01 million, $25.51 million, $37.51 million.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati: $11.33 million, $20.03 million, $28.73 million.

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans: $15.83 million, $17.83 million, $29.33 million.

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota: $16.34 million, $18.44 million, $27.34 million.

First, the obvious—the deals for Elliott and McCaffrey are further separated from the pack than even the raw, total numbers would indicate. And deservedly so. Elliott won two rushing titles in the three years before scoring his deal, while Christian McCaffrey led the NFL in scrimmage yards in 2019 and was third in that category in ’18.

Also helping their cause was their status as top-10 picks, which gave them bigger back-end numbers on their rookie deals, and more money already in the bank, which meant more leverage in contract negotiations. Henry actually got fairly close to those guys too, as a result of getting to the end of his contract and getting to negotiate off a franchise tag.

That said, if you look at the next three guys on the list—Mixon, Kamara and Cook—all of them are under $10 million per year for the next three years, as far as cash-in-hand. To me, that’s a bargain, for the players they are. Over that same period of time, Amari Cooper will make $60 million in Dallas, Cory Littleton will get $36 million in Vegas and Austin Hooper will make $32.5 million in Cleveland.

Yes, those guys were free agents. But they also aren’t nearly the best at their positions. The aforementioned six guys are close to that, and, again, making less.

Now, could their teams have let things play out, tagged them in 2021, and then let them walk after five years? On paper, yes. But that would mean having an increasingly angry player in your locker room and sending the message to the rest of the guys in there that anyone can be leveraged by the bean counters, regardless of performance. And it’s tough to live that way, especially when, again, there may be a relative bargain out there for you.

In the end, I think that’s what these teams got, because of their willingness to do a deal after three years. And if each one of these guys is still productive over the next three years, I think the Mixon, Kamara and Cook deals will all look like wins for their teams.

It’s also a win for the players. No, these guys aren’t getting paid like Julio Jones or Laremy Tunsil. But at that position, you have to get paid while you can, and they did, indeed, get paid.

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THE FINAL WORD

The battle for Ohio is tonight, and you have to think there’s a little extra pressure on Baker Mayfield to bounce back off a rough opener—especially after looking at how resilient and comfortable Joe Burrow seemed to be last week. Getting outdueled by another No. 1 overall pick, two years behind you, and just two games into his career, would be a tough look.

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