He is a Super Bowl winner and compensated like one of the league's best players. But is the Seahawks quarterback simply a complementary cog on a well-balanced team? Everything depends on how you look at it
List your rankings of NFL quarterbacks and you’re guaranteed to attract waves of complaints about where you place Russell Wilson. There’s not a more difficult player to categorize. Wilson presents a prism for many fascinating football discussions, if only we can first agree on the basis of the fourth-year pro’s strengths and weaknesses.
For those who can’t understand how some can classify Wilson as a complementary player, here’s how: the Seahawks last season ranked first in rushing, first in defense and had the fewest passing attempts in the league. The year before that they were second in rushing attempts, second to last in pass attempts and first in defense. What else would you call the quarterback of a team like this?
The other side of the argument, however, says we should ignore the overemphasized stats (all of them) and watch the film. It’s plain to see that Wilson is the crux of Seattle’s entire offense—including their running game. This, too, is correct. So both sides of the debate are right. Which means an intelligent discussion about Wilson really isn’t about pigeonholing and properly ranking the player; it’s about understanding how his strengths and weaknesses fit into the context of Seattle’s offense as a whole.
To begin this discussion, we must acknowledges that Wilson does indeed have limitations as a passer. His height can be a negative factor. Saying this doesn’t make you a “doubter” or a “hater”—it makes you a responsible observer of physics. A not-quite 5-11 man sometimes has trouble seeing over a 6-4 defensive lineman who’s reaching for the sky. This is why Wilson rarely climbs the pocket and why he has not developed other nuanced movement as a dropback passer.
This is where the radical Wilson cohorts argue that these physics are overrated and don’t seem to hurt Drew Brees, who is only 6-foot. Brees plays from the pocket and therefore Wilson must be more than capable of that, as well. (Some might even point to some of Wilson’s play-action deep balls from the pocket. But play-action passing is not playing from the pocket—at least not in the full scale sense that we’re talking about.) Not having Wilson’s mobility, Brees—who is a little taller than Wilson—has had to perfect the subtleties of pocket movement. It’s remarkable that he has. Wilson, on the other hand, has always been able to run away from people. It reasons that he’d have never learned to stay in the pocket. If you can run out of it and suddenly see things clearly, why wouldn’t you?
Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has shrewdly grasped this and built an offense around Wilson’s diverse mobility. He rarely asks Wilson to make progression reads as a dropback passer. (This alone makes Wilson very hard to categorize.) Instead, Bevell employs moving pockets. He also puts his receivers in a lot of isolation routes, which is unusual given he has a very mediocre group here (that’s right, Doug Baldwin—mediocre). It’s also unusual when considering that a passer with Wilson’s field-reading limitations typically finds comfort in defined reads. But again, there’s nothing usual about Wilson. By spreading the field and putting individual receivers in space, the Seahawks almost tacitly encourage their quarterback to let plays break down and go out of structure.
There isn’t a better all-around, “out of structure” player in the league. When things break down, most quarterbacks play randomized football and go into “survival mode.” With Wilson, there’s a coherency to his out-of-structure movement. He seems to see the field better, he’s great at making all varieties of throws on the move (especially touch throws outside the pocket) and, of course, he’s a dangerous scrambler. Last season, 500 of his 849 yards rushing came on scrambles. Add those scrambling yards to Seattle’s passing numbers—where, really, scrambling yards should go, since they come out of passing sets, often on passing downs and against pass defenses—and Seattle’s passing game would have ranked 17th instead of 27th. Obviously, though, the Seahawks would still classify as a “run-based” team—leaving open the argument that Wilson is a complementary player.
But that compels us to examine how Wilson’s complementary status extends to Seattle’s powerhouse ground game. It’s not just the yards he accumulates, it’s also the threat he poses. A significant portion of Marshawn Lynch’s rushing yards have come out of read-option looks, where opposing defenses must invest some of their energy into containing Wilson. If it’s zone coverage, defenders are hesitant to initially attack Lynch when he takes the handoff. If it’s man coverage, one of the box’s defenders will be dedicated almost entirely to Wilson. When they’re not, Wilson makes them pay. And unlike with other mobile quarterbacks, there’s a stability to Wilson’s rushing. He doesn’t have Michael Vick’s or Robert Griffin’s fragility because he knows how to protect himself, particularly in the open field. Sliding is a big part of that, but so is simply having a sense for how to go down when tackled. Wilson doesn’t let his body get slammed into the ground.
It’s impossible to quantify the actual value that Wilson brings to Seattle’s ground game. And you can’t label his passing game because so much of what he does almost directly contradicts the way the quarterback position has always been played. All we know is that Wilson has unique traits that allow him to not just get away with playing unconventionally, but to flourish in doing so. Almost any comparison between him and another NFL QB will not be apples to apples.
