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The Russell Wilson Conundrum

His unconventional style leads to spectacular plays, but a reliance on them leads to an inconsistent offense over the long haul. Most coaches would prefer a more traditional passer, but everyone would admit he’s on the MVP short list. The good and bad of the Seahawks star

On Sunday night I emailed my bosses, Peter King and executive editor Mark Mravic, asking if I could write about Russell Wilson this week. My premise would be this: Wilson up until recently has never been a top-10 quarterback; he’s part of why Seattle’s offense runs hots and cold; and yet, he is a legitimate MVP candidate. A real paradox.

Peter immediately emailed back:

Except he is top 5.

Just going to ask you to go outside your box and think about it this way: If I were watching a football game and not examining it for the mechanical things a quarterback must do to be a franchise quarterback, but rather watching it for effectiveness and playmaking and leadership and running and mobility and arm strength, would I rate Matthew Stafford over Russell Wilson?

I don’t see how you would, but that’s what makes the world go round.

To answer Peter’s question: I’m putting Stafford over Wilson—and it’s a no-brainer. (My Matthew Stafford man crush is hard to shake.) But I get what Peter is saying. Another way to view the question, and the way offensive coaches ponder this sort of thing, is: If you’re building an offense, which QB do you want?

For me, it’s Stafford. No question. But here’s the tricky part: If I’m running a defense and I get to choose between facing Stafford or facing Wilson, I’d choose to face Stafford. And so he’s the guy I want to play with, but also against. Or, more apt for this conversation, Wilson is the guy I don’t want to play with or against.

I can assure you most NFL coaches feel the same way. I had this conversation about Colin Kaepernick vs. Peyton Manning with several coaches following the 2013 season, when Kaepernick took San Francisco to the NFC championship and Manning took Denver to the Super Bowl. (Both lost to Russell Wilson, by the way.) The coaches liked Manning but also preferred to play against him instead of Kaepernick. It’s because football schemers value predictability.

The game of football has 22 pieces moving within a confined area. One of those pieces controls the ball for much of the time and is therefore markedly more important than all the others. Coaches, tasked with organizing and leveraging all this, want to know where that guy is going to be. Everything a coach does revolves around him.

Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has one of the hardest jobs in football. He doesn’t know where his guy with the ball will be. And he can’t ask Wilson to change. Wilson, the most dynamic sandlot quarterback of his generation, is merely playing the hand he was dealt. God made him 5' 11". People like to say that doesn’t matter (Wilson proves his doubters wrong!). It does matter. A 5' 11" man cannot always see over 6' 5" offensive linemen or 6' 3" defensive linemen with outstretched arms. With Wilson, it’s evident every week on film. And so the 5' 11" man must move around and create new lines of vision. Drew Brees, at 6-foot, has mastered this in New Orleans. He does it from the pocket. Wilson, with tremendous athleticism and an uncanny ability to make strong throws on the move (right or left), does it by running around. So the difference is, with Brees a coach can draw plays the same way he would for a traditional QB. Brees’s platform and launching point change by a matter of inches and feet. Wilson’s change by a matter of yards. Many, many yards.

But even harder than drawing up plays for Wilson is drawing up pass rushes and coverages to stop him. Rushing the passer happens so quickly, and it can be so risky if you infuse it with blitzers, that it must be constructed under the assumption that a quarterback will remain in the pocket. If you were to craft a pass rush to attack Wilson’s movement, you’d have to guess on where to direct it. A coach’s job is to eliminate guesswork, not create it.

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For Bevell, the job is to accommodate Wilson. You can’t have plays that call for Wilson to run around snap after snap and make something happen—what do you tell your other 10 players to do there? Bevell must design plays that suit everyone else but can still work when Wilson goes sandlot.

Bevell does this by using the entire width of the field. If the Seahawks are not aligned in a spread formation, chances are, they’re aligned in an extra tight one so that there’s more room for receivers to run their routes towards the outside. That room might be needed later if Wilson breaks down the play. It’s also more important that Seattle balance the field. Instead of constructing route combinations that attack a specific coverage in one specific area, Bevell must attack all areas so that his quarterback has options when he goes this way or that way. Along these same lines, Bevell must go light on the timing and rhythm throws. Or, at the very least, the Seahawks must have contingencies for when those timing and rhythm throws occur off schedule and out of rhythm.

This style of play is inherently inconsistent—especially if your base running game is as poor as Seattle’s has been. But when Wilson makes magic from all this, you see what you saw last Sunday night: The Seahawks prospering despite their offensive line being overmatched by an explosive Eagles defensive line. When Wilson isn’t making magic, you see an offense with few staple concepts to fall back on, and you get the Seahawks offense from the first half of the Week 12 Niners game (129 net yards) or from the second half of the Week 10 Cardinals game (97 yards), second half of the Week 5 Rams game (54 yards) or either half of the Week 1 Packers game (225 yards total).

Wilson contributes to these down stretches, too. Many times, when the Seahawks do try to find a rhythm with more traditional pass designs (their best come out of trips formations), Wilson, because he’s so accustomed to breaking down, fails to see them anyway. We always say: There’s no stat to capture throws that should be attempted but aren’t. You see these every game from Wilson.

Of course, some of the time when Wilson fails to attempt an open throw, he winds up making a spectacular, out-of-structure play (especially when you include his scrambling, which picks up late in close games). I’d love to know what Bevell and Pete Carroll say to their QB when they watch these plays on film. From what I hear, it’s mostly Good job, Russ. The veteran coaches by now understand what Wilson is. And Wilson, when he sees himself misreading the field on film, has been known to acknowledge it.

Watching the film, Wilson probably doesn’t marvel at his spectacular unstructured plays the way we all do. But you can bet opponents do. Wilson is like nothing they’ve seen before, and his style, so hard to replicate, is not something you can fully prepare for in practice. The Seahawks are inconsistent in part because their quarterback is so unique. But put a Joe Blow pocket passing QB behind that offensive line and with that running game, and you’d have an offense that could only aspire to be inconsistent. Which is why, even those of us who struggle to reconcile Wilson’s unconventional style have to admit, he belongs near the top of this year’s MVP list.

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