It’s a question that Russell Wilson may answer the same way he has every other that has come his way — by winning games.
In fact, to the seemingly endless debate about whether he is one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, Wilson may soon have the ultimate response:
How can you deny inclusion to someone who has won back-to-back Super Bowls?
Only seven have done it — Bart Starr (1966-67 Packers), Bob Griese (1972-73 Dolphins), Terry Bradshaw (1974-75 and 1978-79 Steelers), Joe Montana (1988-89 49ers), Troy Aikman (1992-93 Cowboys), John Elway (1997-98 Broncos) and Tom Brady (2003-04 Patriots).
All are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — the unquestioned elite of the elite — or soon will be.
In a season in which he could join that group, though, Wilson wasn’t even considered good enough to play in the Pro Bowl.
Wilson shrugged that off, saying that the six who were named had all had good seasons and all he wanted to do was play in the Super Bowl, but his coach said he didn’t think it made much sense.
“I’m still disappointed about the Pro Bowl thing in that regard because if you want to win, you want him on your team,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said this week. “But I don’t know.”
The statement speaks to what remains the specific debate about Wilson and a larger one about the quarterback position in general — how best to judge an NFL quarterback?
If it’s simply winning, then Wilson’s credentials are impeccable, the word Carroll used to describe Wilson’s play in the divisional playoff victory over Carolina.
Wilson is 41-13 as a starting quarterback, including the postseason. That’s five more wins in the first three seasons of a career than any quarterback in NFL history (Joe Flacco and Dan Marino are next with 36).
But then there are those who look at his raw passing numbers and wonder if that record would be as glittering if the Seahawks had to rely on Wilson’s arm the way the Indianapolis Colts do with Andrew Luck.
Wilson was 15th this season in passing yards (3,475) and 23rd in yards per game (217), guiding a team built around its defense and running game — a philosophy that figures to last as long as Carroll is coach.
And though we can hear Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse protesting before we finish the sentence, their receiving corps is generally viewed as befitting of a team that is the only one in the NFL to run the ball more than it has passed in each of the last two seasons.
That has led to Wilson often getting tagged as a “game manager,” a phrase used to describe a quarterback who isn’t asked to win games by himself but act in more of a supporting role.
Those who want evidence for that view can turn to the influential football analytics website Pro Football Focus, which reviews every play for every player of every game. PFF this year rated Wilson as only the 13th-best quarterback in the NFL — behind the likes of Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Houston’s Ryan Fitzpatrick — due largely to a rating of 19th in passing, behind the likes of Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater and Tampa Bay’s Mike Glennon.
Rick Drummond, editor-in-chief for PFF, noted that the site rated Wilson sixth in 2012 and fourth in 2013.
“So we’ve always had him rated really highly,” Drummond said.
Drummond said the site tries to grade based on what a player is being asked to do as well as the result. A quarterback, for instance, receives a better grade for a pass in which he throws it 50 yards downfield and it is then caught, than for a pass in which he throws it five yards and it then turns into a 50-yard completion.
Drummond said Wilson didn’t have as many positive passing plays this season, saying his average depth of target fell from right around 10 yards his first two seasons to 8.2 this year.
“The big thing has just been a change to more conservative targets,” he said.
That jibes with the fact Wilson’s yards per attempt this season were the lowest of his career — 7.69 compared to 8.25 in 2013 and 7.93 in 2012. And that helped contribute to his passer rating being the lowest of his career at 95.0 (still 10th overall in the NFL). His rating was 101.2 and 100.0 his first two seasons.
To which Carroll says, basically, so what?
“I think winning is pretty important,” Carroll said. “And he’s demonstrated that in historic fashion — even the club that he’s been on. He would be first to tell you it’s not all him. But he’s been on a team that’s won for the QB better than anybody in the history of the game (to start a career). Pretty cool I think.”
And if the label “game manager” had existed back in the day, Wilson would have been in good company.
Some of the repeat Super Bowl winning QBs, a group Wilson hopes to join, could have been viewed in a similar light — good defenses and running games tend to be common traits of great teams.
Starr, for instance, ranked as high as fourth in passing yards just once in his career and never higher than eighth in any other season.
Griese likewise ranked as high as fourth just once in his career in passing yards (and threw just seven passes, completing six, when the Dolphins won Super Bowl VIII in 1974 — admittedly a different era but symbolic of how that team played).
Aikman also ranked higher than eighth in passing yards just once in his career (fourth in 1992).
Bradshaw quarterbacked a team that had a defense regarded as among the best in NFL history, and Elway didn’t win a Super Bowl until running back Terrell Davis came around.
Consider further that no quarterback who has led the NFL in passing yards has ever won the Super Bowl, a trend that will continue this year with the elimination of Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, who tied for that title in 2014 with 4,952.
Only one of the top six quarterbacks in passing yards remains alive — Luck, who was third with 4,761.
Four of the top seven in passing, though, were named to the Pro Bowl — Luck, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Roethlisberger.
“Those guys are typical NFL pocket passers and we are not that and we know that,” said Seattle guard J.R. Sweezy. “But we know our style of play, we know how to do it and we enjoy doing it. So we’ll stick with it.”
That style includes playing to what are Wilson’s unique strengths – something that sometimes gets lost in the debate over whether he is elite.
As Carroll says of great quarterbacks: “They’re not all the same size, style, or makeup — they have their ways about them.”
Wilson’s way is admittedly a different one, best symbolized by the 849 yards rushing he gained this season, sixth-most in NFL history.
“He may not be in the same style as an elite guy in the NFL,’’ Sweezy said. “But he may be the most elite guy of all. … He’s the best quarterback in the league in my opinion. He’s a threat any way you look at it. Every time he has the ball in his hands, he has the capability of making a big play.’’
Carroll likes to cite the fact that with Wilson as quarterback, the Seahawks have never lost a game in which they didn’t have a chance to still win in the final two minutes (the largest margin of defeat under Wilson is nine points, 30-21 at San Diego earlier this season).
“He’s hard to beat,” Carroll said.
Elite or not.