The unthinkable has happened.
In the third quarter of Thursday Night Football, with the Rams visiting the Seahawks, Russell Wilson left the game injured and did not return. Seattle’s quarterback clipped his hand on Los Angeles defensive lineman Aaron Donald’s wrist during the follow-through of a pass, injuring his middle finger.
The Seahawks lost the game, and we were left with a bunch of foreign medical terms and news of a successful Wilson surgery with Dr. Steven Shin.
Whatever the length of time Wilson is out of action—four, six, eight or more weeks—his constant presence as Seattle’s starting quarterback is over. After being named the first string QB as a rookie in 2012, Wilson started 149 consecutive games—which was the longest active streak in the NFL and the sixth-longest in league history. Now it’s finished. The franchise leader, the $140 million quarterback, the future Hall of Fame candidate, is unable to suit up for Sunday Night Football in Pittsburgh this Sunday.
Geno Smith, 31, will take Wilson’s place as Seahawks quarterback. No. 7 will be starting his first NFL game since Week 13 of the 2017 season. So why is there a bizarre, palpable optimism spawned by Smith’s arrival to Seattle’s offense?
This is not merely a release thanks to the reduced expectations that the lesser talent of Smith imparts. And it’s not solely that the unknown can prove exciting. In fact, there are elements to the Smith-led attack that we expect more from, especially after his limited action on Thursday.
Smith’s performance replacing the injured Wilson versus the Rams was surprisingly solid. He completed 10 of 17 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, doing so with poise. When the defense finally got its act in gear and gave Smith a chance to win the game, his interception on the opening play was a fine decision—Tyler Lockett was coming open over the middle until he tripped and fell.
More than box score scouting, the Seahawks' offense clicked back into gear after threatening a lull period—their early 2021 trademark. With Smith under center, they found a rhythm that enabled them to construct two lengthy drives that featured a variety of plays.
Smith as the signal caller, not Wilson, will reveal a ton, answering questions that would have gone unanswered if Wilson’s remarkable durability had continued. Here’s what we will discover, with the obvious caveat that Wilson only played in four and a bit games:
- What will a Smith gameplan look like compared to a game-plan designed for Wilson? An educated guess would be a lot more under center formations (and the bootlegs that come with that). Shotgun will be used for pure passing downs. It will be like Shane Waldron experienced with Jared Goff.
- With Seattle presumably moving its early down rate of passing more to running more, will it be able to move the ball?
- Will Seattle’s offense sustain longer drives and therefore be able to increase its time of possession? The Seahawks currently rank last in the NFL with an average T.o.P. of 25 minutes and three seconds.
- How will Smith, looking to execute each design perhaps to a fault, compare to Wilson’s brand of football that disregards certain structure? What does Waldron’s scheme actually look like non-Wilsonified?
- To what extent will Smith's approach reduce the Seahawks' high completion percentage above expectation numbers? Wilson is currently second-highest in the NFL with a 7.3 CPAE, per NextGenStats, and history shows that he is a "difficult throw"-maker at the position.
- Will Seattle’s third down percentage improve, possibly due to more manageable third downs? Its current 3rd down conversion figure of 34.69% places 26th in the NFL.
- Will Seattle’s offense still suffer from the explosive or bust problems that stalled it in 2020 and this season?
- Will Seattle’s attack be able to have enough explosives to keep defenses from camping on the short-to-intermediate passing options? The average depth of throw will surely plummet from the 8.4 of Wilson—an already low number for the Seahawks QB which ranks 13th-highest in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs, per the Sports Info Solutions Data Hub (Smith was at 7.5 on his 19 drop backs).
- Does Smith’s 6-foot-3 frame and commitment to the exact structure of the offense see Seattle’s intermediate middle of the field and tight ends targeted more? (It should be noted Wilson made slight improvements in attempting these windows as early 2021 progressed and that there was little, post-Rams, to take away in this area from the Smith comparison).
- Will Smith take as long to survey and undress the defense at the line of scrimmage as Wilson does pre snap? If no, will this positively impact the offense’s rhythm? And will this negatively impact the attack’s ability to beat an opposition’s structure?
- Will Seattle’s dismal screen game success improve because Smith is the passer?
- Will Seattle’s offense collapse entirely given Smith’s accuracy is inconsistent and the Seahawks have yet to show they have a rushing attack that can be leaned on?
This pre-Week 5 chart from Pro Football Focus’ Kevin Cole builds off some of the questions above. Seattle’s passing offense placed high efficiency-wise yet low in drop back success rate.
As Seahawk Maven's Griffin Sturgeon pointed out, this captures the style of Wilson as a quarterback, a very much ups-and-downs passer who has managed to stay successful with this unusual approach.
Smith will not have the peaks of Wilson. Yet the style and timing that he plays with will look to avoid the lows, and Seattle’s offense will look to protect Smith from this becoming even close to a possibility.
What is most telling is that the chants for Geno started early, before he had impressed. You could point towards the famous support of the 12s, getting behind their team in a time of anguish. A strong argument can be made that it goes deeper than dedicated fanaticism, however, speaking of a yearning desire to see a different Seattle product.
It’s widely accepted that the offseason tensions between Wilson and the Seahawks organization have been put aside for this 2021 season. But they will almost certainly re-emerge. Smith’s stint only brings this reality into sharper focus. Carroll’s contract expires in 2025; general manager John Schneider’s in 2027. Both hold executive positions in the franchise too. However, the very partially, temporarily resolved situation with Wilson is not satisfying.
Perhaps, then, the "GE-NO" chants beginning early and loud was more a reflection of the fanbase’s tangible appetite for significant, franchise-altering change. Seahawks matters have grown tiresome. Wherever you land on the Wilson-Carroll spectrum, the current show in Seattle feels stale with a predictable ending that ultimately dismisses the “why not both?” response to the head coach or quarterback question (Or you fire the general manager who had a historically woeful stretch of drafting).
Fatigue is to be expected. We have already seen the Carroll-Wilson duet in countless, disappointing postseason final installments. Most damning: 2021 has seen old, miserable plot lines reemerge. No one wants to see Carroll’s defense struggling with the same issues it was supposed to have fixed in 2018, 2019 and 2020. And we are done with the offense being explosive or bust. Neither are entertaining, rewarding or satisfying narrative arcs. Groundhog Day has already been written! Attempting similar with a new actor at offensive coordinator, Waldron, has only led to a 2-3 record. Wilson and Carroll were involved in that hiring process. This is bad entertainment.
Smith is a pilot episode, a glimpse towards a new series without A-Lister Russell Wilson. The freshness of the new narratives surrounding the replacement quarterback may soon be replaced by the starkness of a tiny sample size and Smith’s career being reduced to that of a backup for very good reason. Re-watching the All 22, Smith made some unusual decisions versus the Rams.
Above anything else, the fact that Wilson’s injury has sparked some perverse optimism shows the bizarre state of the Seahawks. Just as it was in the offseason, this an uncertain future for the NFL franchise. Smith’s stint should guide the Seahawks’ direction.