Super Bowl XLVIII is one of the most intriguing and compelling NFL Championship match-ups in recent history. It's Peyton Manning's Broncos, one of the greatest passing offenses of all time, against Pete Carroll's Legion of Boom, one of the best passing defenses in history. The Russell Wilson Show is the undercard.
In stark, almost ironic contrast to the Manning "cement himself as the greatest ever" narrative we've seen this week, another question keeps surfacing:
"Is Russell Wilson a game manager?"
Don't answer that. It's an ill-defined, subjective, loaded term, so let's just get this out of the way: having a debate about whether a quarterback is a so-called game manager is going to come down to an argument about semantics. Before we do that, though, let's start with some numbers.
Russell Wilson's 2013 statistics through Week 13:
Through 13 weeks and 12 games, the Seahawks were 11-1. They'd just come off of a beatdown of the then 9-2 Saints team on Monday Night Football, and Wilson suddenly found himself thrust into the MVP conversation. Even if he was never a serious contender because of the year the Peyton Manning was having, he was in the conversation nonetheless.
A 65 percent completion rate, a 108.5 rating, 8.76 yards per attempt, 22:6 TD:INT ratio, those are extremely good numbers. Really, it's pretty silly we're even having a conversation about him being a game manager when two months ago we were talking about him as an MVP candidate, but here we are.
Anyway, that said, here's the reason: the final two months of Wilson's season were not ... dazzling.
The eye test
Even beyond stats, Wilson has come up short on the eye test in some areas of late. Wilson has been more tentative in the pocket at times, has sensed phantom pressure, has been strangely inaccurate on some throws, and has seemed more hesitant to run. Part of the reason the "game manager" epithet has even come up lately is that he's also been more hesitant to pull the trigger on tight window throws. As a result of all these factors, the Seahawks' passing offense has sputtered.
While the simple point I'd make is that it takes more than a few less-than-stellar games against top-10 pass defenses (Arizona, New Orleans and San Francisco) to really decide what a quarterback is or isn't, the "game manager" discussion is an interesting one. The quarterback is ultimately the most important player on an NFL roster, and franchises can often rise to glory and fall into ignominy based on who is taking snaps from center.
The term "game manager" gets thrown around a lot and that's fine, I guess, except that everyone has a different definition or interpretation its meaning. In most cases, it's a pejorative descriptor, but that's not universal, so first let me give you my definition.
In my mind, a "game manager" is limited -- either NFL-level developmentally or physically -- to the point that an offensive coordinator must massage and adapt a desired scheme to accommodate those deficiencies.
In other words, this means a coordinator or coaching staff literally cannot use the whole playbook. It's not a question of mood or game-situation or preference, you actually have to take that play or group of plays out completely. In terms of NFL-level development, this restriction relates to the quarterback's ability to read defenses, go through progressions, make changes at the line, and process information nearly-instantaneously. Physically, it relates to arm strength. Can the quarterback make all the throws? Does he have enough accuracy, anticipation, touch, and decision making ability to make the throws? Does he have a willingness to pull the trigger?
Obviously, there is a relative scale here -- young quarterbacks generally aren't given as many responsibilities or as much latitude to make changes -- so there should probably be some leeway given to labeling a young quarterback a game manager too quickly. That said, even if you have a young QB, do you have to eliminate throws from your playbook that the quarterback simply cannot physically make? Do you have to eliminate schemes that require multiple reads? Do you straight-up take out routes that you believe will require tight-window throws or anticipation? That might tell you something.
Now to the morass of sports cliches: I haven't even gotten into some of the immeasurable attributes like leadership, poise, and that ever-vague "clutch" factor that teams seem to like in their quarterbacks. Can your quarterback lead you on a game winning drive? Can he orchestrate a comeback? Does he tighten up in high-pressure situations and make mistakes or can he block out the noise and operate calmly and effectively late in games?
Russell Wilson, Game Manager?
