Rainy day in Georgia. Rome, Ga., to be exact. April 27, 2011. The game that night between the Asheville Tourists and the Rome Braves of the Class A South Atlantic League would be washed out. That dreary morning Asheville's second baseman awoke at Rome's Holiday Inn and decided to check in on his other life. He left his room on the third floor, walked outside, took a seat on the steps and dialed up Tom O'Brien, his football coach at North Carolina State.
This is an article from the Feb. 11, 2013 issue
Russell Wilson knew his future with the Wolfpack might be tenuous. A year earlier he'd been picked by the Rockies in the fourth round of the major league draft. He'd missed spring football to play baseball and had only one season of college football eligibility left; Mike Glennon, his promising backup, had two years remaining and was likely to transfer if he wasn't named the starter for the fall.
O'Brien devastated Wilson. This is how the player remembers the coach breaking the news: "It's time, bud. We're going to move on. You should go ahead and transfer."
Wilson, sitting there on the hotel steps, cried. Hadn't he led N.C. State to a 9--4 record the previous fall, the Wolfpack's best record in eight years, and a rout of West Virginia at the Champs Sports Bowl, where he was named the game's MVP? Wilson couldn't have been more heartbroken.
He and the NFL couldn't have been more fortunate.
So much has happened since that rainy day in Georgia—to Wilson and the pro game. The NFL has drafted 10 quarterbacks who are now entrenched as their team's starters; five of this year's 12 playoff teams were led by passers who defied the gotta-carry-a-clipboard-for-years credo that ruled the league for decades. Learning curve? They don't need no stinkin' learning curve.
After getting the word from O'Brien, Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, learned an offense diametrically opposed to N.C. State's (in three weeks; oh, the scouts loved that) and quarterbacked the Badgers to the Big Ten title. After the 2011 season, done with baseball (he'd batted .228 for Asheville the previous spring), he concentrated on honing his football skills for the NFL. Last April 27, one year to the day after Wilson wept at the news that his N.C. State career was over, the Seahawks picked him in the third round of the NFL draft. Over the second half of the '12 season he was the NFL's top-rated quarterback, and he capped his rookie year by strafing the NFC's top seed, Atlanta, with a 385-yard passing day in the playoffs.
Seattle, Indianapolis and Washington, a combined 14--34 in 2011, all made the playoffs with rookie quarterbacks: Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, respectively. It was the first time in NFL history that three teams with rookie starters reached the postseason. It was also the first time that five teams—including Miami, with Ryan Tannehill, and Cleveland, with Brandon Weeden—started rookie QBs from opening day.
As a result, the game the league is playing is just ... different.
The pace is faster; New England's offense ran 1,191 plays, the most for any team since the 1994 Patriots. The thinking is faster; new Bills coach Doug Marrone will import some one-word play calls from Syracuse. And egos are being checked at the door; bright minds such as Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll are stealing liberally from the college game. Even from the high school game: In 2009, Lions coach Jim Schwartz called Matthew Stafford's innovative coach at Highland Park (Texas) High, Randy Allen, and asked for video of some of his shotgun plays. (Can you imagine Bill Walsh ringing up Joe Montana's high school coach in search of grainy film of whatever they ran back in Monongahela, Pa.?)
In fact, as running threats with great arms, such as Colin Kaepernick, force defenses to change on the fly, Sunday's game suddenly looks an awful lot like Saturday's. Says Carroll, "We're not trying to adapt [college] quarterbacks to our systems anymore. We're adapting our systems to the strengths of the quarterbacks we draft."
The colleges have noticed. "You have to give credit to the [NFL] coaching staffs," Ohio State's Urban Meyer says. "They're the ones who changed. Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll and Mike Shanahan deserve credit: Carroll with Russell Wilson, and the 49ers with the guy from Nevada. I mean, wow! He's running 60 yards untouched? When was the last time you saw a quarterback run untouched in the NFL for 60 yards? For a while people said, 'You can't do that in the NFL!' Yes, you can."
"It's the evolution of football," Carroll says, "screaming at us."
