The question hangs over every team, and it never goes away until you answer it. Who is your quarterback?
For this reason, former Seahawks coach and Super Bowl champion Mike Holmgren definitively calls Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson “the most valuable player on a team full of fine players.”
His explanation is simple. Wilson answers the question, and when you answer the question, you always have hope.
“Lord willing,” Holmgren continued, “he’s got 15 more years and we’ve got 15 more years of playoffs and potential Super Bowls.”
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He just as well could have been talking about Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco’s third-year quarterback looking for his second trip to the Super Bowl. As Tom Brady and Peyton Manning write another chapter in their storied rivalry, Wilson and Kaepernick will duel for the first time with white-hot stakes on the line in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
“It’s like the future of the league,” said John Middlekauff, a former NFL scout and now a radio host in the Bay Area. “They have the opportunity to be a Manning-Brady rivalry for the next 10 years.”
They also represent a shift at the quarterback position. The old guard is led by true pocket passers — Manning, Brady, Drew Brees. But when you look around the landscape, at the young quarterbacks who are excelling, most share a common makeup: They can hurt you with their arm and legs.
“It’s funny because there’s been this big thing for so long about quarterbacks needing to stay in the pocket,” said Bucky Brooks, an NFL Network analyst and former defensive back. “But I always challenge people to name a young quarterback who is playing in the pocket that’s really thriving. There isn’t one. Kaepernick and Wilson, that’s the future. That’s what I see when I look at high schoolers and college. These guys play the way the game will be played the next 10 to 15 years.”
Just look at the quarterbacks expected to go high in this year’s draft. Teddy Bridgewater. Johnny Manziel. Blake Bortles. The next year could be more of the same with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.
“You’ll see more Russells and Colins than you’ll see Peytons and Breeses,” Brooks said.
Wilson and Kaepernick also represent something else: The evolution of expectations for quarterbacks who experience early success. Kaepernick received plenty of criticism early in the season when he threw for less than 200 yards in eight of nine games. The 49ers went 5-4. People expected more.
He has rallied down the stretch. He threw for 310 yards in the season finale against Arizona and burned the Packers with a season-high 98 rushing yards in San Francisco’s first playoff game.
“He’s a guy who took a beating from his critics earlier this year,” said Louis Riddick, a former NFL scout now working for ESPN. “He worked and worked and worked to correct those mistakes and is now playing some of his best football.”
Wilson has faced a similar reality late in the season. In his past five games, he has thrown for more than 200 yards just once while throwing as many interceptions (three) as he did in his previous eight games combined.
The question that has surfaced — What’s wrong with Wilson? — has some merit. He hasn’t played as well as he did earlier this season, and he missed a handful of throws against New Orleans that he normally makes. But he has also played smart, and that often means more than stats.
In horrific conditions against the Saints last week, Wilson took few chances. He didn’t turn the ball over, didn’t force any throws into the blistering wind and purposefully kept his throws low so they wouldn’t sail and get intercepted.
He threw for a season-low 103 yards and completed just 50 percent of his passes, but he put the game in the hands of his defense.
“I don’t see him as a franchise quarterback, and when I say franchise quarterback I mean a guy that takes his team to another level,” former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. “A guy who carries his team. I see Wilson being a guy who plays great with the sum of his parts. He just knows who he is and he knows the parts around him. He just doesn’t beat himself. I love him. I think that’s a tremendous trait for a quarterback, like a gifted arm.
“I wouldn’t be knocking him for it. I would be commending him for it. He made sure they didn’t lose the game. And more games are lost on Sunday than won.”
The criticism of Wilson and Kaepernick, while fair, also misses a larger point. They’re still developing and are at least a year or two from their prime. Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, for example, needed four seasons to pair his athletic ability with a fine-point understanding of the game.
Quarterbacks can take even longer to develop; heck, Manning is playing the best football of his life as a 37-year-old with wobbly passes and banged-up knees. What he has lost in arm strength he has made up for with a mastery of the game that is second to none.
“You get spoiled watching teams like this that you almost start looking for ways to put dents in them,” Riddick said. “Russell and Colin are young kids, man. I have to remind myself that sometimes when I’m watching on TV and go, ‘Put the ball on him! Let him catch and run with it!’ It’s not Madden here. You’re not dealing with robots. And these guys are going to play in one of the most epic NFC Championship Games in a couple days.”
This game isn’t being billed as Wilson vs. Kaepernick. This is the black-and-blue game, with two snarling defenses led by two coaches who don’t like each other.
And that is all fair and good, but it will also come down to the quarterbacks. Neither has been asked to carry his team in the same way the Colts have demanded of Andrew Luck. Not on teams built with powerful running backs and straitjacket defenses.
But they also have had to make enough plays to supplement that, often in critical moments. Wilson’s perfectly placed touch pass to Doug Baldwin on third-and-three in the fourth quarter against New Orleans is one example. So is Kaepernick’s 11-yard scramble on third-and-eight in the fourth quarter against Green Bay.
“They’re both going to have their mistakes,” Riddick said. “Who can make the least number of them in situations where it really puts their team in a bind? And then who’s going to make two or three big plays with their legs or arms when they need it most?”
Wilson and Kaepernick are still bargain-bin quarterbacks whose play is worth far more than their compensation. Their low salaries allowed their teams flexibility to add players they otherwise couldn’t have afforded.
Free-agent defensive linemen Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett have been Seattle’s most consistent pass rushers. San Francisco receiver Anquan Boldin, acquired in a trade from Baltimore this offseason, has developed into Kaepernick’s favorite target.
But Wilson and Kaepernick won’t be on the cheap for much longer. Both are due serious raises, and both organizations will face new challenges in how they allocate their resources.
Yet it’s clear at this moment that Wilson and Kaepernick will be centerpieces for years to come.
“They’ll be banging against each other for a long time,” Holmgren said.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org