Much has been made of Pete Carroll’s pronouncement this weekend that Russell Wilson will vie for the starting job. Logic dictates that if there is already a two-man competition for the starting role, Wilson would need to join that competition if the team hopes he could even become the back-up. It would not make much sense to have Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn battle for #1, and then just hand the #2 role to a guy that was not even in the mix. That said, this could be more than a veiled tactic to move Wilson into the back-up role. Wilson has the talent, make-up and backing of the front office to find his way all the way at the top of the heap. That scenario has some pros and cons.
Wilson winning the job would obviously mean Flynn was the back-up, a role he is certainly familiar with, but not what he envisioned after reaching free agency. It is one thing to say all the right things about knowing this was an open competition, and quite another to actually accept losing. Flynn does not seem to be the malcontent type. This scenario would certainly test that. Most importantly, fans would not get a chance to see Flynn in action during a regular season game. The impact on Wilson’s career development could be significant.
Drew Brees, who Wilson is often compared, played only one game in his rookie season and then sported a pedestrian 76.9 rating in his first full season as starter for the Chargers. He dropped to 67.5 in his second starting season. Peyton Manning has a 71.2 rating his rookie year, starting out of the gate. Matt Hasselbeck went for 70.9 during his first season in Seattle. Jackson was 79.2 last year behind a shoddy line and with a torn pectoral muscle. What happens to Wilson if he gets mediocre-to-poor results out of the gate?
Here you have Flynn, who was signed to a lot of fan fare, and has thrown for 20,000 yards and 45 touchdowns in his two NFL starts, sitting on the sideline making $6M. It is hard to see how Wilson would be setup to succeed in that situation. Andy Dalton made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year with an 80.4 passer rating. That included games of 40.8 and 64.4 in the first few weeks of the season. Seattle plays the Cowboys, Packers, Patriots, 49ers, and Lions in the first half of the season. It is reasonable to expect a rookie, even a good rookie, to put up some stinkers in that stretch.
The rest of the team is setup to be elite in 2012. The defense should be in the top five. The special teams could be top five. The running game could be top ten, at least. Games could be lost by inexperienced quarterback play. That’s quite a load to put on young shoulders, even for a guy as mature as Wilson.
It is hard to imagine a scenario where the pressure to play Flynn would not reach a point where Wilson took a seat. One could argue that would be a learning experience, and help his development down the road. It could also make coaches less comfortable turning back to him. That may sound silly, but try to remember just how bad Hasselbeck was in his first season in Seattle. He was awful. Very few coaches would have ever given him another shot. Trent Dilfer’s injury in 2002 opened the door. Think about how much Seattle would have missed if Hasselbeck has never gotten a chance to fulfill his potential.
Not all rookie quarterbacks struggle. Ben Roethlisberger managed a 98.1 rating behind a team with a similar defense/running game style of play. Mark Sanchez had a horrible 63.0 rating, but played well in the playoffs for the Jets. Cam Newton blew up last season, but his style of play is so unique that it is hard to really compare him to anyone else. Matt Ryan went for an 87.7 rating in his rookie campaign. More often, quarterbacks appear to develop a higher ceiling when they sit for at least one season. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Brees, are just a few examples of players who benefited from some time observing.
All this applies to Flynn as well. He has sat, but it will be hard for him to hold the starting job if Wilson impresses during the pre-season and Flynn struggles during the season. Whoever wins the starting spot deserves a full season to grow into the position. That is the best way to set the team and the player up for success.