The evolution will be televised.
Over the 29 years I've covered the NFL, the prevailing attitude from coaches on new schemes and ideas in the college game has been, We don't do that here. Not our style. Teams do experiment with college schemes; some of those fail immediately, some work for a while and then fade, and a few stick. The run-and-shoot used by Houston and Detroit in the late '80s fizzled after five or six seasons. The Wildcat made a big impression in 2008, but it's already an endangered NFL species. But in 1989 new Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, fresh from five years of success with the Miami Hurricanes, began using small, speedy players on his defensive front seven to run between and around massive offensive linemen. The idea was ridiculed—until Dallas won three Super Bowls in four years with Johnson's players. Offenses didn't use college-style empty backfields until the late '90s, afraid of leaving the quarterback unprotected; but that is now an offensive staple thanks to the emergence of quick-thinking and -releasing passers.
As for the passing game, the new era is evident in four ways:
• Colleges are churning out mobile quarterbacks with strong arms, and the NFL is letting them stay mobile.
Four quarterbacks drafted in the last two years—Griffin, Kaepernick, Wilson and the Panthers' Cam Newton—embrace their inner Fran Tarkenton. It used to be that option quarterbacks ran the ball because they couldn't throw. But these new guys can throw. Last year Newton became the first rookie to pass for more than 4,000 yards. Griffin was third in the league this year, with a 102.4 rating. Wilson had 26 touchdown passes, as many as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. And Kaepernick? The former big league pitching prospect is "such a dangerous runner," says 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, "because teams see how great he throws, and they have to respect that."
Football wisdom says the pocket guy will get beat up less than the mobile guy, but according to Pro Football Focus, the quarterback who got hit most often behind the line of scrimmage in 2012 was Luck, primarily a pocket passer; he was sacked or knocked down 148 times. Of course, Griffin's knee injury complicates the issue. The NFL's offensive rookie of the year played on a high wire too often. He was running full speed in the open field against the Ravens and got down too late to avoid a hit, hyperextending his knee. Hobbled in the postseason, he suffered a torn ACL in the wild-card loss to the Seahawks. The cardinal rule for mobile quarterbacks: Don't risk a major collision for two extra yards.
• The no-huddle is spreading, because quarterbacks like to control the game at the line of scrimmage.
Joe Flacco was reenergized in December when new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell allowed him to start running the no-huddle. Flacco felt that would help him make better decisions, giving him a longer time to survey the field before the snap; and the no-huddle prevents defenses from substituting liberally. As Carroll says, "Why huddle anymore? You save 15 seconds not huddling. Time for more plays."
The no-huddle was on full display when Tom Brady toyed with the respected 49ers defense in their December game. In a 19-minute second-half span, Brady orchestrated four touchdowns drives, with 18 no-huddle snaps out of 35 plays. (An average game has about 65 offensive plays per team; the Pats ran 92 that night.) By the time the fourth series was climaxing, at San Francisco's 11-yard line, the Niners' defense was gassed. At the line, with no pressure from the play clock, Brady held the defensive linemen in their stances for eight or 10 seconds. He called out, "Whiskey! Whiskey! ... Hold up! ... Orange! Orange! O.K., orange! ... HEY GO!" At that, defensive tackle Ricky-Jean Francois jumped offside, giving the Pats a free five yards. On the next play Brady ran the ball to the one, and as soon as the official spotted it, he quick-snapped, with at least four Niners defenders milling around the center, not set. Brady spun and handed to Danny Woodhead, who went in untouched for one of the simplest touchdowns of the year. Brady's no-huddle had given an exhausted defense no chance to get ready.
• Now that Wilson has played so well as a rookie, the small quarterback may not be an outlier much longer.
At a joint Super Bowl appearance, Drew Brees, 6 feet, and Wilson, 5' 107/8", stood next to each other. One advantage Wisconsin offered Wilson was one of the biggest offensive lines in college football—the better for him to prove to NFL scouts that he could throw over and around trees in front of him. In his one season with the Badgers, Wilson had just three passes batted away.
