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September 30, 2012 at 6:40 PM

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Seahawks must scrutinize Russell Wilson after month of offensive woes

Photo credit: John Lok/The Seattle Times
Russell Wilson's four-game performance will be under a microscope this week.

Related column: Seahawks' offense just not getting the job done

ST. LOUIS -- Let's make this clear: I'm not advocating for Russell Wilson to be benched. To be honest with you, I don't have a strong opinion yet on whether he should remain the Seahawks' starting quarterback. And I'm not going to force myself to have one before I'm ready. It's too important an opinion to declare without doing significant homework, and I'd rather be thoughtful than reactionary.

But what I can say is this, and you can read these words in my column, which is linked at the top of this post, about the Seahawks' 19-13 loss to St. Louis on Sunday:

The Seahawks suffer from three primary ailments: unimaginative play calling, an offensive line that struggles with pass protection and a quarterback who simply hasn't been productive enough. It's unfair to blame Wilson for all of the woes, but it's impossible to ignore how overmatched he looks at times. For the season, he's completing 60 percent of his passes, which is solid efficiency, but the passing game hasn't advanced past elementary.

After a month of only marginal improvement, Carroll must scrutinize the quarterback's play and answer a tough question: Can the Seahawks stomach this much learning and still meet their team goals? Or is it time to give Matt Flynn, the eight-figure free agent pickup standing on the sideline, a chance to do better?

Is it time to bench Wilson? Not sure.

Is it time to consider whether he should be benched? Absolutely.

Hope that makes sense. There's some nuance to that take, but that's where I stand at this minute. It's only right for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and quarterbacks coach Carl Smith to pursue critical analysis about Wilson's first four games.

Once again, the offensive woes aren't all Wilson's fault, but he's not performing like the quarterback who beat out Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson in the preseason. He's not electric right now. He's skittish at times. He flees the pocket too soon. He's missing throws. He's making the wrong reads at times. I thought his third-down, red-zone decision in the third quarter to ignore tight end Zach Miller (who was right in front of him) and throw an errant pass to Sidney Rice in the end zone was awful and inexcusable. It could've been the difference between a field goal and a touchdown, and in this tight game -- and all the tight games the Seahawks play -- every little mistake was significant.

Through four games, Wilson has a 73.5 quarterback rating. Jackson, who frustrated many fans last season, posted a 79.2 rating a year ago. Wilson is throwing for just 148.5 yards a game and 5.9 yards per attempt, directing the NFL's worst passing offense. Last week, Carroll admitted to putting a "lid" on the passing game so far this season. But an offense can't be this rudimentary all season and expect to live off its defense.

The Seahawks weren't great defensively against St. Louis. They allowed five third-down conversions of at least 10 yards. But overall, they gave up only 286 yards and didn't allow a touchdown. The Rams' lone touchdown came on a fake field goal. The Seahawks are allowing just 14.5 points and 275.8 yards per game through four games.

This is a very good defensive team, but the D won't be outstanding in every game, and right now, it might be playing some of the best football it will play all season. What do the Seahawks have to show for it? A 2-2 record. The worst-case scenario of this Seahawks' season is that the offense will waste good defense, and that's what's happening.

The Seahawks must be watching too many Mariners games.

Carroll doesn't mind playing ugly. But he's hoping to win ugly. And that requires performing well in the fourth quarter to eke out close games. Jackson wasn't able to do that last season, and it's a big reason he's no longer with the team.

The early results have been just as depressing this season. Wilson and the offense already have had the ball late in the fourth quarter of three games with a chance to win. The outcome: turnover on downs in the red zone in a loss at Arizona, the controversial "simultaneous possession" Hail Mary to beat Green Bay and an interception (after Anthony McCoy fell) in a loss to St. Louis.

The Seahawks could easily be 0-3 in those situations. They should be, if you ask Green Bay and the rest of the nation.

You could shrug and say some of the struggles are part of having a rookie quarterback. While that's true, here's the problem with the argument: The Seahawks have a prized free agent quarterback sitting on the bench. By selecting Wilson as the quarterback (which I was fine with because he was so impressive in the preseason) over Flynn (who I think can be a quality NFL starter), you're essentially telling the public to hold Wilson to a higher standard than the typical rookie quarterback. If he's good enough to beat out a veteran who had been well-groomed to start, then it eliminates much of the "Oh, he's a rookie, so bear with the ups and downs" excuse.

Carroll chose this path. He reasoned it would make his team better in the long term without sacrificing a chance to win in the short term.

Is that still true?

I'm still a believer in Wilson's potential and status as a dependable quarterback of the future. But who is he in the present? And should he be allowed to play through his shortcomings? Or is it best for the Seahawks to turn to Flynn? And would it have any negative effect on the locker room if a major change is made?

These are tough questions that Carroll must be asking in the wake of another woeful offensive performance. Four games is a significant sample size in the NFL. It's one-fourth of the season. You can't just look at Wilson's performance as one or two bad games. A pattern of ineffectiveness has developed for the passing game, even though it has a productive run game to make life easier.

There is plenty of time to fix some of the major problems and have a great season. But the Seahawks can't lie to themselves this week. Carroll shouldn't press the easy button and declare that the Seahawks can win with passing yardage this low. He shouldn't say the formula is as simple as not turning the ball over. He shouldn't stick stubbornly to his convention-bucking decision to start Wilson and spend more time defending it than he does evaluating it.

Even when Carroll named Wilson the starter, he said the quarterback situation would still be competitive. He left the door open for re-evaluating the starting quarterback during his postgame radio remarks. Carroll seems to be hinting that he'll be searching for answers over the next few days. In three years of covering him, the coach has shown himself to be very thoughtful when facing a predicament. I expect he'll approach making a decision in the appropriate manner against this time.

So many questions linger. How is Flynn's sore elbow? How has his understanding of the offense evolved? What's the current difference between Flynn and Wilson when you put them side by side? How much are the pieces around the quarterback (offensive line that isn't good at pass protection, unimpressive receiving corps) affecting the passing game's poor performance?

Surely, Carroll is thinking about some of those things, and even if he isn't, the media will force him to answer them over the next few days.

This loss wasn't on Wilson, who completed 17 of 25 passes for a season-high 160 yards but threw three interceptions. The Seahawks were off their game in many areas: special teams, third-down defense, attention to detail, easily avoidable penalties. But in this league, no quarterback can survive a month of low production without being scrutinized heavily. If Flynn were starting and struggling like this, there would be a call for change, and it might be even louder than what Wilson must endure. So, it's only right that Wilson be held to the same standard.

Who should be the Seahawks' quarterback? The guy that you're convinced can improve on the team's 28-percent conversion rate on third downs and muster more than just three touchdowns and six field goals out of 11 red-zone chances.

Who is that guy? Well, I need to do more research and ask more questions. I'm not making $6.5 million a year, so I'll take all the time I need.

For Carroll, a decision to stay the course or change direction will be the biggest of his Seahawks tenure. Other than that, there's no pressure at all.

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