Breaking Down Russell Wilson

50 yard line on an american football field
Matt Flynn has two NFL starts. Tarvaris Jackson has 34. I spent time breaking down Flynn and Jackson recently. Russell Wilson has yet to play a snap in the NFL, but his four years of college play should at least be directionally interesting. I compiled Wilson’s college splits from and combined them into career splits, just as I did with Jackson. The results were impressive, astounding even, and paint a promising picture of what kind of player Wilson could be if his game translates to the NFL.

Note: College football uses a different passer rating formula than the NFL (for some stupid reason). I took the liberty of translating all of Wilson’s ratings to the NFL formula so it would be easier to do an apples-to-apples comparison. All ratings offered below are the NFL system.

The sterling senior
Most of this article will focus on Wilson’s career splits, but his senior season was so eye-popping, that I had to share a few things.

The splits on include 47 different cuts, ranging from how the player did versus ranked and unranked teams, all the way to how they performed on 3rd and 1-3 yards to go. It is typical for even the best quarterbacks to have ratings that drop into the 60s, 50s, or lower when the situation is really challenging like 3rd and 10+ yards to go. Wilson’s lowest passer rating in any of those 47 splits as a senior was 87.5. It was on 3rd and 7-9 yards to go. Only 11 NFL quarterbacks had a higher rating over the course of the entire season last year than that. The point is that 87.5 is a darn good rating, and unreal if it is as bad as you get.

Wilson set the passer efficiency rating record for college football last season with a 191.8 rating. That translates to a 135.8 NFL passer rating. His rating dropped below 100.0 on only two of the 47 splits tracked by cfbstats. Besides 3rd and 7-9 yards, Wilson was a 91.2 passer when his field position was between his own 21-39 yard line. What a loser.

Among the most impressive aspects of his senior performance was how he handled 3rd downs. Wilson was a perfect 158.3 on 3rd down and less than 6 yards to go, including 13 touchdowns and just 1 interception. He wasn’t much worse on 3rd and 10+ yards to go, where he was a 155.4 passer. Perhaps most amazing was that he only had 15 pass attempts on 3rd and 10+ yards all season long. That Wisconsin team wasn’t bad, eh? His combined 3rd down numbers as a senior were 75.3% completion, 16 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and a 154.9 rating. That’s a whole college season where the quarterback has a nearly perfect passer rating.

It is worth noting he was not just getting fat on weak competition. He had a 125.3 rating and completed 71.1% of his passes against Associated Press ranked teams. He was at 123.7 versus FBS teams with a winning record and 130.9 versus BCS AQ teams.

One great year is interesting, but career trends tell us more.

Holy red zone, Batman!
Perfection for an NFL quarterback is 158.3. That’s the absolute highest rating an NFL quarterback can receive. Russell Wilson’s career numbers in the red zone included 72 touchdowns, 6 interceptions and a 158.0 rating. That is not his rating for one game. It is not his rating for one season. That is his rating over his 50 game college career.

If that 0.3 he blew is bothering you, take some solace in the fact that he turned in a perfect 158.3 rating in his senior season while throwing 24 touchdowns and only 1 interception in the red zone. He was perfect his junior year as well, and his sophomore. It was his paltry 157.2 red zone passer rating as a freshman that dragged his career number below perfection.

These were not all cheap touchdowns, either. A full 30% of his 72 red zone touchdown passes were 15+ yards.

He displays an almost predatory pattern where his passer rating goes up the closer he gets to the opponents end zone, as if he can smell blood.

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A competitive spirit is evident
Jackson has been a player in the NFL that is at his best when his team is ahead. Wilson actually improved his play when his team fell behind. His was great when the team was tied (105.5), very good when losing by 1-7 points (102.1) and terrific when trailing by 8-14 points (110.9). He dropped off to 81.0 when losing by 15+ points, for what that’s worth. Although, that only happened six times in his career.

By comparison, he was 96.8 when winning by 1-7 points, 86.3 when winning by 8-14 points, and 114.7 when winning by 15+ points.

A full 62% of his 109 career passing touchdowns came when his team was tied or trailing. These numbers, combined with the red zone numbers, paint a picture of a guy who does not like to lose, and has another gear he can reach when his team needs it.

A fast starter
Wilson’s best quarter was the first, where he posted a career 117.8 rating. He appears to be aggressive, getting more big plays of 15+ yards in that quarter than any other. He comes in with a plan, and seems to execute it well with 34 touchdowns and only 4 picks in the first quarter.

The majority of his touchdowns came in the first half (61%), and even though he attempted a combined 224 more pass attempts in the first half than in the second, he had two fewer interceptions.

Being quick out of gate extends to the season as well. His best month was the first one of the season during which he threw 37 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions for a 119.3 rating. Some of that is obviously due to college scheduling where weaker opponents are often scheduled early in the season, but he only had 5 games versus Division I-AA teams.

Good, but not great, against the best 
Wilson played twelve games against ranked teams (AP). He had a 90.3 rating in those games with a nice 5/2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His completion percentage dropped quite a bit. He was a career 63.1% passer against unranked teams. That fell to 54.7% against ranked teams. He actually averaged more yards per game against ranked teams (236 vs 227), but the percentage of his throws that were picked off went up substantially. He threw a pick every 37 throws against ranked teams. It took, on average, 56 throws  for unranked teams to pick off Wilson.

How Wilson goes, so goes his team
Some guys can come out and play a good game, but have their team lose. Others represent more of a bellwether. Wilson is the latter. He was a 117.8 rated passer in games his team won, and a 79.9 passer during losses. He threw a pick once every 86 attempts in wins. Think about that. 

He threw a pick every 32 attempts in losses. He attempted more passes in losses, but still came up with almost 20 fewer passing yards per game than he did during wins. His completion percentage was 66% in wins and 54% in losses.

Of course quarterbacks numbers are going to be better when their team wins than when they lose. These massive differences, though, indicate Wilson is an impact player who can carry a team when he is playing well.

If only college numbers counted in the pros…
Looking at Wilson’s college numbers would leave any fan drooling. Which college numbers or performances matter the most is a debate that will rage on. The efficacy of predicting NFL quarterback performance based on college output is horribly low. 

Still, the situations Wilson performed better in paint a promising picture. He is a gamer. His play raises in the red zone, when his team is trailing, and he comes in prepared to get off to a fast start. 

We already know he has a strong arm, a terrific work ethic, and can pick up offenses better than most. He showed in early practices that he is getting off to a fast start again here in Seattle. Reports are that he has struggled more as practices continued. His results in college, and the types of situations he excelled in, gives him the highest ceiling of the three quarterbacks competing for the starting role. Whether he realizes that potential this season remains to be seen.