When the Seahawks' offensive staff studied Wilson before the draft, they were impressed by his Brees-like calm and field presence. General manager John Schneider asked offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell what concerns he had about Wilson other than his height. "I got nothing," Bevell told him. It turns out height should not have been a concern at all. Wilson was fourth in the NFL in passer rating, at 100.0, and 20 NFL quarterbacks had more balls batted down than Wilson's seven. Seems the handwritten signs Wilson placed in his room in high school for motivation helped. One of them, parroting what a friend told him, read: YOU'RE TOO SMALL TO PLAY AT MIAMI.
The pistol and other option offenses are changing the league.
It used to be, ideas would trickle down from the NFL to colleges and high schools. Now they're trickling up. Eight years ago Nevada coach Chris Ault, desperate for any offensive innovation to help him win, installed the pistol, which sets the quarterback back four yards from center. (Hence the name—it's half a shotgun.) Ault immediately liked it because the quarterback got the ball earlier, pass rushers weren't accustomed to aiming for a quarterback so shallow in the pocket, and the QB could operate a regular running game out of the formation because the back is set where he would be in most formations.
But the key to the pistol's success was the ability of the quarterback to run with the running back, with the ball stuck in his gut. Maybe the quarterback would release the ball to the back, maybe he'd yank it back and run himself, maybe he'd throw it. This season Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan adopted the pistol on the fly, installing pieces of it throughout the season. And the 49ers used it between some and a lot every game. The misconception is that the pistol means the quarterback runs the ball 15 times a game. Sometimes he does. (Kaepernick ran for 181 yards and threw for 263 to beat Green Bay in the playoffs.) But sometimes he lets the running backs do the work. (Frank Gore ran for two touchdowns and LaMichael James for one to beat Atlanta in the NFC title game.) "You need an unselfish quarterback who can run, throw and know when to hand off," says Roman, the Niners' offensive coordinator, "and we've got one."
Kaepernick was a late bloomer, and only Nevada offered him a football scholarship. When he arrived on campus in 2006, Ault had the pistol humming. Kaepernick added the dimension of being able to throw the deep ball well. That's a big deal. Most option quarterbacks are great on the run but spaghetti-armed when they try to throw deep. Kaepernick had a 94-mph fastball—an arm good enough for the Cubs to draft him in 2009. He transferred that to football—and still had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons at Nevada.
"In the last few years," Ault says, "more and more teams began showing up on campus, checking out our offense. And a couple of years ago Greg Roman came." That was in the spring of 2010. Roman, then Stanford's offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh, thought the pistol was intriguing even for a pocket quarterback with average mobility, like his guy, Luck. Roman installed the pistol and used it sparingly in Luck's final season. San Francisco drafted Kaepernick in the second round in 2011, but it wasn't until this past off-season, when the Niners' coaches (Roman among them) had a chance to see him run the pistol in practice and briefly in some games, that Harbaugh had the guts to yank the efficient Alex Smith and let the dynamic Kaepernick play. The rest is Super Bowl history.
"They had a great offense already," says Ault. "Then they added a gazelle."
"[The pistol] is here to stay," says veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio of the 49ers. "The run-and-shoot faded, the Wildcat had a little run. This is a Wildcat with a real quarterback. It stresses the defense with the run and the pass, and I can tell you from seeing it every day: There aren't magical answers to stopping it."
Later this month Falcons coach Mike Smith will gather the members of his defensive staff and hand them an assignment. He will remind them about the playoff games against Wilson and Kaepernick. The former threw against them at will. Maybe the latter could have, but the fear of Kaepernick's arm and feet freed the Niners' backs to run wild. Smith will tell his staff, Figure out how to stop these mobile guys who can throw. Diagnose the option read.
"I won't be alone," Smith says. "You can bet every defensive coach in the league will vet this offense. Every one of my coaches will be assigned a specific element. They'll research it, they'll present their findings, and we'll add some strategy to our playbook for next season."
