Wilson is playing exactly the way a talented rookie quarterback should play. Even that is an accomplishment given that he was the only one of the rookie starters in the NFL this year that had to split reps all the way into the last week of the pre-season. People have mistaken my position on the quarterback situation as being critical of choosing Wilson over Matt Flynn. Those that have read, or listened, more closely know my real frustration was how the situation was handled. Deciding to start Wilson after a week of training camp would have been one thing. He would have had four games against starting NFL defenses, all the starter reps for the weeks before the first game, and all the starter reps between the games. It would not have kept Wilson from being a rookie who makes rookie mistakes, but it would have given him the most possible preparation for what is an incredibly challenging job. The job of a coach is to put his players in the best position to succeed. Wilson did not get that support. Instead, he is being asked to over-achieve for a rookie quarterback in order to justify the decision that was made and how it was handled.
Many fans were calling for Flynn to be the starter after the debacle yesterday. Keep in mind that Wilson is not the one calling for an option play on a crucial third down against the Packers. Wilson is not the one calling for a reverse pitch to Marshawn Lynch on 3rd and 1 instead of putting him between the tackles where he excels. Wilson is not the one calling a passing play on 3rd and 2 in the second quarter, or 3rd and 3 later in the quarter. He is not the one calling for a spread formation on 3rd and short, eliminating the defenses need to honor both the run and the pass. And he certainly isn’t the one putting the team in shotgun formation in the red zone while trailing by six points on 3rd and 2 when the team has run for 37 yards on that drive with a 7.4 yard per carry average. What is worse is that there is not clarity on who is calling those plays. Darrell Bevell is the offensive coordinator, but Tom Cable shares offensive responsibilities with him and is the assistant head coach. Carroll has been publicly stating that he holds himself responsible for “keeping the lid” on the offense. Improvement does not happen without accountability.
The worst part is listening to this coaching staff go on and on about their identity as a tough running team, and that they will only make Wilson pass when the situation demands it. Yet, when the game is on the line, the running game is fantastic, and the yardage to pick up is short, they call a pass play or a cutesy misdirection play. This team does not need to do those things. At the very least, a defense should have to prove it can stop the running game on third down before the Seahawks coaching staff capitulates.
Few have supported Carroll and John Schneider more than I have on this blog since they arrived, and I will use this challenging moment to reiterate that there may not be two people on the planet that could have done a better job turning over this roster and making this team so close to contending after just two full seasons. The two remaining questions for Carroll heading into this year was whether he could make winning decisions at critical moments and whether he could build an offense that was capable of winning big. Both of those questions remain unanswered, but there is growing concern that the former is effecting the latter.
He did his offense no favors by putting the Rams in field goal position to start the second half after an onsides kick. It was a move that a desperate coach makes when he does not believe his team can win on merit, or something an egotistical coach does after seeing his team get fooled on a special teams play in the first half. Neither option is appealing. Carroll would tell you he saw an opportunity to turn the game and give his offense a short field. His logic seems to often dismiss risk. It is less risky to kick the ball off and let your otherworldly defense get you the ball back. It is less risky to start a player with four years of experience watching and learning how to play quarterback in the NFL. It is less risky to kick a field goal before half instead of running a quarterback sneak. You can make more money by winning the lottery than holding down a steady job, but there is a reason people don’t build financial plans around gambling. Carroll has admitted he gets “hormonal” sometimes and wants to play aggressively. It is admirable, and something I can get behind as a fan. It is far more fun to cheer for a team that leans forward instead of playing scared. There is a fine line between aggressive and reckless. Carroll has not proven he sees the distinction yet.
Carroll has been 90% good, or more, since arriving. Cable is possibly the most valuable assistant in the NFL, and is overseeing a line showing serious growth and a great running game. Then, there is Darrell Bevell. Again, it is not clear who is ultimately accountable for play-calling, but Bevell is supposed to be in charge of the passing game, and it is last in the NFL. He also has the headset on during the game, which implies he is making the calls. His seat is not safe. If it is not scalding, it better be heating up fast. Ask Jeremy Bates how long of a leash offensive coaches get with Carroll. Mike Holmgren needed Fritz Shurmur, Ray Rhodes and John Marshall. Carroll has not found his offensive equal yet. Bevell has the rest of this season to prove he deserves the crown.
