This is the time for quarterback Russell Wilson to re-assert his leadership in the venue where he first established it. Back then, the Seahawks were giddy over the emergence of Wilson. Now the expectations have been raised commensurately.
Early in his rookie season of 2012, Russell Wilson had been shackled by coach Pete Carroll, who felt it was too early to unleash his full set of skills. Better to rely on the Seahawks’ transcendent defense, and let Wilson grow into the job.
The Seahawks scored fewer than 20 points in four of their first five games. Then, in December, Carroll finally unleashed Wilson, and they began to see tantalizing glimpses of just what a gem they had unearthed in the third round of the draft, and installed as starter just 14 days before the regular season. Comeback wins over New England and Chicago helped win over the coaching staff and his teammates.
But it wasn’t until their second playoff game that year in Atlanta, on Jan. 13, that Wilson emerged in all his glory. Though the Seahawks would lose to the Falcons in agonizing fashion, 30-28, Wilson’s brilliance in the second half can be pinpointed as the precise moment they knew – everyone knew – the Seahawks had a quarterback with whom they could win the Super Bowl. As they did just a year later.
“You just saw it: This kid has something special about him,’’ said linebacker K.J. Wright this week, as the Seahawks prepared for a return playoff visit to Atlanta, nearly four years to the day of Wilson’s coming-out party. “He’s someone that’s going to lead us to the promised land. He went out there and did it. He wasn’t quite ready that rookie year, but he came out the next time and we found a way to get it done.”
Wilson threw for 385 yards against the Falcons, which was a franchise playoff record, the most ever for a rookie in the playoffs, and still the highest yardage total of his career. He also rushed seven times for 60 yards, but the pure numbers don’t tell the entire story. It was his grace under pressure that stood out. Wilson completed his first 10 passes of the second half, which began with the Seahawks down 20-0. With Seattle still trailing 27-7 entering the fourth quarter, Wilson led touchdown drives of 80, 62 and 61 yards to give the Seahawks a one-point lead with 31 seconds to play.
As we all know, the Seahawks didn’t hold that lead, but Wilson’s teammates were fully won over by the earnest kid who showed preternatural poise in the gravest of circumstances. Just a week earlier, Wilson had helped the Seahawks’ overcome a double-digit deficit in a playoff win over Washington.
“I think you saw, with Russell Wilson’s development, how far he can take us,” said tight end Zach Miller in the immediate aftermath of the Atlanta game. “Obviously, he’s a franchise quarterback. He’s a guy who wins games for you. We saw that today. He should have been credited with a comeback win and he wasn’t.”
“He proved himself again and again,’’ Carroll said after the game. “It is undeniable that you look at anything he did and put a star on it.”
Looking back now, Carroll remembers not just the breakout performance by Wilson (along with the ensuing heartbreak of the comeback squandered), but the quarterback’s resolute attitude immediately after the game.
“It was a pretty clear indicator at that point, if nothing else had told us before then, that this guy really is looking to the future, always going and always believing that things are going to happen right and good and all of that,’’ Carroll said. “It was a pretty clear message.”
Wilson knew that a major task that rookie year was winning his teammates’ trust, which was a process that grew as the season went on and culminated in Atlanta.
“I think you always have to earn everything,” he said. “You have to earn the respect, you have to earn the opportunity. For me, I’ve always taken one day at a time. The work ethic of the daily approach, just try to be consistent. I think eventually guys hopefully saw that. Obviously in this game, when you’re playing professional sports, it’s a production game. When you go out there and you win football games, I think it makes people notice.”
The promise and hope of that afternoon in Atlanta has been vindicated. The Seahawks won the next Super Bowl, lost the one after that (on a Wilson interception that haunts even more than the Atlanta loss), and are making their fifth straight playoff run with him at the helm.
Wilson is fully established as their franchise quarterback, with the hefty contract to prove it. Wilson’s 8-3 postseason record gives him more playoff wins than eight franchises.
This has been, in many ways, Wilson’s most trying season, one marred by a series of injuries, an offensive line that had trouble protecting him, and a running game that never coalesced after the departure of Marshawn Lynch.
But this is the time for Wilson to re-assert his leadership in the venue where he first established it. The dynamics surrounding him have changed dramatically in the ensuing five years. Back then, the Seahawks were giddy over the emergence of Wilson. They couldn’t believe what they had stumbled on – via astute scouting and the guts to pull the trigger – with the 75th overall pick.
Now the expectations have been raised commensurately. The Seahawks have built their team around him and the defense, a division of resources that has helped lead to some of the deficiencies in other areas. But Seattle’s 26-6 victory over Detroit last week provided promise that the offensive line and running game – two areas inextricably linked – are drastically improved.
They will have to be against a torrid and talented Falcons team. Though Wilson completed 76.7 percent of his passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns without an interception against Detroit, it wasn’t a flawless game. He missed some throws in the first half, and absorbed a sack that took them out of field-goal range.
Wilson, as healthy as he has been all season, and finally able to shed his knee brace last week, will have to raise his game even further in Atlanta. He’s done it before, never more auspiciously than in the 2012 playoffs against this same Falcons team.
“It really was like vintage Russell,’’ recalled offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
They didn’t yet fully know quite what that meant back then. Now they need to see it again, in all its glory.