Also complicating the Wilson conversation is the lore of his late-game achievements. Though Seattle is just 11-8 in one-score contests in his three years, Wilson has 10 fourth-quarter comebacks and 15 game-winning drives. So does he rise up under pressure? You could argue that, by quarterbacking standards, he actually shies away from it. About 20 percent of Wilson’s rushing yards last season came in the fourth quarter of a one-score game. When the contest is tight, Wilson is less likely to throw and more likely to run. Judge that how you may.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider were confronted with this entire Wilson discussion over the offseason. That’s why his contract negotiations seemed to border on contentious. Laudably, the quarterback and organization reached a happy-medium: Wilson signed for less money than he wanted ($31.7 fully guaranteed, an average salary of around $22 million, making him the league’s second-highest paid QB ... for now), but he also signed for only four years, giving himself a chance at another mega deal when he’s 30. Basically, the two-time NFC champion QB bet on himself.
There’s no chance this deal could have gotten done if the Seahawks and Wilson’s camp weren’t both willing to examine the player not in the context of general NFL quarterbacking, but in the context of quarterbacking a uniquely constructed Seahawks team. So instead of all arguing about Wilson until we’re “College Navy Hex”-blue in the face, let’s follow this lead and examine, through an intellectual lens, this quarterback’s status on his club.
Seahawks Nickel Package
1. The crew for ESPN’s NFL Matchup Show broke down all of Marshawn Lynch’s zone carries last season and found that on about 80 percent of them, the tenacious 215-pound back ultimately ran the ball to the back side of the zone. That means Lynch took the handoff, ran behind his sliding O-line, but cut it upfield before even crossing over his center. The Patriots figured this out prior to Super Bowl 49 and had an excellent plan for containing Lynch’s backside runs. In fact, Seattle’s ground game did not get going until the second half, when, on the second carry of the third quarter, Lynch took the ball to the front side of the zone and gained 15 yards. (Oh the wonders of adjustments that can be made during a 30-minute halftime.) Expect Lynch to remain a backside zone runner. From there, he benefits most from how Wilson’s threat as a runner freezes part of the defense, plus it means he doesn’t have to rely as much on an offensive line that, particularly now without center Max Unger, really isn’t very good.
2. We all know the Seahawks defense is great, but we don’t seem to quite realize how great. One could argue it’s the best defense since the ’85 Bears. The statistics (again, overrated, especially when comparing teams across multiple decades) don’t disagree, and just look at the staggering amount of talent across the board. Six Seattle defenders are one of the three best in the league at their respective positions: free safety Earl Thomas (the best, hands down); cornerback Richard Sherman; strong safety Kam Chancellor (possibly the best, once he returns from his holdout, of course); middle linebacker Bobby Wagner; outside linebacker K.J. Wright (if we’re talking strictly 4-3 outside ‘backers); and Michael Bennett as a nickel defensive tackle. (Bennett is very good as a base 4-3 end, as well, though not quite top-three.) This grouping doesn’t even include nose-shade Brandon Mebane or weakside defensive end Cliff Avril, two other excellent players. The Seahawks run a simple, execution-based scheme because no matter who they face, they’ll always have the superior personnel.
3. We laud Seattle’s hybrid Cover 3 matchup zone system, but last season, and particularly down the stretch, this group played increasingly more man coverage. We even saw the cornerbacks travel with certain receivers at times. (This usually came when injuries left that position group thin.) Will we see more of this in 2015?
4. It was surprising that Schneider signed cornerback Cary Williams. Perhaps Pete Carroll and new defensive coordinator Kris Richard (formerly the DB coach) believe they can teach the lanky 6-1, 190-pounder the “kick-step” press-technique that has helped Sherman, Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell become high-level starters. But the Seahawks already had a younger, bigger corner on the roster in Tharold Simon. He was up and down when cast into a starting role last season, but he also costs just 13 percent of what Williams costs. Williams, remember, was cut by the Eagles due in part to his inconsistency, particularly in downfield matchup-zone concepts. For a team that’s now hurting for cap space after long-term deals with Wilson and Wagner (among others), why spend extra for a middling veteran corner when you’ve had so much success developing your own low-drafted young guys?
5. We’d be remiss to preview the 2015 Seahawks and not mention new tight end Jimmy Graham. A lot of emphasis has been placed on Graham’s blocking, which needs to improve. But Graham’s real value will be late in the down, when Wilson goes out of structure. That’s where Graham’s ability to post-up defenders becomes a plus.
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