Monday, August 27, 2012

The Undeniable

Defensive coordinators across the NFL would be wise to make a few phone calls to managers in the South Atlantic League. That is the last known place Russell Wilson was held down. Given the trajectory of Wilson's football career, you can bet some collection of minor league pitchers will be telling their grand-kids about the day they struck out, "The Great Russell Wilson."  Wilson seemingly got all the failures out of his system while batting .229 through his professional baseball career. All he has done since the moment he chose to walk away from baseball is choose Wisconsin for football, be named team captain within a few weeks, set an NCAA record for passing efficiency, lead his team to a Rose Bowl, get drafted higher than any "expert" thought appropriate, earn his way into the Seahawks quarterback competition, rocket to the top of the depth chart, and be named week one starter. Translated into baseball statistics, that's an OPS of around 1.500. Translated into English, Wilson has yet to find an obstacle he cannot overcome on the football field.

Martial arts or boxing instructors teach their students to punch past the point of impact. They want their students to aim for a spot beyond where their fist will collide with what is front of them. Wilson approaches his football career in much the same way. There is no sense of achievement or completion. While everyone is spinning around with excitement and amazement of what he has accomplished so far, Wilson gives the impression that he is merely one step down a path that leads to heights most will never reach. If Manifest Destiny was a strategy for football careers, Wilson would be the poster child for applying it. 

Wilson was not a player I watched much in college. Seeing him in Senior Bowl practices was the first moment when I thought he was both a special player and special fit for the Seahawks philosophy and scheme. I admit to being a little excited when they announced the Seahawks selected Wilson, maybe more than a grown man should be

My instant comparison for Wilson was Drew Brees, and not because of the height. They are both natural winners, with uncommon feel for the game, and extraordinary football IQ. I called him the "Powerball" aspect of this year's Seahawks draft class because every other pick could be mediocre, and if Wilson hit, it would still be considered a massively successful draft. 

Taking some time to do a deeper comparison with Brees was instructive because it is so easy to forget the challenges even the most successful quarterbacks have in their early years. Brees did not start as a rookie, and did not have a passer rating over 80.0 until his fourth season (not counting his single game as a rookie). That was part of the reasoning behind expecting that Wilson's participation in the quarterback competition was largely to allow him to win the back-up job.

People that only saw the pre-season games could only conclude that Wilson was the obvious winner of the quarterback competition. Players, media, and coaches all saw Matt Flynn winning this thing during training camp. He was making throws Wilson simply was not making. Pete Carroll was transparent in where the quarterbacks stood throughout camp if you knew where to look. Tarvaris Jackson opened camp taking starter snaps because he was the top of the depth chart at that time. Flynn started two weeks in a row during pre-season because he was the best quarterback on the roster through that time. I was convinced he would be the starter early in the camp. The gap between him and Wilson at that time was greater than most fans and media will ever know. Wilson's rise to starter truly came in the last week. He was unstoppable, irrepressible, undeniable. 

What happens now will shape the legacy of Carroll in Seattle. Fans and media have aggressively pushed Carroll to find his franchise quarterback since the moment he arrived. It was noted multiple times on this blog that Mike Holmgren found his franchise signal caller in his third season, and stuck with him all the way to the Super Bowl. Jackson and Josh Portis were the only quarterbacks on this roster heading into this off-season. Finding that transcendent player seemed out of reach. Signing Flynn gave the team quality, even if his upside was unclear. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were pipe dreams. There was talk of Ryan Tannehill if he slid to them in the first round. The hand-wringing over passing on Andy Dalton last year and the strikeout on Charlie Whitehurst only increased the uneasiness. Well, now it is year three of Carroll's time in Seattle, and he has hitched his ride to a player that is the physical embodiment of his personality: unconventional, fast moving, and forever successful. 

Guessing how Wilson's pre-season success will translate into the regular season is challenging. The most optimistic read would be that his NFL performances so far look strikingly similar to his college performances. His style of play has migrated beautifully into this level, and perhaps as importantly, into this system that so closely resembles the type of offense he had at Wisconsin. Wilson's play against reserves in the first two pre-season games looked almost identical to his play against starters in the third game. Hurdles that trip up rookie quarterbacks appear more like staples under Wilson's shoe so far. History tells us that will change. 

The Chiefs were missing significant portions of their starting secondary on Friday. There is light game-planning for those third pre-season games, but nothing like what Wilson will face come week one. The Cardinals defense is among the most exotic in the NFL, and more talented than most give it credit for. Wilson will see "walk around" defenses in Arizona where none of the lineman or linebackers have their hand on the ground or stay in one place. Finding his keys to make the right reads will be difficult. The intensity of environment will go up ten-fold. Wilson took a few weeks to adjust to NFL speed after OTAs and mini-camp. It is reasonable to expect similar adjustment time will be required as he transitions into the faster current of regular season play. 

History tells us it is unlikely Wilson will have a passer rating higher than Jackson's 79.2 last season. It also says pre-season statistics have very little correlation with regular season performance. There is even evidence suggesting that Wilson may ultimately have been a better quarterback if he sat for at least the start of his rookie season. Wilson's career tells us he will take the mental approach of another famous Badger: Russell Wilson don't give a shit about history.


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