Against the Grain: For the Seahawks, less is more with Russell Wilson
He’s the rare franchise quarterback that, as a fan, you don’t want throwing the ball very often. The Seahawks are 19–2 in the regular season when Wilson throws 25 times or less and 19–13 when he has over 25 passes. That may be situational—any team is more likely to pass when they’re losing. But it speaks to how the Seahawks win and how Wilson’s role is defined when the team is at its best.
Wilson’s contract negotiations reportedly lasted from after the Super Bowl right up until his self-imposed deadline on July 31. Although both sides said nice things publicly, both sides had to have a discussion about how elite Wilson actually is. He’s always been a confusing quarterback. Plenty of teams said they were looking at him in the 2012 draft, but they all let him fall to the third round. Even the Seahawks passed on him twice. By the numbers, he doesn’t fit the classical definition of the position’s upper tier. His career-high 3,415 passing yards last season still ranked just 15th in the NFL. But he’s an extraordinary running quarterback, a clutch passer and a proven winner.
Wilson’s contract extension, four years for $87 million with a $31 million bonus, places him just behind Packers star Aaron Rodgers and right ahead of Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, but hopefully Wilson doesn’t aspire to change his game to fit into this group of prolific passers. Some Wilson fans argue he could put up pinball numbers if he was in another system. Maybe so, but the marriage between the conservative Seahawks and Wilson is perfect as is. There’s no reason for them to hope he ever has big-time stats.
With offensive line issues and inconsistency in the running game and on defense, Wilson appears to be trying to do more this season. His pass attempts are up to a career-high 30 per game this season and, problematically, his sacks are up from 2.63 per game in 2014 to 4.4 per game this year. He is sacked once every 7.8 times he drops back, the worst rate in the NFL by far (Alex Smith is second at once per 9.2 drop-backs).
The early-season headline has been that Seattle’s offensive line isn’t getting the job done. The Seahawks traded center Max Unger to the Saints for Jimmy Graham and have needed time to jell as a unit. But you can’t ignore Wilson’s role in sacks. According to STATS LLC, Wilson holds the ball an average of 2.65 seconds between the snap and his pass attempts, the fourth longest in the NFL. But that stat doesn’t include sacks, which in Wilson’s case are just as often scrambles that end behind the line as traditional sacks.
“If it’s not there, you try to extend the play,” Wilson said in his weekly press conference. “I always try to keep my eyes down the field. I’m not trying to run. I’m just trying to run away.”
Wilson has always held on to the ball for longer than most QBs. But with the line taking a step down, he can’t afford to do some of the things he’s done in the past. Despite Thomas Rawls’s 169-yard performance against the Bengals, they’ve been less consistent on the ground, in part because of the hamstring injury Marshawn Lynch suffered against the Bears in Week 3. Another issue is receivers not getting open. This corps of wideouts has always been maligned. The only Seahawks wide receiver who was actually drafted was rookie Tyler Lockett. The rest were undrafted free agents. The Seahawks added tight end Jimmy Graham but haven’t figured out how to use him yet. Of course, these same low-profile receivers have burned teams that took them lightly in plenty of big games over the last two seasons.
Wherever the blame lies, the Seahawks need to tighten up their offensive attack. Not only is Wilson taking way too many hits, they’re not protecting leads or controlling the ball the way they have the past two seasons.
But by no means is this current snapshot of Wilson’s season complete. The Seahawks’ early-season schedule has been brutal—their losses have come at St. Louis, at Green Bay and at Cincinnati. They’re seven-point favorites at home against the Panthers this week and then face only three opponents with winning records the remainder of their schedule.
Wilson isn’t Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. For the Seahawks, that’s a good thing. Hopefully for them, Wilson will never put up numbers that justify his contract. In a league that has transformed into basketball on turf, Seattle saw an opportunity to win with running and defense. That philosophy could pose a problem for a quarterback with an ego. That’s never been an issue with Wilson. Now he has to figure out how to help his team by doing less. That’s a challenge for a competitive and confident player like Wilson, but it’s a balance he has to achieve for Seattle to play its best.