Thursday, November 1, 2012

Russell Wilson: What We Have Learned

Pete Carroll made the decision after the third pre-season game against the Kansas City Chiefs that Russell Wilson was ready to take the helm as the Seahawks starting quarterback. Wilson has started eight regular season games since then, and the results have been predictably up and down. There are credible cases to be made that a more experienced quarterback would have led the team to victories in Arizona and St. Louis. There are fair cases to be made that Seattle would not have beaten Green Bay or New England without Wilson's combination of poise and talent. His 82.4 passer rating ranks 19th in the NFL at the midway point. That means roughly 18 quarterbacks have been better and 12 have been worse. You may be surprised by some of the "worse" names that include the likes of Mathew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Cam Newton, and Andrew Luck. There is only one rookie (Robert Griffin III), and two second year players (Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton) that rank higher. Eight games is nowhere near enough time to make a fair evaluation of a rookie quarterback, but there are some patterns starting to take shape that are worth recognizing and following the rest of the way.

Red Zone Prowess
Seattle is terrible in the red zone, right? The team ranks 30th in the NFL in red zone scoring percentage, in terms of scoring touchdowns. Wilson, however, has been pretty darn good, at least looking at the statistics. He is 15-30 with 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions for a passer rating of 98.8. Believe it or not, Tarvaris Jackson was pretty good down there last year, with a 9:1 TD/INT ratio and a 90.5 rating. Wilson has bettered him to this point, and is on pace to throw more touchdowns in those situations. The key number here is 0 interceptions. That will continue to be key, but it also indicates his general risk aversion. There have been touchdowns that have gone unthrown because Wilson has appeared unwilling to make a mistake. Great quarterbacks must be reach the point where they make the defenses pay when red zone opportunities present themselves. The game should eventually slow for Wilson, and what feels like a risk now, may feel like a certainty. Wilson's growth here is impossible to ignore. Going from what was a 67.2 rating in the red zone after four games to 98.8 after eight games is very encouraging.

Third Down Growth
Another dissonant reality is the team's general struggles on third down, while Wilson has made significant strides. Part of this is just how bad Wilson was in these situations when the season started. He was a completing a putrid 40.7% of his passes for an equally dismal 2.9 yards per attempt on 3rd downs after four games, for a 45.5 passer rating. Amazingly, he was even worse on 3rd and less than six yards to go. He was completing 33.3% of those passes for 1.9 YPA and a 42.4 passer rating. Remember, improving 3rd down performance at the quarterback position was a focus coming into this year after Jackson posted a 65.6 passer rating last year with 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. The bar was not high. Wilson was not reaching it, and that's no short joke.

Wilson has now raised his 3rd down passer rating to 76.2. For the math challenged, keep in mind that means he has been passing at a rate even better than that the last four games. It is not a straight average as attempts have not been equal across those games, but it is safe to assume his rating is at least in the high 80s in that span. He has raised his completion percentage to 50.8%, and his YPA to 5.41. Those 3rd and less than 6 situations are still troublesome, as his passer rating is 69.3, but there is clear improvement.

His worst down is now 2nd, with a 58.1 rating and four of his eight interceptions. His best down is 4th, with a sparkling 136.1 rating, but there have been only six attempts. Two of those six attempts have turned into touchdowns. Remarkable. He performs quite well on first down throws, where he has the most attempts, and enjoys a 98.8 rating while completing nearly 70% of his throws.

Signs are pointing up in this key aspect of his game.

Unscripted Struggles
Seattle scripts the first handful of plays in each game. The team has scored first in every game so far this year. They only did that seven times last year, winning all of those games outside of a 19-17 loss to the 49ers late in the year. Wilson's statistics imply the scripting is helping him get off to fast starts. His passer rating in his first 10 attempts is a glowing 106.5. He completed 72.5% of those passes for 8.8 YPA. Those are franchise quarterback numbers. The problem is that Wilson's numbers drop precipitously in attempts 11-20 when the script is gone and the defenses have dug in. His rating of 50.9 in those attempts includes a 53.8% completion rate, 5.2 YPA and only 2 touchdowns versus 5 interceptions. Those are numbers that lose a lot of games.

Not all of that goes on Wilson's shoulders. Darrell Bevell may be getting out-called by the defensive coordinators. Still, it is not surprising to see a rookie struggle after the script runs out. It would be a bigger cause for concern if his numbers continued to decline as the attempts continued, but that's not the case. He has a 96.0 rating on attempts 21-30. Playing at home for a few games should help Wilson here. This has been a brutal opening schedule for a veteran quarterback, with five road games in the first eight, so let's see if Wilson can gain some confidence after a couple more home games.

Kill The Middle
Wilson's height has been brought up endlessly. One place you would expect that to show up is throwing over the middle of the field when he would need to see over his lineman and the clutter of linebackers and safeties. Sight lines down each sideline are generally easier. Wilson turns that on his ear with a nearly perfect 158.0 rating on passes over the middle of the field. He is completing 88.2% of those throws for an eye-popping 14.8 YPA and 2 touchdowns with 0 interceptions.

He has shown a knack for putting the ball in just the right place on post patterns. Consider that Wilson has only two incompletions over the middle all year, and one of them was the pass to Sidney Rice this past weekend 50 yards down-field that Rice should have grabbed. Drew Brees, Wilson's idol, made a killing over the middle last year with a player like Jimmy Graham.

Wilson struggles throwing to the left side of the field. His passer rating is under 50.0 in these situations with 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions. His propensity to roll to the right may have something to do with this, but it bears watching.

Look for the coaches to take better advantage of taking shots up the middle of the field.

Growing Up
The most important aspect of what we are seeing with Wilson is that he continues to step forward. The coaching staff put his development above the fortunes of the team this year because they believe they have the guy that can get them to a Super Bowl. Say what you want about Wilson's pre-season performance, but deciding to play a rookie is a serious gamble. History has shown very few have ever played better than Jackson did for the Seahawks last year when he had a passer rating of 79.2. Wilson is doing it so far, at least  by that measure. There is every reason to expect he will continue to improve. His study habits are impeccable. The coaching staff is 100% behind him. His chemistry with receivers and tight ends can only get better.

Part of the reason I was so excited when he was drafted is that his skills seemed to be such a good fit for what this team needs. He is comfortable with play-action. His play historically elevated on 3rd downs, in the red zone and when his team was behind. These are traits that this team desperately needed. It is a lot to ask a rookie to bring all that in his first season, but any evaluation of Wilson's first eight games has to be net positive. The most important two stats for him the rest of the way will be yards per attempt and interceptions. He absolutely needs to cut his interception rate. He is throwing an average of one pick per game. That needs to be closer to 0.5, which would put him at 12 for the season. His yards per attempt is 6.98. It would be good to see him get up closer to 7.3, which would be in the upper half of the NFL. Five home games, where he has a 116.9 passer rating so far, should help make that possible.

Wilson is well on his way to the best rookie season by a Seahawks quarterback in franchise history, and one of the better ones in NFL history. He has eight games to close the deal.

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