Poor sophomores. Everyone assumes they are either immature, or destined for a slump. That was certainly the talk this NFL off-season as people evaluated the stellar quarterback class of 2012 as they entered their second seasons. No player was whispered about more than Russell Wilson. It did not matter that they had been wrong about his height a year earlier. The new reasons he would not succeed were his reliance on the read-option and improvisation. Oh, and just in case you had not heard, he is short. The poster boy for the dangers of believing too much in an improvisational quarterback was now-Vikings quarterback Josh Freeman. A look at how their careers have evolved shows, once again, that Wilson is walking his own path to NFL stardom.
Freeman had a modestly successful rookie year in 2009 for the Buccaneers. It was his 2010 season that sparkled. He threw 25 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions on his way to a 95.9 passer rating. His breakout year compared favorably to Wilson’s.
When I would ask people to show me a quarterback that had failed after the type of success Wilson had, some would try to bring up Rick Mirer. In relative terms, that is a joke. Mirer never had a season that approached what Wilson did as a rookie. Mirer had a promising rookie year. Wilson had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history. The tougher comparison to dispel was Freeman. Even if it was not his rookie year, it was his first full year starting and there was no doubt his 2010 season was in Wilson territory. He also had been known for making many of his throws outside the offense. When it worked, like in 2010, it was called creativity. Many questioned whether success based on non-rhythm throwing was sustainable. In Freeman’s case, it has not been.
The first ten games of this season, Wilson has bordered on MVP-level numbers behind a battered offensive line. In doing so, he has left the cautionary tale of Josh Freeman in the rear-view mirror.
One of the lessons Seahawks coaches may have learned from Freeman’s history is that a successful year for a young player does not necessarily mean the smart coaching move is to push more of the offense through that player. Freeman’s attempts went up and his production went down. Wilson has been asked to do roughly what he was asked to do last year. Seattle still leans heavily on a rushing attack to reduce the load on the quarterback.
That, combined with Wilson’s innate ability to throw the deep ball and find the end zone, has allowed Wilson to stand out among his sophomore quarterback brethren despite having fewer pass attempts.
Wilson has more touchdowns than top three quarterbacks taken last year, is tied for fewest interceptions, and has the highest passer rating and yards per attempt by a long shot. It is worth noting that three of the four second-year players listed above have improved on their passer rating so far as sophomores. Only Robert Griffinn III has regressed, and most would equate his second-year slide to injury. Nick Foles has thrown himself into this group with a glowing second season that has him a hair behind Wilson in touchdowns (16), no interceptions and a nutso 132.5 rating. He was omitted from the table above because he entered this season with very modest expectations. Nobody was worried about a Nick Foles sophomore slump. The same could be said about Case Keenum and his 7 touchdown-to-zero interception second season.
Colin Kapernick was included even though this is his third season in the NFL, mainly because he was often lumped in with this group due to having his breakout season the same year. If any of these guys had a Freeman-like slump after their breakout year, it would be Kaepernick.
Wilson appears to be setting the stage for another big finish as his passer rating in the last four games has been a heady 116.5, with nine touchdowns against only two interceptions. Three of those four games have seen his rating over 117.
Analysts will continue to find reasons to question the pedigree of Russell Wilson. He will keep finding ways to make them look foolish. He is already among the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL. By the time this season ends, he may be in the debate for the best rookie year and best second year of any quarterback in NFL history. It does not take a genius to imagine the conversation if he continues that trend in future years.