In a week that will be full of firsts for both the Seahawks and the player, quarterback Russell Wilson continues to adjust to a new reality as he begins a lengthy road back from right middle finger surgery.
For the first time since Seattle drafted Wilson in the third round back in 2012, the eight-time All-Pro was a bystander at practice on Monday without a helmet and shoulder pads. Instead, he was sporting a green hat and a jacket, relegated to celebrity coaching status helping backup Geno Smith prepare to start in his place on Sunday against Pittsburgh.
Not surprisingly, however, Wilson attacked his new role with the same passion and attention to detail he would if he was still scheduled to play this weekend.
“Imagine, if he could figure out a way how he can compete in that, he’s doing it," coach Pete Carroll said of Wilson providing guidance for Smith. "He’s already starting to listen to the game plan. He’s figuring out where it fits and how it’s going to go. He’s going to prepare just like he was playing. His plan is to stay as sharp and as fresh as he possibly can.”
For at least the next three weeks, Wilson and the Seahawks will enter unchartered waters. A modern NFL iron man, he had started 149 consecutive games to open his NFL career and aside from one practice before a game against the Saints in 2016, he had never been listed as anything less than a full participant in practice due to injury in nine previous seasons.
But Wilson's impressive streak will be snapped this weekend after the quarterback suffered a ruptured tendon in his right middle finger when his hand hit Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald's arm while following through on a pass attempt last Thursday night. He returned to action for one more drive before exiting and giving way to Smith early in the fourth quarter.
Less than 24 hours later, Wilson underwent what Carroll called a "very successful surgery" to repair the tendon and place screws into the finger to fix a dislocation fracture. For now, the team doesn't have a timetable for his return, though reports have suggested he could miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks.
Without Wilson available for at least the next three games, the Seahawks will hand over the keys to the offense to Smith, a former second-round pick out of West Virginia who impressed on Thursday despite the fact his most recent meaningful regular season snaps came in 2017 with the Giants.
Leading two scoring drives, including a remarkable 98-yard drive that culminated with a 23-yard touchdown pass to DK Metcalf and cut the Rams lead to 16-14, Smith completed 10 out of 17 passes for 131 yards and played with poise and confidence running coordinator Shane Waldron's system. He also showed off his overlooked athleticism, rushing three times for 23 yards.
“First of all, he takes great pride in his work and knowing the details. He’s really verbal and really articulate with the football stuff that he needs to know," Carroll said of Smith's skill set. "He’s really sharp with the calls and checks. He’s a really good athlete and has a tremendous throwing arm, he can throw the ball a mile and can throw the ball hard on the move and going in both directions. He scrambles, we saw him the other night. He’s a tough competitor and has good touch too. He throws the ball impeccably well, he has great throwing mechanics, and can make all of the throws.”
Now in his third season in Seattle, Smith has waited patiently for his turn to play, biding his time while receiving limited reps during the practice week behind one of the most durable players in NFL history. While other options may have been out there for him with better odds of seeing the field, he stuck with the program and quickly learned Waldron's offense this summer.
Lauding him for his preparation each week, Carroll believes Smith's familiarity played a key role in his success after being thrown into a difficult situation against a talented division rival and should serve him well as he enters the starting lineup for the foreseeable future.
“It’s a real advantage to him. He’s been through everything that we have done, and he’s gone every step of the way with Russ, they have been shoulder to shoulder through the process. He has been a great help to Russ, a great sounding board for Russ, and he’s just been an asset," Carroll explained. "He’s always been prepared to go, always worked hard at it, knew how important it was to do that, and he embraced the role of it. You can see it, look at how sharp he was for jumping in there. He was prepared to do that.”
Smith will face a stiff test in his first start in nearly four years against a Steelers defense featuring talent at all three levels, including edge rusher T.J. Watt, linebacker Devin Bush, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. They currently rank a respectable 10th in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 22.4 points per game, while ranking fifth in quarterback pressure percentage (28.6 percent) per Pro Football Reference.
But with Wilson in his corner ready to play the role of mentor in any way he can, a quality supporting cast led by Metcalf and Tyler Lockett around him, and a coaching staff that believes in him, Smith finds himself in a position to succeed he rarely was in earlier in his career and he will be seeking to take full advantage of the opportunity. The key will be not trying to do too much and playing to his own strengths rather than trying too hard to replace Wilson.
"We love him, he loves the program, and it’s been a real love fest in that regard," Carroll stated. "Now he gets a chance, and we need him now to come through and play great football. He knows that and this is what he has been preparing for.”