The camera cut to Russell Wilson, hoping to capture a juicy reaction. It’s one of the most popular tricks in television: The moment after a good or bad play, cut to a close-up and enjoy.
The opportunity presented itself last week against Arizona. The Seahawks’ offense played its worst game of the season. So did Wilson. He passed for just 108 yards and completed 41 percent of his attempts, both season lows.
The kick to the groin came in the second quarter, when the Seattle defense gift-wrapped the ball at the Arizona 2. All the Seahawks had to do was punch it in. They couldn’t. Instead, they sent kicker Steven Hauschka onto the field. He missed for only the second time this season.
The cameras snapped to Wilson on the sideline. His mouth tightened, ever so slightly. And then he stood there, stone-faced, the icy look we’ve come to expect.
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The truths about Russell Wilson: He’s fast. He’s accurate. He has big hands. He can make all the throws. He’s poised. He works hard.
But here is where the perception of Wilson derails from the reality. All the time he spends studying defenses is not unique to NFL quarterbacks. What separates Wilson is that he’s able to take what he studies and make it functional in the moment he needs it during a game.
“Russell doesn’t get ambushed,” said Dana Bible, his offensive coordinator at North Carolina State. “He’s taking his play from Russell Wilson Quarterback 101 to Russell Wilson Quarterback 102 to Russell Wilson Quarterback 103. He’s going through the different layers and scenarios that are waiting around the corner for him.”
It was Bible, after all, who insisted before the season, “I’m telling you, if you think he was good in year one, just wait until year two. I’ve seen the growth. I’m just telling you, look out.”
The NFL community waded in more cautiously. One successful year doesn’t imply a fruitful career, and Wilson faced all the usual questions.
How would he hold up now that defenses had an offseason to study him? Would he fall victim to the sophomore slump?
Wilson shrugged. “I don’t even know those words,” he said before the season.
He answered his rookie year by throwing for more yards, more touchdowns and fewer interceptions to date. At one point late in the season, former coach Jon Gruden said on Monday Night Football that Wilson was having an “MVP-type season.”
Of all the strengths Wilson possesses, his freelancing is near the top. When a play breaks down, he’s often at his best, and his scrambling can wear down defenders who think they have him, only to realize they do not.
His playmaking has bailed the Seahawks out many times this season, but there’s a method to the madness. When it comes time to create, Wilson has thought through every possibility.
“When he’s out there on the field, it looks instinctive,” Bible said. “But I will argue that it’s not instinctive. You’re not going to surprise him. That’s why when you watch him play he always looks so in control. When you see him run and create, he ain’t playing backyard ball. He knows exactly where his guys are.”
Even on his craziest plays, when he’s zigzagging through defenders, he rarely looks choppy. Bible insists that’s because Wilson covers so many scenarios before the game, he always has an escape route planned.
Seattle’s receivers have specific assignments when Wilson takes off, and that can dictate where he goes. What looks like improv is more like a skit.
“It’s like a play within a play,” backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said.
Wilson’s creativity is one of the most appealing parts of his game, but it’s also vital to Seattle’s success this season. He has been one of the most pressured quarterbacks in the league behind a banged-up offensive line. When he lost his starting tackles and center because of injuries, Wilson’s running ability went from an accessory to a necessity.
Playing behind three backup offensive linemen in Houston, Wilson faced heavy pressure all day. But come the fourth quarter and overtime, he burned the Texans with his legs when he realized he didn’t have the time to sit back and throw.
“So very few guys could do what he’s doing,” Carroll said at one point this season.
In fact, as late as mid-November, Wilson had yet to play a game in which the pocket consistently held up. That didn’t happen until starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini returned in the 11th game.
As former Seahawks quarterback Jim Zorn said, “He had to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
“When I was talking about taking his play from 101 to 102 to 103, you’re still thinking about him sitting in the pocket, going through his reads,” Bible said. “Wrong. When you’re up to level 103, you’re now working on escape plans. And when you’ve called this play and you escape left, you already know where your guys are. You’re not trying to find them. He’d already rehearsed the escape plan. That’s why it looks so smooth.”
Wilson has gone to great lengths to not let his height define him, but in many ways it always will.
“He can’t keep his game just in the pocket,” Bible said. “He has to be equally good when he extends and creates. And that’s where the long hours of studying come from because he has to look at the play when it’s running on the video and run it back three or four more times because he has to account for the extend-and-create part.
“Because he has to. Because he’s 5 foot 10. And there’s nobody that knows that more than him. He won’t admit it, and more power to him. I get it. But I’m just letting you know, there’s nobody who knows it more than him. That’s what I mean by taking a play to different levels and making it functional when most can’t.”
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah raised an interesting idea before the season. Jeremiah, a scout for the Eagles the year Wilson was drafted, wondered how Seattle would deploy Wilson after his successful rookie year.
No team ran the ball or used play-action more than Seattle during Wilson’s first year. That allowed him to get separation from his linemen and see the field. It also meant he wasn’t the focal point.
“You always want to keep building on things,” Jeremiah said over the summer, “but they have to be careful that they don’t just turn into a dropback team. If you ask him to get under center and be a consistent five-step drop guy who throws from inside the pocket repeatedly, while he could do that, you lose out on what he does best and what makes their offense tick.”
The Seahawks once again lead the league in play-action passes and rank second in rushing attempts. But Jeremiah was really hitting on a larger point. Just because Wilson has the keys doesn’t mean he has to drive fast.
“He’s not trying to do more than what he needs to do,” third-year receiver Doug Baldwin said. “A lot of times with young players, and I speak for myself here, you think you have to reinvent the wheel and do something more than you’re capable of. If I would have just played football my second year, I would have been fine. Russell’s been able to do that. The mental aspect is much more impressive than anything else.”
Against St. Louis earlier this season, Wilson had little time to throw, and passed for only 139 yards. But he didn’t turn the ball over. He understood how the game was unfolding, and Seattle won 14-9.
“He trusted us on defense,” safety Earl Thomas said, “and I love that about him.”
Wilson had fumbled twice the game before when he tried to scramble. Both fumbles led to points. Wilson said he and quarterbacks coach Carl Smith spent the following week discussing when to “surrender.” Sometimes the best play is protecting the ball.
“We’ve seen him morph between being a game manager and a playmaker depending on the situations and circumstances,” said NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks.
Russell Wilson is mortal. He has bad games, no matter how much he prepares. He has struggled against teams with good pass rushes, just like most quarterbacks in the league.
Wilson has played arguably his worst three games in the past three weeks. He passed for just 55 yards in the second half against San Francisco and never looked comfortable. He missed on big pass plays the following week against the Giants and, of course, struggled heavily against Arizona (although the Seahawks receivers also struggled heavily).
Wilson’s least productive games have come against teams that have been able to pressure him — Houston, St. Louis, San Francisco, Arizona. That is not a coincidence. Those teams have also had success because, for the most part, they’ve been able to keep Wilson in the pocket.
“He does change when he’s hit early in the game,” Brooks said, “but I think he’s just like any other quarterback. When pressure begins to leak into the pocket, it changes them.”
And yet Wilson has largely remained steady. As much as anything this year, he wanted to be consistent. He wanted to be reliable — what he calls the calm in the storm.
He wanted, in other words, to be the stone face on the sideline.
|How the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and his fellow quarterbacks who are in their second year as starters have done this season. (RGIII was benched with three games left):|
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Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org