Here are Wilson's career numbers, including four Playoff games:
If you're talking about a guy that's averaged 8.14 yards per attempt as he nears 1,000 throws, you can probably safely table the game-manager argument for a while. If you're talking about a guy that's thrown more touchdown passes in his first two seasons than any other player not named Dan Marino, you can probably hold off on applying the game-manager tag.
Of course, there is more to football than just statistics. Darrell Bevell has disclosed Wilson now takes three plays into the huddle, and he has free rein to change plays at the line based on the looks defenses are giving. This is important. The game is not too big.
The Russell Wilson that has helped lead Seattle to a 27-9 record as a starter and a Super Bowl berth in his second year is steely, audacious, and cunning. He's displayed touch, anticipation, decision making, the willingness to make stick throws into tight windows, and accuracy (measurable and tangible attributes).
This is not an argument that Wilson is an "elite" (another loaded term) quarterback in this point of his career. He's not above making bad throws or bad reads or leaving plays on the field. Every quarterback wants a few plays back each game. Wilson, no matter how much he espouses a consistency to his teammates and fans, has ups and downs in efficiency and all the stated attributes to high level quarterback play. He's struggled at times. He's made poor decisions at others.
But a game manager?
Perception for Russell Wilson as a game manager has been influenced by his role in the Seattle offense. More specifically, how he fits in to Pete Carroll's overall vision and philosophy.
It's Pete Carroll's world, Russell's just living in it
When Carroll arrived in Seattle, he made a few things very clear, principal among them was that taking care of the football was the number one priority. He means it. It's important to understand this. Said Carroll said in September 2010:
It's been our main theme and our approach in our football for as long as I can remember. It's the No. 1 emphasis in the program.
Matt Hasselbeck, the QB that Carroll inherited when he came Seattle, related how quickly Carroll tried to instill this philosophy:
Pete said it very plainly in our first meeting.
"There's really nothing else to say. If you can't grasp that concept then you're not going to get what we're all about. And we're all about turnover ratio."
This philosophy of not turning the ball over is the key variable to this discussion. Pete Carroll hammers home the idea that the most important thing, ever, is to not turn the ball over.
Imagine being a quarterback in his system.
For more insight into his mindset, just prior to the NFC Championship game, Pete Carroll explained why Russell Wilson's dip in production during the late part of the season wasn't overly concerning to him:
We're trying to play really, really good ball. And that means you take care of the football and don't give it up. You don't give them field position situations and you get to hang on to it. You run the thing, and you get to play with the attitude you want. It adds to the overall makeup of our team. That's what's coming through.
When we played San Francisco last time at our place, we beat them 29-3. We had 290 yards of offense that day. We threw the ball about 20 times (18, actually).
To me, that's great football. That's us playing great football. We took it off ‘em, we took care of it. We played the field position game. We kicked it really well, and beat a really good football team with a good score with that amount of production. That's fitting it all together."
Russell Wilson was coming off a nine-for-18, 103 yard passing performance against the Saints in the Divisional Round.
As Wilson put it in his presser after the game, "I'm competing to not turn the ball over." Keeping Carroll's philosophy intact.
And here's what Carroll said:
"We're always looking for more, and [Russell] is too, but as long as our team is playing well and playing within the formula - playing good defense, we're running the football, we're playing well on ‘teams, taking care of the ball and getting it, we're going to have a really good chance to win.
"That's what's most important to us. It's not about the stats. [The stats have] nothing to do with what's important as far as the game's concerned."
Obviously, Carroll's game-manager ideal goes back further than Russell Wilson, and can be traced to his early days at USC. As he said back in August 2011, prior to drafting Russell Wilson:
"We're not trying to make our quarterback the guy that's gotta throw the ball 40 times a game. We want a guy that manages the offense really well, and can keep us moving and get us into the best plays, that allows the whole team to function.
