On field, Russell Wilson shows there’s beauty in boring
Is Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson just a game manager or is he a big-play maker? Who cares — it’s his skill at getting the overlooked things right, again and again, that sets him apart.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seahawks @ Washington, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
Russell might remind you of ...
Joe Montana, 1981
Won Super Bowl XVI (with MVP award), 26-21 over Cincinnati
Stats: NFL-leading 63.7 completion percentage, 19 TD passes, 12 interceptions
Russell Wilson, 2013
Won Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8 over Denver
Stats: 63.1 completion percentage, 26 TD passes, 9 interceptions
It could be that Russell Wilson is best understood as an adversary. As friend, he is perfectly charming and exciting, but as foe he makes you feel like a damsel tied to the conveyor belt. He is a terrifying mechanical inevitability slowly chomping your way.
Or at least that’s Dana Bible’s theory. Bible was Wilson’s offensive coordinator for four years at North Carolina State, and he thinks Wilson’s success in big moments is best understood from inside enemy walls.
“I would argue that if you want to feel his success on game-altering plays, watch a game and root against him,” Bible said. “You’ll be so frustrated. You’ll be throwing objects at the TV. That’s when you really feel it and appreciate it.”
Wilson plays like someone who knows he was made for the big moment. He looks so poised, so calm and equipped amid the chaos, that sometimes it’s easy to forget the anchoring weight tied to the moment. He wants to play with an edge, he says, “but not falling off the edge.” He wants to stare into the canyon and spit.
But Bible’s explanation for Wilson’s success in big moments, where reputations blossom or die, is more poignant. Football is so often a game of attrition, of outlasting an opponent until cracks form. Bible argues that Wilson is a master of attrition because his consistency is so “forceful.”
Wilson’s beauty in big moments is as tied to his tedium and orderliness as it is to the scream-inducing highlights they produce.
“That’s where somebody who is purposeful and strong consistently wins out,” Bible said. “So when that moment in the game is big, and I’m not talking about a touchdown throw, I’m talking about that dang third-and-three and somehow it gets converted. And it might not be plan A. It might be plan B or plan C, but it gets converted, the drive stays alive and it works out. That’s where he’s money.”
In overtime of Seattle’s win against Denver two weeks ago, Wilson twice kept the game-winning drive alive with runs on third down, and he completed 4 of 6 passes.
“You can make the argument that there were two or three game-altering plays on that drive alone,” Bible said. “That’s easy to see. That was obvious.”
But Bible’s point is that big moments aren’t just on a game-winning drive. Each game consists of maybe a half-dozen game-altering plays, and Bible says you only know they were game-altering plays in hindsight.
Near the end of the first half against Denver, Wilson hung in the pocket on third-and-one as a defender closed in on him. He slung the ball at the last second to Percy Harvin, who worked across the field to get open for a 9-yard gain and a first down.
The Seahawks cashed in at the end of the half with a touchdown that put them up 17-3.
“You’ve got to go back deeper into the game, back to things that are mundane,” Bible said. “But it’s not mundane. OK, it’s just another first down. No, it’s the first down looking back at it.”
When Bible talks about Wilson, he always comes back to two points. First, that he brought the same attitude, the same approach, each practice. “He’s not going to cheat the day,” Bible said. “It’s not normal. It’s so very rare.”
And second, that Wilson has the ability to take hours of preparation during the week and make it functional during games. The time spent in the film room is important, but more important is that Wilson can translate it into production.
What that allows Wilson to do in big moments is play downhill, Bible said. He’s not reacting to the moment; he’s already in the moment. He’s not unsure of what the defense is going to do; he already knows. That eliminates the anxiety of the situation and allows Wilson to play on his talent.
