Russell Wilson: An Inconvenient Truth

Brock Huard spent a good chunk of his radio show with Danny O’Neil yesterday railing against what he referred to as “Wilson Haters.” The qualifications of becoming a Wilson Hater, from what I could tell, was anyone that thought: (a) the passing game could be better (b) the passing challenges were not all the fault of receivers and lineman (c) that Wilson has room to improve. If those are hater qualities, I shudder at the thought of how we would describe Texans fans feelings about Matt Schaub. This whole debate among Seahawks fans is fundamentally flawed. Choosing between, “Russell Wilson walks on water,” and “Russell Wilson is terrible quarterback,” is sensationalist bull.

Wilson has now started 22 regular season games. Identifying areas he can still improve is both logical and hopeful. It strikes me that deciding he has already reached his full potential is far more damning. Wilson has led his team to a 16-6 record through those first 22 starts. He had the second-best rookie passer rating of all-time and tied a rookie touchdown record set by the player most consider the best quarterback in the game. His passer rating of 120.3 in the last eight games of 2012 was the 6th-best in the history of football. His yards per attempt of 7.9 was the 2nd-best ever for a rookie with at least 300 pass attempts. He makes impossible plays with his feet. He is fantastic when the game is on the line. He leads by example on and off the field. His preparation and work ethic are unparalleled. He has already set the Seahawks season and single-game rushing records for a quarterback. He is one of the best quarterbacks ever through his first 22 games. He can get better. Those two statements can both be true.

Steve Mariucci joined the Brock and Danny show yesterday and brought up Brett Favre as an example of a player who married improvisational splendor with the west coast offense for spectacular results. Mariucci was right to point out the magic of Favre’s creativity, but that is only part of the story. It took Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid coaching Favre toward repeatable throws within a system to truly unlock Favre’s full potential. Wilson is already so far ahead of Favre in terms of efficiency as a quarterback. Nobody would accuse Wilson of being reckless the way Favre was.

I raised the comparison to Steve Young before the season started last year. Young remains the perfect vision for what Wilson could become. He was athletic, mobile, intelligent, creative and could make every throw. Young is a Hall of Fame quarterback. To assume Wilson is already at that level would be silly. Consider the difference between Matt Hasselbeck in his first year or two with the Seahawks and where he was from 2004-2007. No position in football benefits more from experience than the one Wilson plays.

He will make better choices over time. He will make better throws. He will learn to make throws that he does not currently make. Case in point, he worked on the back-shoulder throw all through training camp, and it has started to show up in games. That was not in his repertoire last season. He needs to improve on slants, rhythm throws where he gets rid of the ball at the top of his drop, and swing throws to his backs, among others.

The reason people should continue to harp on these throws is because repeatability and precision are your best friends when the windows get tighter and the pressure mounts. Is it possible that Wilson could sustain his success doing as much improvisation as he does now? Sure. Adding these other elements to his game just makes him that much harder to defend.

He does miss open receivers down-field. He does choose to throw to a covered Golden Tate when scrambling more often than finding the open player. His touchdown rate per game is down 38% from where he ended the season last year (from 2.0/gm last 8 gms of 2012 to 1.3/gm this year).  His completion percentage and yard per attempt are down as well, while his interception rate is up.

The problems on the offensive line are absolutely a large part of the issue. Consider, though, that Seattle ranked 26th in the NFL in sack percentage allowed last year. This line has yet to demonstrate great pass protection, but it was good enough for Wilson to excel last year. This receiving corps has improved from last year. Doug Baldwin is playing his best ball as a pro. Jermaine Kearse is a big step up from the options at fourth and fifth receiver last year. Golden Tate and Sidney Rice are largely the same players. They did not hold back Wilson last year, and if you look at some of the plays they have made this year, it could easily be argued that they are helping Wilson look better than he has played this year. Think about some of the catches Baldwin, Kearse, Rice and Tate have made. Then remember past Seahawks receiving corps, and try to recall how many guys could have made those same plays. Remember the drops from players like Koren Robinson. The narrative that the receivers are the root of the problem in the passing game is a fallacy. If you are waiting for a receiver that is going to be standing by himself most of the time, prepare to wait a really long time.

Defenses are playing the Seahawks passing game differently than they did a year ago. Pete Carroll admitted as much this week. The offensive line has been reshuffled nearly every game. Seattle has played four of the best pass defenses in the NFL in their first six games. Wilson has faced all those challenges, and will come out the better for it. His team is 5-1. They are 8th in the NFL in scoring and 10th in total offense. He is growing and learning. That is a nightmare for opponents, and should be celebrated by Seahawks fans.

Save the brinkmanship and hyperbole for the politicians in Washington. There is no need for Seahawks fans to take sides on Russell Wilson. It is okay to love him, and want him to do better. It is okay to put the weight of expectations on his shoulders. He can handle it. In a world so often defined by two extreme ends of a spectrum, find sanity by being moderate. Relish the results, but savor the journey.

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