"All the way back to the USC days that's all we've ever asked of our quarterbacks. They won Heismans and all that, but they were always just the point guard in the offense. Even back to Carson Palmer and through [Mark] Sanchez, all those guys, and that's what we'd like to see right now."
The paradigm gets thrown out the window when you realize that Carroll considered Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Carson Palmer & Matt Leinart game managers.
"This is 10 or 11 years of orchestrating the quarterback position. We don't want this position to be one where he has to carry us all the time. It's such a hard position to play, and it's a team game, and we need everybody to fit in.
"I would much rather position our guy in an offense where he has to move the ball around to the right guy and not have to drop back and throw the ball all day long. That's not our style of playing."
Orchestrating. When you look at the way that Russell Wilson plays football, you must remember the carefully planned and meticulously managed scheme Carroll has developed to take pressure off of one player and distribute it among many.
Pete Carroll's checklist
In this pass-heavy league where quarterbacks are the superstars, this philosophy of limiting responsibility on that position seems almost archaic. In his book Win Forever, Carroll mentions that legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh imparted to him a doctrine on quarterbacking that struck a chord, and he's followed it ever since:
"We talked a lot about the quarterback position. Coach Walsh was one of the great quarterback gurus in the history of the game, and he convinced me that everything a coach does in designing his offense should be about making it easy for his quarterback, because his job is so difficult. He believed that everything should be be structured with the quarterback in mind."
This belief system is apparent in the Seahawks' offensive scheme (generally known to be fairly basic in route combinations), their personnel moves (investment in playmakers), their pursuit of balance, and their focus on strong special teams and defense. Bring in Marshawn Lynch, make him the focal point. Pay big money for Sidney Rice. Pay big money for Percy Harvin. Pay big money for Zach Miller. Invest in the offensive line. All this is done with making the quarterback's job easier in mind.
Bill Walsh, Carroll's mentor, described his ideal quarterback: "All I'm looking for is a guy who can throw a catchable ball."
"I still think about Coach Walsh's 'catchable ball' today when I evaluate potential quarterbacks during recruiting, draft preparation, or free agency and I have never forgotten the importance of building an offense that is focused on protecting the quarterback, first and foremost.
OK, so, about that "catchable ball":
Now, before this all comes off as just a highlight reel of Russell Wilson's good throws, it's important to point out that the key factor in the game-manager discussion, in my view, is determining proficiency vs inability. Is Russell Wilson physically and mentally capable of making every throw, running the offense, and leading him team? He's demonstrated that consistently.
More specifically, I think that Wilson has demonstrated the capability to execute the exact type of offense that Pete Carroll desires to run. That's an important distinction. This changes the game-manager discussion (an offense bound by limitations) and puts him into the context of being Pete Carroll's conduit for running the offense he wants to run.
Carroll's offensive tenets are pretty much the inverse of his defensive priorities:
1. Make explosive plays
2. Protect the ball
3. Be physical
If you watch the Seahawks' offense closely, a general reaction might be that they seem to run a lot and throw it deep a lot. This is by design. The Seahawks scheme their personnel and formations around running the football and creating one-on-one matchups downfield through play-action. When you get one-on-one situations down the field though, you need a quarterback that can make all the throws.
There's no throw that's tougher than the deep out (a ten-plus yard up-and-out route by the wide receiver) and it differentiates itself from most other "NFL throws" because of the different variables involved. It must be made with anticipation and precision timing, and must be thrown with pinpoint accuracy at a high velocity.
It's a longer throw than pretty much anything else you'd find on the route tree because you have to take into account the width of the field as well - throwing to the sideline at that depth gives the defender that much more time to adjust and come back to the ball. It's tough as hell, and it's the "NFL's signature throw" because a large majority of college quarterbacks don't have the arm strength and accuracy to make it.