For 40 years as a coach, Bible preached a message to his quarterbacks, including to Wilson: “You want to play the game where you have the answer before the defense asks the question. You can line them up. You can tell them, ‘Scoot over two more yards because that’s where you’re going to be, so you might as well move your ass over there now.’ ”
Wilson is graceful under pressure, but he is graceful because he is gratingly consistent. He is exciting in crunch time, but he is exciting for the very reason that he is otherwise boring.
“That’s what all that functional time is spent on all those hours looking at film,” Bible said. “That’s just so you can play downhill.”
At North Carolina State, Wilson had become so versed in the offense that he would see the first flicker of the play call coming in from the sideline and turn toward the huddle before the signal was finished because he knew what the play was. At Wisconsin, he learned the offense in 20 days.
Wilson is still trying to reach that deep understanding with the Seahawks, and the area of improvement Seattle’s coaches commonly invoke is his command. They want him to become better at setting protections for the offensive line; he struggled in that department his first two years. They want him to get the ball out quicker; at times, he holds on too long searching for the big play. They want him to have a better understanding of when to throw the ball away.
Coach Pete Carroll wants Wilson to have such control of the offense that he is aware of “where we are, who’s healthy, who’s ready to get the ball, the calls that fit the matchups and the situations, and going to the right guys.”
“Don’t let me lead you to think he’s not good at that stuff,” Carroll said. “He is. But he’ll get better and have more control of what’s going on in the game. … I think he’s got a couple more years, maybe three or four more years of continuing before he really reaches it.”
The Seahawks ask Wilson to play to the demands of their team. In the game in St. Louis last year, after fumbling twice in Seattle territory the week before, Wilson protected the ball despite getting sacked seven times. Seattle’s defense played one of its better games of the season and held on for a 14-9 win.
It was such a small thing in appearance — Wilson holding on to the ball under constant pressure to give it up — but it met the demands of that day.
After the season opener against the Packers, Carroll said that Wilson had “good throwaways”, a strange paradox for a quarterback. But the Seahawks would rather punt and play for field position than have Wilson take uncalculated risks.
“He’s playing the odds, playing the numbers,” said former NFL quarterback Brady Quinn, who spent last offseason with Wilson in Seattle. “And that in itself is a skill. It’s like gambling. You want to play when the odds are in your favor, and Russell does a tremendous job of playing a style of football that helps their team win.”
That understanding of his surroundings, that ability to morph between a manager and a playmaker, is the formula that helped carry the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. Wilson is surrounded by experienced offensive players; eight of Seattle’s regular 11 starters on offense have been with him for his entire career. And he is the beneficiary of a great defense.
But just as important is that Wilson understands the hand he was dealt. It’s one thing to draw a pair of kings; it’s another to bet the right way.
At the Super Bowl parade last season, in one of his last public appearances before getting away in the offseason, Carroll detoured from a question to make a point about Wilson.
“Let me say something while I have the chance,” Carroll said. “You won’t hear from me for a while. There was a lot of concern that you had about our offense and about Russell’s performance. I would continue to tell you that he was playing well within what we were expecting we needed in games.”
He added, “His play was perfectly fitted to our football team and the plans that we needed to win.”
Wilson can still amaze. In Arizona last year, he escaped a blitzing defender, rolled out and threw an off-balance 50-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice. Mike Mayock, the NFL Network analyst calling the game, could only chuckle before saying, “This is pretty awesome. This is why this kid is so special.”
But those moments of amazement are born from moments of orderliness. In Wilson, boring can just as easily be beauty.
“Trust me, there’s no sizzle to it,” Bible said. “It’s not sexy. Joe Montana would throw to the open guy; if it was the same route or the same throw 10 times in a row, he’d do it and not apologize. Just as boring as can be. Russell gets it.”
|Where Russell WIlson ranks this season in various quarterback statistics:|
|Avg. yards per attempt||15th||7.48 yards|
|Pct. of passes for a first down||20th||36.8%|
|Passing plays beyond 40 yards||33rd||0|
|Sources: espn.com, nfl.com. Minimum 50 pass attempts.|
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org