RENTON, WA - Throughout their three seasons paired together as quarterback and play caller, Russell Wilson persistently backed Brian Schottenheimer publicly. And why wouldn't he?
With Schottenheimer calling the shots either from the sideline or the sky box, the Seahawks finished in the top-10 in scoring offense each of his three seasons at the helm. Orchestrating the show under center like a magician, Wilson enjoyed three of his finest seasons, averaging 35 touchdown passes, 7.8 yards per attempt, and posting a 107.2 passer rating in 48 games. He made three consecutive Pro Bowls and earned his first All-Pro selection after tossing 40 touchdowns in 2020.
Not surprisingly, after Schottenheimer was dismissed in January 2021 for what reports cited as "philosophical differences" with head coach Pete Carroll, Wilson came to bat for his embattled former coordinator once again, telling reporters he wasn't in favor of the firing multiple times in a post-season Zoom press conference.
“I think that it wasn’t my decision to change ‘Schotty,’” Wilson said at the time. “But I think that coach [Pete] Carroll made that decision. I think that I trust his decision. But at the same time, obviously Schotty and I have been so close. I mean, he’s going to be a tremendous coach somewhere else."
However, looking back more than two years later, Wilson's relationship with Schottenheimer wasn't as rosy as the picture he painted that afternoon with local and national reporters. In fact, per a team source, while they didn't hold ill will towards one another and maintained respect for each other, the perennial Pro Bowl quarterback and his representatives "pushed hard" for a coordinator change behind the scenes after a disappointing finish to the 2020 season.
"Don't let his comments mask his real thoughts," the source remarked. "He had grown tired of Schotty from a play calling perspective and wanted something fresh. As much as he benefited from his coaching, he didn't think the two could co-exist anymore in a football marriage."
How did the quarterback/coordinator dynamic erode to this point? As previously reported by The Athletic, following two dismal offensive showings in losses to the Bills and Rams, the situation started to boil over when Wilson met with coaches prior to a Thursday Night Football matchup against the Cardinals in Week 11.
On a short week with limited preparation time, Wilson felt he had viable solutions for helping get the Seahawks once-unstoppable offense back on track. He pitched those ideas to the coaching staff, only for them to be dismissed completely by Carroll, Schottenheimer, and others involved in the game planning process, leading to the quarterback storming out of the meeting room in frustration.
While Seattle managed to secure a 28-21 win over Arizona that week and won six of its final seven games to secure an NFC West title, the offense wasn't the driving force behind this success. Specifically, the passing game continued to be bogged down and Wilson and those close to him didn't forget about that meeting. Viewing himself as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks and constantly talking about the importance of his legacy, he had long sought more influence over scheme and personnel decisions, but kept those desires behind closed doors.
With coaches such as Schottenheimer brushing off his suggestions, Wilson could no longer operate that way. It wasn't personal. It was just business.
At the root of his issues with the play caller, as he acknowledged after a 30-20 Wild Card round loss to the Rams days before Schottenheimer's unexpected firing, Wilson wasn't pleased with the lack of tempo, wanting to mix in more no-huddle looks to aid in reading the defense and making audibles. On too many occasions, the play would come in late, giving little time to make such reads at the line of scrimmage before snapping the ball and leading to burned timeouts.
“Early in the season we were able to get the deep shots and stuff like that early on," Wilson said after the loss to the Rams. "I think that our tempo, our pace of stuff and getting in and out and all that, we kinda lost that a little bit I think along the way, maybe a little bit, and I think that’s something that we do really, really well. So to keep that tempo and that pace, I think [that’s] something that I’ll really to try to study it a lot this offseason and see, how do we continue to put our foot on the gas?”
Though he contributed to the team's struggles along the way, Wilson also expressed exasperation about Seattle's inability to react effectively to opposing defenses throwing a bevy of two-high safety looks at them to take away the deep ball to stars DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Whether fair or not, that burden falls on the coordinator to find a schematic solution and that simply didn't happen as the team scored 20 or fewer points in five of its final nine games.
Ironically, with their own relationship featuring plenty of friction on its own accord, Carroll sided with Wilson's camp on the need for a change. As he had opined several times late in the season as the Seahawks' offense sputtered, he likewise lamented the lack of adjustments made by Schottenheimer and wanted to get back to running the football like they did during their Super Bowl years in 2013 and 2014.
Of course, while the two men agreed on the failure to adjust to opponents contributing to Seattle's offensive nose dive in the second half, Wilson wasn't keen on handing the football off a bunch as he did earlier in his career. He didn't want to be a glorified game manager. As he did torching opponents with 28 touchdown passes in the first eight games of the 2020 season before things went south, he desired the opportunity to have an offense built around his talents akin to Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City or Tom Brady in Tampa Bay.
