Pete Carroll and John Schneider have batted nearly 1.000 in personnel moves since taking over the Seahawks in 2010. They have turned over one of the NFL’s oldest and least talented rosters into one of the youngest and most talented. To accomplish that feat in such a short period of time requires nearly flawless execution, along with a little luck. The one position they have failed to solve for happens to also be the most important, quarterback. Their batting average there is far lower. Charlie Whitehurst was a joke. Showing Matt Hasselbeck the door was questionable, at best. Signing Tarvaris Jackson was hardly going to stir any hopes of postseason progress. They reloaded this off-season with not one, but two, promising players at the position. Watching Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson duel has been great theater. Each day brought a new questions and new answers about each player, and what their coaches and teammates thought of them. Flynn appears to have the starting job sewn up after starting the first two pre-season games. Today, Carroll will announce the starter of the all-important third game of the pre-season. His choice may define his tenure in Seattle.
The conventional pattern to pre-season involves the Week 1 starters playing through part of the third quarter in the third pre-season game. It is their final tune-up, as game four is reserved largely for the bottom of the roster so that the front office can make educated decisions about who is retained for the 53-man roster. Assuming Carroll will stick with convention, whoever is named the starter for this Friday’s game against the Chiefs will open the season as the Seahawks starting quarterback. Knowing Carroll regularly ignores convention, it is worth taking some time to enumerate all the possible permutations:
a) Carroll names Jackson the starter.
I will not waste keystrokes on this possibility.
b) Carroll names Flynn the starter for game three, and for the regular season, ending the competition
This would be the most prudent path forward. Flynn has been getting starter reps since the week before the pre-season. He has performed well in that role. It would have been ideal for Flynn to get starter reps the whole camp, but at least he has received additional reps in the games. The players are expecting this decision. The fans are largely expecting this decision. Doing this would allow the team to transition from pre-season indecision to regular season preparation. Carroll could declare victory for Flynn as the starter, and Wilson ascending to the back-up role, while also continuing to validate his competition philosophy. Should Flynn falter, Carroll is perfectly positioned to insert Wilson into a lower expectation situation as a substitution. This scenario puts everyone in the best position as individuals, and puts the team in the best position to succeed in 2012.
c) Carroll names Flynn the starter for game three, but stops short of ending the competition for the regular season role
While not as ideal as scenario b, this still keeps Flynn on track to be ready Week 1. Failing to end the competition would start to wear on the team as a whole. Switching over to Wilson after Flynn started the first three games of the pre-season would be foolish. Everyone would see that, so more questions would rise among the players as to what the coach was really trying to accomplish. That is certainly not the end of the world, but you’d have to ask whether the gain of keeping the competition open was worth the cost.
d) Carroll names Flynn the starter for game three, but says that Wilson will get some time with the starters
Now both potential starters would be getting harmed in their preparation for Week 1. Neither is getting a chance to get full reps with the starters and play through a half. This would raise real questions about Carroll’s ability to make a tough call.
e) Carroll names Wilson the starter for game three, and for the regular season, ending the competition
This seems highly unlikely. Wilson has yet to play a live snap with the starters against an opposing NFL defense. Naming him the regular season starter now would be like watching him play Northern Iowa in college and deciding he should be the #1 overall pick. Flynn has performed well against two starting-caliber NFL defenses in the pre-season and against two others in the regular season. Anointing Wilson today would be a serious reach.
f) Carroll names Wilson the starter for game three, but stops short of ending the competition for the regular season role
This move only makes sense if Carroll is departing from NFL convention and plans to play his starters significant time in the fourth and final pre-season game. That would give him the chance to play Wilson an equal amount to Flynn with the starters before heading into the regular season if Wilson earned it with his play this week. That decision would come with significant risk to the team as injuries could occur in the penultimate game for no other reason than that Carroll could not make a decision early enough. Naming Wilson starter for game three without ending the competition also puts Flynn in a bind. Should Carroll decide to go back to Flynn for the regular season, Flynn would have lost valuable prep time, not to mention some respect for his coaches. You don’t jerk your players around that way without negative consequences. Carroll is about maximizing his players performance, and this just doesn’t do that for anyone involved.
There are probably more possibilities, but those represent the ones that have my attention. Carroll spoke on the Brock and Salk show yesterday about struggling with “convention.” Many have speculated that was in regards to the players involved in the competition. My read was more about how to handle these last two games. I don’t think Carroll wants to feel beholden to the NFL pattern of using game three as the time he would have to make this quarterback decision. Convincing himself that he could defy that convention would allow him to start Wilson this week without feeling like he was hurting the team for the regular season. He may think the only significant cost would be the front office’s ability to evaluate the bottom half of the roster before cuts need to be made, and that would be a risk he’d probably be happy to take when compared to making the right decision at quarterback.
The hope here would be that Carroll would avoid the urge to go against the grain. Flynn has given him the chance to make a nearly risk-free decision by playing well, and earning the respect of his teammates. Nobody would fault or question Carroll for going that route, and it gives Wilson the best possible chance to succeed. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, and other rookie starters got every starters snap during their pre-season. They made every start in the pre-season games. Luck is considered the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, and he still is showing growing pains adjusting to reading NFL defenses and making the proper decisions.
Wilson has had less than one-third of the reps through his rookie training camp. He has excelled. There may never have been a Seahawks quarterback that looked this promising as a rookie. Even so, most of the best quarterbacks in the game struggled to break an 80.0 passer rating their first year as a starter. Manning did not do it. Drew Brees did not do it. Matt Hasselbeck did not do it. Dalton did not do it. Those guys got the a full off-season of prep. Asking Wilson to step up given the situation he entered would do a multitude of harm.
What happens if he struggles mightily out of the gates? There is potential for him to lose confidence and not recover. Coaches could decide they were wrong about him and prematurely move in a different direction. The players could divide in the locker room because, make no mistake about it, they all are aiming for a transcendent season and losing games because of rookie mistakes would not go over well, especially when there was a veteran option that looked good. Heck, many players would say there were two veteran options that looked good. Turning back to Flynn down the road would be messy, at best.
Carroll would be putting it all on the line, and he’d be doing it with a rookie player who he did not even put in the best position to succeed. It would be foolhardy. It would be reckless. It would be a shame. If anyone could make it work, it would be Wilson. He is a truly special talent.
Focusing on the players misses the point. This decision will speak volumes about the coaching staff. They could choose an unconventional path that ends up working. That does not mean it was handled well. That does not mean players–current or future–will respect it. Hail Mary passes sometimes result in touchdowns, but basing your offensive strategy around them would not turn out very well. This is the most important position on a football team pointed in exactly the right direction. Convention need not be the enemy here. It is 4th & 1 at the goal line with a few seconds to go. Carroll needs to kick the field goal and take the points, not attempt a quarterback sneak. It is time to prove he can make the winning calls when it counts the most.