Here's an example from last year's Playoffs, late in the game as Wilson looked to lead his team back against the Redskins:
The issue with the deep out though is that it's also inherently dangerous because if this pass is picked off, there's not much to stop the corner or defensive back from returning it for a touchdown. Because of this, Wilson's and the Seahawks' shifted focus from that deep out throw to perfecting the sideline go route over the offseason.
Seattle began to put great emphasis on teaching their receivers to "own the redline," an imaginary area between the numbers and the sideline. This is a happy medium in terms of making inherently-dangerous throws deep while staying true to their protect-the-ball mantra. With the "redline" throw, if the ball is tipped or overthrown, it most often will go out of bounds.
The "own the redline" philosophy is a major piece of Seattle's offense in 2013. If it's on the money and the receiver has done his job, it's a big gain. Here's Golden Tate against Champ Bailey and the Broncos in their preseason matchup:
The Russell Wilson redline throw showed up many, many times during the regular season.
The problem with focusing too much on making explosive plays is that the Seahawks' intermediate and short passing game is less developed and efficient. It's an area of development I'm guessing he'll focus on during the offseason, perhaps by going back to the tape to study Drew Brees even further.
Protect the ball
Another area of development for Wilson is that at times, you can see on tape that Russell Wilson does miss open receivers downfield and he does hold off on making tight-window throws at others. While it's partly an area Wilson must improve on, it's also highly probable that he's also being coached to avoid certain throws. Play it safe and avoid taking chances.
Back to my point. As per Carroll's directive, Wilson has shown that he can avoid turnovers. He has two in 42 career playoff drives, one on a Hail Mary against Atlanta.
This is monumental in Seattle's program. As Carroll would say, it's not about the stats, it's all about the ball.
The third part of Carroll's overarching philosophy for his offense is to be physical. This is why the Seahawks run the ball more than they pass it. It's why Marshawn Lynch is such a huge part of their identity and focus. Russell Wilson does have a big part in this though because in Carroll's eyes, the quarterback should be an extension of the run game.
It's not just about running the read option, which is something that Wilson definitely brings to the table, it's also about executing the bootleg.
Play-action and bootlegging, moving pockets and QB scrambling are a huge part of the Seahawks' offense. They fit together, as Carroll would say, with the zone-blocking scheme Seattle runs up front. A well-executed bootleg after a handoff to the running back can hold a backside defender on his side and take him out of the action as he crashes down on the run. This is something Wilson does on every handoff, and you'll often see him sprint downfield about 20 yards just to sell it. Similarly, even the threat of a read option keeper can open up cut-back lanes for Marshawn Lynch.
When he keeps it -- whether it's a read-option play-action fake, a boot, or a moving pocket -- Wilson is technically very proficient throwing outside the pocket. His experience in pro baseball as a second baseman has helped him to become very accurate throwing on the run. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, in Wilson's first two seasons, he's thrown more passes from outside the pocket (223) than anyone else in the league, and has completed 57.4 percent of those throws. The league average is 49.1 percent.
Wilson's mobility and scrambling ability augments the Seahawks' run game. He rushed for 589 yards this season, and a good chunk of that was on a league-leading 51 scrambles, not designed runs. His Houdini-like ability to avoid pressure and escape pass rushers also often leads to extended plays. It just makes the Seattle offense that much harder to defend.
Physicality and intangibles
Seattle GM John Schneider has listed off many physical characteristics and attributes that he looks for in a quarterback, but the things that he always seems to come back to are the hardest to define. His belief in these factors is a huge part of the reason he was the one to take a shot on Wilson, the 5'10 3/8" quarterback.
Back before the Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson, Schneider was asked to describe his ideal quarterback. He responded:
"Okay, before we get into all the specifics of the position, and everyone can argue about it what's more important, we can talk about feet, whether it be delivery quickness, anticipation, poise, game-management skills, the number one thing to me - is a guy that tilts the field. You have to be able to see that live, you have to be able to see how he handles his teammates, if he's a guy that can have a certain charisma about him, and then [after all that] you have to get into 'where's the ball end up?'"
