Wilson’s $87.6 million contract extension this offseason has inflamed the old debates about him: Is he elite or a game manager? But that is to look at Wilson in a vacuum. He is worth his price tag for the reasons Carroll explained in 2011 before the two met. He fits exactly what Carroll demands.
The debate about quarterback Russell Wilson is a flame that won’t extinguish, but if history tells us anything, it’s that Pete Carroll has made his ruling.
From Carroll in 2011, a full year before the Seahawks drafted Wilson:
“We’re always looking for a guy that can manage the offense, really. We’ve always said, even way back with Heisman Trophy winners (at USC), we were never structuring the offense to be carried by one guy. We always wanted to have a guy that would be very understanding of the system and of the people and the assets around him that could mix and move the football.
“With that, we’ve always liked a quarterback that could move. We’ve always liked the ability to move because it fits with our running game and the style of complementary throwing game that we like to match up with it. … We don’t need to have a guy that’s a pure runner. We’re not talking about that. But a guy that has the ability to move and get out of the pocket and give us the variety of sets where we want to get that quarterback to slow down the pass rush. That’s always been part of it. That hasn’t always been what we’ve had, but that’s always been something that we’ve looked for in the ideal.”
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It is hard to read those words today and think of any quarterback other than Wilson. He is a human checklist of Carroll’s criteria.
Wilson’s $87.6 million contract extension this offseason has inflamed the old debates about him: Is he elite or a game manager?
But that is to look at Wilson in a vacuum. He is worth his price tag for the reasons Carroll explained in 2011 before the two met. He fits exactly what Carroll demands.
A pro quarterback is gifted with certain skills, and he is handicapped by things he can’t do well. Wilson is mobile, can throw an accurate deep ball and is a sniper throwing on the run. But he struggles to throw over the middle of the field. Peyton Manning gets the ball out quicker than anyone and has a puzzle-cracking mind, but he can’t throw the deep ball anymore.
The best teams, the best coaches, find ways to cater to skills while masking deficiencies. It is one of the most fundamentally understood concepts in sports — “play to your strengths” — but the theory is much more attainable than the rigor of applying it.
“I don’t think Russell or any quarterback has to apologize for being in an advantageous situation,” said Dana Bible, Wilson’s offensive coordinator at North Carolina State. “That’s a big part of what the position is — the hand that’s dealt to you.”
What Wilson is, what the Seahawks hope he continues to be, is what Carroll has always wanted him to be: a point guard.
“He’s like a classic point guard in basketball that feeds the ball to everybody and makes them all effective and uses them at their strengths,” Carroll said in 2013.
Carroll circled back to the analogy last year after Wilson threw a game-winning touchdown — his only touchdown of the game — with 47 seconds left to beat Carolina: “He’s truly an extraordinary player in the fourth quarter. He finds a way to make the play that we need to make. A couple of runs he made were huge. That’s just Russell. The ball was spread all over the place. He’s able to be the point guard, and he’s doing a great job of that.”
The best point guards might lead their team in scoring one game, if that’s what the situation dictates. Wilson did that with his legs against Houston in 2013 when the offense spiraled.
But point guards can influence games with how they take care of the ball, how they set up teammates, how they control the pace. The Seahawks have long argued that Wilson’s ability to take care of the ball has won them games.
One of Carroll’s more poignant and defensive statements about Wilson came in the wake of the 2013 Super Bowl. Wilson struggled statistically late in the season, raising some justifiable concern.
Unprompted, after the victory parade downtown, Carroll went out of his way to talk about Wilson’s success in the context of what’s expected of him.
“His play was perfectly fitted to our football team and the plans that we needed to win the games, and it couldn’t have been more obvious than it was in the Super Bowl,” Carroll said. “That was a near perfect game for him. So hanging onto the football allows us to win, and he was perfect at dealing with that and distributing the ball as well as he did.”
The dynamics around Wilson will shift every year. He has Marshawn Lynch at running back, but Lynch likely won’t be around after this season. Wilson has a new weapon in dynamic tight end Jimmy Graham, but even Graham comes with a challenge: He will require Wilson to throw passes when it looks like Graham isn’t open.
The best point guards feel out the situation around them, understand what their team’s needs are that day or season and evolve. The benchmark for Wilson shouldn’t be if he becomes a statistically explosive passer or even if he can be, but if he evolves into the quarterback his team needs, whatever that might be.