This game was not just about offensive ineptitude. The special teams unit was mostly atrocious. Punts were shorter than usual, helping the Rams get a field goal before half. Coverage was not great. And the fake field goal decided the game. The Rams special teams got 48, 58 and 60-yard field goals, as well as a touchdown. Leon chipped in a 69-yard kickoff return, but this was a one-sided affair for a unit that came in ranked among the best in the NFL.
The defense held Sam Bradford to a 63.3 passer rating, and gave up no offensive touchdowns. Steven Jackson still has not reached 100 yards against the Seahawks, and the run game only managed 2.8 yards per carry. That does not mean they are without culpability for this loss. The Rams managed to covert five of their thirteen 3rd down opportunities. Giving up a 39% conversion rate is not horrible on its own. When all five conversion are over 10 yards, especially to a team that has shown no ability to throw down the field before this game, that is a major problem.
The Rams only touchdown came on a drive when the Seahawks defense allowed them to convert a 3rd and 14 at the Seahawks 46-yard line, and a 3rd and 10 at the 29-yard line. After the offense managed to get the game to within 16-13, the defense gave up a 15 play, 74 yards drive that included a 3rd and 10 conversion at the Rams 35 and a 3rd and 13 conversion at the Seahawks 43. Make a 3rd and long stop on either of those drives, and the Seahawks very well may win this game, even with all the other problems. People may think it is unfair to hold this defense to such a high standard, but they should dominate teams like the Rams. Bradford should have trouble sniffing 150 yards, let alone approaching 250. There were communication breakdowns in coverage where corners were playing with outside leverage, clearly expecting inside help where none appeared. There were safeties getting beat over the top, which we have never seen. This was not a game to be proud of for the defense.
Nobody deserves a bouquet after a game like this, but there were some encouraging signs worth pointing out. Robert Turbin looked fantastic, and earned more snaps. He looked young, fresh and tough. His passionate running nearly sparked this team to victory. James Carpenter made it back from his knee injury and played a nice game. The team has been largely right-handed in it’s running up until now, but found a lot of yards on the left with Carpenter and Russell Okung clearing the way. Bobby Wagner had his best game as a pro with 7 tackles and 3 tackles for loss. He looks like he is getting more and more confident back there, and could make a big play in the coming weeks.
The team faces a crossroads a quarter of the way through the season. Arguments could be made the team could be 4-0, or 1-3 depending on which way you tilt your head. The defense is one of the Top 3 in the NFL. The running game is among the Top 5-6. The special teams has been among the Top 5. They are a competent passing game away from being a force. That could come with Wilson developing quickly, or it could come from Flynn coming off the bench. By going with Wilson to start the year, Carroll has put enormous pressure on the rookie and I fear Wilson is losing this locker room. Multiple players made critical comments about the offense after the game without pointing the finger at any one player, but the inference was pretty clear. It certainly is not the running game they are frustrated with. Consider how it feels for Zach Miller to see it written that he has gained weight or was a bust signing after being a great team guy last year while helping an inexperienced offensive line, only to see his quarterback miss him or make the wrong read. Or Sidney Rice who nobody thinks can stay healthy and is being criticized for not “making the big play” despite rarely being given the chance. These guys are watching tape and seeing the quarterback make mistakes, and they are getting criticized for it. The credibility of this coaching staff is at stake. Carroll is a defensive-minded coach, who has yet to prove he can assemble an NFL offense. He now finds himself in a sticky situation where he needs to choose between keeping his faith in a rookie quarterback to bail him out, or making a very early change. The players will be watching how he handles this. He almost certainly will stay with Wilson, at least through the Panthers game. That may end up being one game too long. Either way, it is the coaching staff that should be scrutinized or praised for what happens the rest of the way.