"What is the perfect quarterback? You have to think it's a guy that first of all has a presence about him and can tilt the room or tilt the field his way.... Somebody that the rest of the guys in the locker room can look at and say, ‘Hey, that's the guy. That's the guy we're going to be able to go win games with.'"
The fascinating thing about the Seahawks' front office is that Pete Carroll has 100 percent buy-in to this side of things as well. Carroll was a sports psychology major that focuses heavily on the mental side of athletics. He's made the "Always Compete" philosophy and the belief in "The Inner Game" central parts of his program, so while outsiders may scoff at trying to measure grit, determination, clutchiness, heart or any of the most tired sports cliches, the Seahawks actually do use this as an evaluation tool, I think.
This "tilt the room, tilt the field" quality is intangible and highly subjective, but just based on second-hand reports and how things have ended up for the Seahawks, it was and is clear that Russell Wilson has that trait. He gained the respect of his teammates almost immediately upon arriving in Seattle.
This video below, from the summer of 2012, shows Pete Carroll relating what he'd seen from Wilson after only a few weeks of OTAs and Mini-Camps. During the preseason, Wilson was named starter.
Jon Gruden, for one, was not surprised. The former Super Bowl-winning coach described Wilson's ability to tilt the room shortly finding out the former Wisconsin Badger QB had one the job:
"I haven't met anybody who has been a team captain at quarterback on two major college teams in back-to-back seasons and taken their teams to Bowl games. When Russell Wilson walks in the room, you feel his presence. He has an incredible vibe about him that's outstanding for an offensive football team and a team. And I think he can play it."
Michael Robinson, a Seahawks captain when Wilson arrived in the Pacific Northwest, recently described what Schneider is likely referring to from a player's point of view:
"When he is talking in the huddle, you believe that the play he calls is going to work. I was with Alex Smith early in his career, and this is no slight to [Smith], but it was different. Obviously Alex grew, and he is a better quarterback now. But when Russell steps in that huddle, you don't have to say anything; you're just waiting to hear what he has to say, because you know he says it with conviction, and you trust what is coming out of his mouth. It's not always like that with every quarterback."
Going deeper into the intangible gray area of sports and quarterbacking, there have been numerous anecdotal stories told in local and national media of Wilson's teammates believing completely that their quarterback would lead them to victory when they appeared to be on the brink of defeat. As a fan, that's a fun narrative to hear, but the real-life statistics - Wilson's success rate in fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives - actually lend some credence to these players' reasons for confidence in Wilson.
Wilson, who strives to be the calm in the storm, has stated, "If there's any time left on the clock, we have a chance." You may think it's hokey, but I actually think his teammates have bought in to that.
Wrap it up
The NFL media is a reactionary beast. Ebbs and flows in statistics and performance tend to create these kinds of narratives. Russell Wilson has always been more susceptible to falling under the game manager classification because he's a short, plucky third-round pick that plays in an extremely low-volume passing offense and has an elite defense behind him.
Ultimately, as I said at the onset, this is a semantics argument. If we're going to talk semantics, I might as well end this thing with some language that resonates with me. Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, speaking at Super Bowl XLVIII Media Day, gave his take on Russell Wilson:
"Russell is a little ahead of what we consider new school. New-school guys are considered talented shoulder down basically. They can win with their arm or their legs. Old-school guys are those Peyton Manning thinkers. Russell Wilson's gift is that he's new school shoulders down but old school shoulders up. That's why he is in this game.
"When the rest of these quarterbacks - the Cam Newtons, the RGIIIs, the Colin Kaepernicks - when these guys who are gifted like Russell shoulders down start playing the game like he plays it shoulders up, this league will be a whole different monster.
"I call him a managing playmaker. If you can be a managing playmaker, that means I have the ability to run the ball and break out of here and make plays with my legs, but to choose not to until I have to? That's a dangerous player because he keeps the field open at all times, until the last moment."