But Carroll had already seen the "Let Russ Cook" movement backfire on Seattle and wasn't interested in steering back in that direction. In his mind, 10 combined turnovers against Arizona, Buffalo, and Los Angeles during a three-game stretch prior to the infamous meeting at the VMAC provided tangible evidence that the offense couldn't run through his quarterback in that fashion in the long run, which spelled imminent doom down the road.
In the end, Schottenheimer functioned like a fork in the road between Carroll and Wilson's starkly contrasting offensive ideologies, which led to his undoing. On one hand, he wanted to continue dialing up shot play opportunities for Wilson and take advantage of his strengths as a downfield passer. But he also had cut his teeth developing stellar ground attacks during his decade-plus as a coordinator and building off prior reputation, his latest efforts to craft his scheme to combat changes made by opposing defenses were not successful.
Weeks after Schottenheimer received his walking papers, Wilson took a swift departure from his usual guarded behavior, airing his displeasures publicly in a series of interviews after Super Bowl LV. He was tired of being hit so much, pleaded for Seattle to add more star power to the roster, and in turn, expressed interest in having more involvement in making such personnel-related decisions, though Carroll would later say the quarterback never talked to him about that desire.
Shortly after, Wilson's agent Mark Rodgers had a candid conversation with general manager John Schneider about his client's future. When that encounter ended on poor terms, he decided to float four teams to ESPN's Adam Schefter that his client would be willing to waive his no-trade clause to play for. Trade speculation swirled around the player and franchise, leading Carroll to meet with the quarterback to hash things out and attempt to put out the fire he said was created and driven by the media.
While Schneider did field calls on Wilson's availability to acquire via trade following his public comments and his agent's bold PR maneuver, the Seahawks weren't ready to move on just yet and didn't receive an offer they couldn't refuse. Those within the organization believed appeasing to the quarterback's demands in free agency and the draft coupled with allowing him to play a key role in picking Shane Waldron as Schottenheimer's replacement would keep him happy and allow things to smooth over. The title window was still open.
Once Wilson arrived midway through OTAs, both he and Carroll said all the right things, appearing to have put their issues with one another aside. Previous trade rumors would be viewed as water under the bridge and the two were ready to pursue another championship opportunity together in Seattle.
Unfortunately, the same problems that irked Wilson in previous seasons didn't disappear with Schottenheimer no longer serving as play caller. After a strong start in the first two weeks of the season, Waldron's offense battled many of the same recurring issues, including the failure to adapt in the second half of games and move the chains on third down. Then, the quarterback suffered the first significant injury of his career in Week 5, landing on injured reserve with a ruptured tendon in his middle finger.
Once Wilson returned after missing the first three games of his career, he clearly wasn't close to 100 percent and struggled in three straight losses to the Packers, Cardinals, and Commanders. Falling to 3-8 on the season, the Seahawks were already out of the playoff hunt before the calendar flipped to December and it became clear at that point major changes would be on the horizon for the franchise.
The million dollar question coming off the worst season in more than a decade was: would Russell Wilson be part of that future?
As fate would have it, Wilson wouldn't be. Even after Carroll told reporters at the combine that the team had "no intention" of dealing him, Seattle received an offer from Denver it simply couldn't refuse, jettisoning him to the Mile High City for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick, and three established veteran players.
With the trade becoming official on March 16, Wilson would get the fresh start playing elsewhere he yearned for and so too would the Seahawks. The quarterback would finally get to play for an offensive-minded head coach who would allow him to be the centerpiece of the offense, while his former team could use the draft capital acquired for the future Hall of Famer to overhaul their roster with young talent that fit Carroll's vision for winning games.
In retrospect, now several months into his tenure with the Broncos, numerous factors contributed to Wilson's shocking exit. Schneider's willingness to flirt with quarterback prospects, including Wyoming's Josh Allen in 2018, ruffled feathers and then some. The unwillingness from Carroll and other key decision makers to fully buy-in to a quarterback-centric offense over the years caused frustrations to mount. Getting battered to a pulp behind shaky offensive lines and failing to advance in the postseason soured things further.
But Wilson's tense exchanges with coaches in that infamous meeting back in November 2020 stand out as the real turning point that marked the beginning of the end of his time with the Seahawks. In particular, for all of the great things he had accomplished with Schottenheimer by his side and the friendship they enjoyed off the field, even if he didn't intend to make his thoughts known publicly, it simply wasn't working for him anymore. The same could be said for Carroll for mostly different reasons, a dynamic that ultimately expedited the breakup process.
Once Wilson's power play aiding in the hiring of a coordinator he helped hand pick didn't pan out as hoped and Seattle flopped to a 7-10 last place finish in the NFC West, it became clear the organization would never entrust him to be the focal point of the offense as he envisioned. No longer confident the two sides could operate in harmony, it was truly time for both parties to split up and start anew.