RENTON — What once seemed like the least fathomable thing that could ever happen in Seattle sports — Russell Wilson playing for another team — will soon become a stark reality in plain sight of what for 10 years were his most ardent fans.
And as Wilson takes the field for the first time as a Denver Bronco on Monday night on the same Lumen Field turf where he led the Seahawks to their greatest heights, the question will ring anew: How did we get to this point?
It’s a development even those who had an up-close seat to a lot of the drama still find hard to process.
“I never thought Russell would leave this team,’’ former Seahawk Michael Bennett said recently. “I thought Russell would be a fixture in this city forever. I think he represents everything that’s good about this sport and everything that’s good about humanity, his passion and the way that he cares about things and his dedication. So it’s kind of heartbreaking to see that he is gone.’’
But as the Seahawks brass said on the day the trade was made, in their view the reason for the trade was simple — Wilson wanted out.
“Russell made it clear he wanted this change,’’ team chair Jody Allen said in a statement on the day the trade was officially announced March 16.
Why Wilson might have wanted out is a topic that was inevitably refreshed this week with an uncomfortable reunion at hand, with every retelling seeming to include a lot of little reasons that built up over years eventually becoming big ones — with the importance of any of those myriad reasons seeming to depend on the source.
— Wilson grew to bristle at coach Pete Carroll’s insistence on a run game and defensive philosophy, even despite two offensive coordinator changes since 2017. It was a complaint that first surfaced following a 2018 wild-card playoff loss at Dallas in which Wilson’s side felt the team didn’t rely on him until it was too late. As has been well-chronicled, Wilson’s unease about the offensive philosophy rose to its greatest heights late in the 2020 season, when Carroll decided to rein in the passing game at midseason after three losses in four games in which Wilson had 10 turnovers.
— Wilson wished the team had done more through the years to beef up the team’s offensive line and in general provided him with more support, while he also wished he had more say in personnel moves. And as Wilson alluded to this week, hearing that the team planned to move on from Bobby Wagner and Duane Brown helped convince him that maybe it was time for him to move on as well, with Wilson not sure the team was going to be in a position to go back to a Super Bowl anytime soon.
— Wilson chafed that the Seahawks appeared to explore other options at quarterback, such as scouting Josh Allen coming out of the draft in 2018, and as was reported by ESPN this week, approaching Cleveland about a deal for the No. 1 pick in 2018 (which became Baker Mayfield) and as was reported by Pro Football Talk this week, apparently approaching Arizona about a similar deal in 2019 for the pick that became Kyler Murray.
But the fraying of the relationship was far from one-sided.
The Seahawks grew increasingly weary of the drama — the 2019 setting of a deadline for a contract, or Wilson’s complaints about the offensive line and wanting more say in decision making after Seattle had fired Brian Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator and hired Shane Waldron as his replacement.
But as one source close to the situation said this week, the emphasis on some of the more salacious details can obscure the biggest reason the trade was made.
“This was really just a football decision,’’ one person with knowledge of it said. Far more, he said, than maybe people want to accept.
After trading Wilson, Seahawks general manager John Schneider said one reason is that the team was under the impression Wilson would not sign another long-term deal.
But would Seattle have wanted to offer one? It’s a question without an answer since the Seahawks wouldn’t have approached Wilson about it until after the 2022 season.
As an ESPN story laid bare this week, some in the Seahawks organization question how well Wilson’s game, and the mobility that always set him apart, will age as the quarterback turns 34 in November.
ESPN quoted an unnamed Seahawks front office member saying, “He’s not as mobile as he used to be.’’
The Seahawks aren’t alone in wondering if Wilson’s mad-scramble days are in the past.
Wrote Football Outsiders in its assessment of Wilson, noting that his rushing attempts per game (3.1) and yards per attempt (4.3) were both career lows by wide margins: “Wilson is now 33 years old and no longer runs the way he used to, so we must at least entertain the possibility that he peaked in the late-2010s.’’
The Broncos don’t seem concerned, signing Wilson earlier this month to a five-year deal worth up to $245 million through the 2028 season, when he will be 40 (though with no guaranteed money in the final three years).
But comments the Seahawks have made since the trade are telling, such as Carroll’s view that quarterbacks are like point guards.
“Need a guy that plays the game and moves the football around to the guys that are open,’’ Carroll said. “Does all of the things that manages the game so that we can play great football, because we are going to win with defense, we are going to win with how we play on special teams, we are going to run the football to help the whole thing fit together.”
That was a philosophy the Seahawks used in the three games Wilson missed in 2021 due to his finger injury to stay competitive — two last-minute losses to the Saints and Steelers and a blowout of the Jaguars — with Geno Smith at QB. Smith had a 5-to-1 TD-to-interception ratio and a passer rating of 103.1 that was on par with Wilson’s 103.0 for the season.
One source close to the situation this week said that the Seahawks may simply have decided “it didn’t make sense to spend a lot of money on a quarterback when the quarterback isn’t the focal point of the system.’’
And that may help explain why the Seahawks explored trade options for Wilson — something Wilson admitted this week, saying he knew the team had tried to trade him “a couple of times’’ — in previous years for young QBs who would have been on rookie contracts.
Wilson did the Broncos something of a favor in his new contract, backloading the cap hits. He counts for just 7.7% and 9.8% of Denver’s salary cap in 2022 and 2023 and 13.8% in 2024 compared to counting 15.5% and 17.5% in his last two years in Seattle as part of the four-year contract he signed in 2019 that made him the highest-paid player in NFL history at that time at $35 million per year (and consider that Wilson’s dead cap hit of $26 million for the Seahawks this year means he is counting for roughly 12% of Seattle’s cap not to play for them).
So, while the fraying relationship played a role, Seattle also simply may have just made a business calculation that Wilson wasn’t going to be worth it as the years passed, and that the Seahawks would be better off trying to sell high.
The no-trade clause Wilson got in 2019 assured, meanwhile, that he could pick where he wanted to go — with Denver the only option he favored of teams that had legitimate interest.
And Wilson, whose move from North Carolina State to Wisconsin for his final year of college proved a pivotal moment in his career, ultimately just made a business decision of his own.
Cold business decisions, maybe.
But then, the NFL is full of those and Seattle had made them with most of the other key players of the LOB era.
In the end, Wilson proved no different, hard as that may have been to believe in the moment.
Which side got it right?
Does Wilson still have years of elite play left worthy of a salary at the top of the QB scale, as his side believes?
Can the Seahawks find another QB on a smaller contract and build the kind of powerhouse around him as they did around Wilson in 2012?
That will take a few years to find out, and will depend largely on the players Seattle gets out of its draft haul from Denver.
Each side, though, will be more than happy to get a little immediate gratification Monday night.