So what do teams do to adjust? SI asked four defensive assistants who faced either San Francisco or Washington in 2012 to predict how the league would scheme to stop the pistol. They focused on three positions: corners who can cover without safety help, quick defensive ends who can shed blocks, and linebackers who can cover. Cornerbacks will have to go man-to-man more often because safeties will be needed to help in run support and in diagnosing the pistol. Defensive ends, instead of rushing upfield to sack the quarterback, will spy the passer instead and mirror his movements. And more than ever linebackers will keep one eye on runners waiting for a handoff that may get yanked back and the other eye on receivers trolling the middle.
"The defense," says one veteran coordinator, "has to be a lot more disciplined against the pistol." Teams will need more corners like Seattle's Richard Sherman on islands, to take away good wideouts; more pass rushers like Cameron Wake to shed guards and tackles and keep mobile quarterbacks from breaking past the line of scrimmage; more linebackers like Patrick Willis to cover intermediate areas and make sure the backs who take pistol handoffs don't break runs for big gains.
The crazy thing is, offenses aren't done dictating. Chip Kelly brings his breakneck attack from Oregon to the Eagles, and as Tony Dungy, whose son Eric played for Kelly in college, said, Expect speed. "I think the offense he'll run will be very similar to what Buffalo ran with Jim Kelly, the K-Gun," says Tony. "High pace, fast tempo, making a defense respond to what he's doing."
Another aspect of Kelly's approach will enter the league in 2013. Last off-season Marrone studied the fast-paced offenses at Oregon, Missouri and Toledo. "I got to believe how important pressuring those pressure defenses was," Marrone says. "My players loved it." Syracuse scored 100 more points in 2012 than in '11, ran 214 more offensive plays—and won three more games. Stevie Johnson and C.J. Spiller, start your engines.
In late June 2011, Wilson left the Asheville Tourists. He drove to Madison, Wis., got there on Fourth of July weekend and began studying the playbook. "A total sponge," says departing Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien, who worked out with Wilson that July. Tolzien helped Wilson transition from the West Coast he ran at N.C. State to the more downfield-conscious Wisconsin scheme. Paul Chryst, then the Badgers' offensive coordinator, said that by the time practice began in August, Wilson "knew the offense—all of it. Shocked me." After three weeks of practice Wilson was elected a captain. In a new offense he threw 33 touchdown passes and just four interceptions and led the Badgers to a win over Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.
Seahawks G.M. John Schneider, scouting that game, found Wilson's older brother, Harry, and grilled him for personal information about Russell. "I don't know how many big brothers can say they look up to their little brother," Harry said, "but I do." In Russell, Schneider saw a combination of charisma, intelligence, and leadership by example. Bevell, the Seahawks' offensive coordinator, says he is "blown away by [Wilson's] uncommon belief in himself."
Here's where Carroll was smart: Despite the big free-agent contract Seattle had given former Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn, Carroll said from the first mini-camp that Flynn, Wilson and 2011 starter Tarvaris Jackson would compete for the quarterback position. Day by day Carroll alternated who got the most first-team reps. The offense had West Coast principles, but Carroll liked to take shots downfield, and Bevell was going to ride Marshawn Lynch heavily. Wilson didn't care. "The greatest athletes of all time have always been able to adjust," he says. He won the job.
Wilson showed at N.C. State that he could run the common West Coast scheme. He showed at Wisconsin that he could play behind a huge line and be effective, and he showed he could throw a great deep ball. And now he's shown he can be Tarkenton—a mobile guy in the pocket, running not to run but to evade pressure while he finds an open receiver. "We were all amazed how long he could keep plays alive," says Seattle wideout Sidney Rice, who caught the pass in the 24--23 Week 6 victory over the Patriots that convinced many Seahawks that Wilson was for real. With 1:18 left, Wilson looped around the pocket, settled on the right hashmark and hit Rice in stride deep, between two defenders, for a game-winning 46-yard touchdown.
"When we gave Russell the job," says Carroll, "I thought, Well, buckle up: It's gonna be a Disney ride. It wasn't conventional thinking. But conventional thinking, that's not always what wins."
Now let's see how many more NFL teams will strap in for a similar ride in 2013.
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