Offseason contract negotiations between Wilson, 26, and the Seahawks have helped underscore that he is a fascinating example of how we contextualize quarterbacks and the pieces around them.

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The moments come sporadically and without warning, but they almost always come. A defense recognizes a formation, anticipates the play call being piped into the Seahawks’ huddle and has the perfect counter, a salivating wolf ready to bite into an unsuspecting lamb.

And then Russell Wilson happens. Wilson is a game-planning nightmare, because how do you prepare for improv? When defenses catch Wilson in a vulnerable state, they extract little more than a headache.

Those moments of premonition are what defenses wait for, but Wilson escapes the ambush. He dances in the pocket. He does 180-degree spins. He rolls to one side and sometimes rolls all the way back to the other.

“He yawns,” one coach noted about Wilson while watching a normally high-pressure moment for a quarterback.

Offseason contract negotiations between Wilson, 26, and the Seahawks have helped underscore that he is a fascinating example of how we contextualize quarterbacks and the pieces around them.

Just as important as Wilson’s jaw-dropping plays are the ones he doesn’t make when bullied. He rarely throws wild interceptions. He hardly ever takes big hits or loses the ball, and his allergy to fatal mistakes leaves defenses fuming with frustration.

“And the way you know it is you see defensive coordinator Rob Ryan throwing his headset,” former Saints assistant coach Carter Sheridan says, referring to two games vs. the Seahawks in the 2013 season. “You see him tugging his long locks. You see Coach (Sean) Payton all in Rob’s ear if the Seahawks make a play. But he’s done that to a lot of good defenses. He’s frustrated a lot of people.”

Better and worse

Wilson is something of a paradox. His improvisation is truly special, but questions linger about his ability in the pocket or without a great running back. He is cautious with the ball, but how would that play out with a less-dominant defense? He was the final piece the Seahawks needed, and yet he receives a lot of credit for team achievements.


When Russell Wilson gets rid of the ball quickly, in 2.5 seconds or less, he has the best quarterback rating in the NFL and completes 73.9 percent of his passes.


When Wilson holds the ball for 2.6 seconds or longer, his QB rating drops to 17th in the NFL.

Linebacker K.J. Wright once cut off a question about the franchise’s turning point being in the 2011 season and suggested the real turning point was a year later. “We got Russell,” he said, smiling.

Ever since, Wilson’s ability has been pulled apart like taffy, and he has been credited and discredited because of running back Marshawn Lynch and Seattle’s No. 1-ranked defense. It’s entirely possible that Wilson is both better and worse than people give him credit for.

There are certain things at which Wilson is exceptional. He is the best scrambling quarterback of the past decade, and already one of the best in NFL history.

He has a feel for the pass rush, and even when a defender is upon him he can freeze him with a pump fake, a spin move or a hesitation step just long enough to escape. He can shed bigger tacklers with a stiff arm, and he is a master at finding open spaces and exploiting them.

Just the threat of Wilson running changes how defenses play. Pass rushers have to slow the ferocity of their rush to make sure they don’t create escape lanes for him, and even then he can burn them.

Wilson gained first downs on 38 percent of his rushes and led the NFL in both scrambling yardage and first downs off scrambles, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Sixty percent of his third-down scrambles resulted in first downs.

Early release is key

Sometimes Wilson hangs on to the ball too long, looking for the explosive play instead of staying in rhythm with the offense. He was pressured on 37 percent of his dropbacks last season, the third-highest rate in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats and Info. But some of the times when it looks like he’s bailing out the offensive line are instances when he should have thrown the pass earlier.

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Wilson has averaged the most time per pass in the NFL the past three seasons. When he did get the ball out quickly last year — in 2.5 seconds or less, according to Pro Football Focus — he had the league’s highest quarterback rating. He fell to the middle of the pack when he didn’t.

“Sometimes he holds the football when he shouldn’t, but he ends up making a big play out of it because of his improvising,” Hall of Fame quarterback and Seahawks radio analyst Warren Moon said. “And then sometimes he holds the football longer than he should, and he ends up taking a big sack. Bottom line is, if he gets the ball out quickly the way the it was designed to be thrown, it helps everybody.”

He is one of the league’s better passers on the run. He has thrown more passes outside the pocket than any quarterback the past three years, and he is capable of throwing accurately from awkward positions.

What looks instinctive — a scramble to avoid the pass rush, a throw on the run — is actually more methodical than it appears. Wilson excels at freelancing because he has gone through the deep layers of each play to understand escape plans and where his receivers will be if he moves. It’s why he so rarely looks panicked.

“I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anyone better than him at the anticipatory throws when he’s outside the pocket, when he’s creating,” former NFL fullback Heath Evans said. “It’s like he knows how the defense is going to adjust to his next move and how his receiver will adjust before he actually makes his move.”

He is one of the league’s more accurate quarterbacks when throwing the deep ball, ranking ninth last year and fifth the year before.

You hear analysts praise how “catchable” his deep balls are, and there’s a reason for that. He gets early air on his throws, meaning the ball gets up higher, quicker. That gives his receivers more time to judge the ball, and he doesn’t have to be perfect with his accuracy. He throws the deep ball with anticipation because he can see his targets.

Not so quick to throw
Last season, Russell Wilson led the NFL in average time to throw. A look at the top 10:
Quarterback, team Seconds
Russell Wilson, Seahawks 3.20
Geno Smith, Jets 3.10
Colin Kaepernick, 49ers 2.96
Cam Newton, Panthers 2.92
Josh McCown, Bucs 2.87
Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings 2.86
Aaron Rodgers, Packers 2.86
Tony Romo, Cowboys 2.84
Andrew Luck, Colts 2.83
Alex Smith, Chiefs 2.73

Height adjustments

Wilson, listed at 5 feet 11, struggles with anticipation from inside the pocket in part because there are targets he simply can’t see. He rarely attempts to throw short or intermediate passes over the middle. Most of his throws go outside in the flat or down the sideline.

“Even when guys are open over the middle of the field, and I’ve seen guys a lot of times open over the middle, a lot of times he just doesn’t have the vision to see those guys,” Moon said. “That’s always going to be a detriment to him. If there’s a criticism of Russell’s game, that would be the criticism.”

His play his first three years has defeated the debate about his height, but he is still short for a quarterback, and that comes with limitations.

“When he’s late on his timing or he misses his receiver, you can see that a lineman was right in his path,” former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen said. “You can see that he momentarily freezes, and he can’t see. It’s very obvious. I don’t draw it as a problem anymore; it just is what it is.”

The Seahawks have countered by developing an offense that is perfectly suited to Wilson’s strengths.

He drops deeper than most quarterbacks on play-action so he can create separation from the line. Sometimes he drops back as much as 9 yards; the deepest drop for most quarterbacks is 7. The Seahawks also move him around, allowing him to roll out and scan the field in the open. It is one reason many people think he needs a strong running game to complement him.

“The No. 1 thing he has to have to be successful is a running back,” former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. “I don’t see him as a pinpoint-accurate quarterback like (Joe) Montana or (Drew) Brees. I see his accuracy as good, not special. He can still play to the level of (Peyton) Manning and (Aaron) Rodgers and Brees, but he needs a special running back to do it. With one, he’s as lethal as they are.”

Wilson has made his teammates and the Seahawks better, but he also has benefited from his environment. The relationship to this point has been a symbiotic one.

Wilson is about to enter his fourth season, the intersection of a player’s physical and mental prime. How much better can he get? How much will his play change when the salary cap and age turn over the roster?

Those are some of the questions that circle his contract situation, and they are the questions that might trail him for the rest of his career.