Picture if you will, two years from now: Russell Wilson, starting quarterback, Cleveland Browns. On a read-option keeper, Wilson pulls the ball away from Duke Johnson, jukes the linebacker bouncing outside to make the tackle, then throws a pop-pass touchdown to Terrelle Pryor, who has seen a meteoric rise up the ranks to become the Browns' top receiver. Wilson runs over to the sideline, fist-bumping backup Johnny Manziel while engulfed in a bear hug by newly minted head coach Jim Harbaugh.
(Look, this is fantasy anyway, so might as well make it fun.)
With Wilson and the Seahawks currently engaged in a game of chicken over contract negotiations, and with neither side apparently too keen to be the first to blink, the idea that Wilson could actually leave Seattle in the near future has been a frequent topic of discussion this offseason. This standoff could stretch into next season, potentially the season after that. But the Seahawks have continued to drop hints that they're willing to let go of their two-time Super Bowl starting quarterback if he won't accept the terms they're offering.
I don't believe that it will ever come to that, but for the sake of "it's the worst, most boring part of the offseason," let's imagine what Wilson could look like playing for another team. Would he continue in his rise to superstardom, or would he flame out without the crutch of a top-three defense and a Marshawn Lynch run game?
In my mind, there are a few factors to consider for this exercise.
Game manager or game changer?
If you still actively believe that Wilson is a game manager, you have not watched him play football very much. It's likely that you've taken the wrong people's terrible takes at face value. Even my friend Pete Prisco, whom many Seahawks fans consider the premier Wilson hater in mainstream media, considers Wilson a top-10 to top-12 quarterback in this league. You can get out of the top 10 pretty quickly when you start rattling off Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Brees, Roethlisberger, Ryan, Rivers, Romo and Luck in some order. Being in the top 10 (10th) isn't exactly an insult.
This isn't about ranking him numerically. The point here is that Wilson's not a "game manager," so stop comparing him to Trent Dilfer. He's a dynamic, talented passer both inside the pocket and out of it. He's accurate, can vary his velocity with aplomb, has great touch, rarely turns it over and throws one of the best deep balls in the league. He also can run the football with devastating and demoralizing effectiveness.
Even in Seattle's extremely low-volume passing offense, Wilson's 72 career regular season touchdown passes ranks seventh all-time for any NFL quarterback through his first three seasons. Wilson's career 7.95 yards per pass attempt is fourth all-time for a quarterback through his first three seasons, and his completion percentage (63.25) during that same three-year window is sixth all-time.
Wilson has led the Seahawks to 10 fourth-quarter comebacks and 15 game-winning drives, both best all-time through any quarterback's first three seasons. He's thrown game-winning touchdown passes in back-to-back NFC Championships.
His place among the top quarterbacks in the NFL is a fine debate -- knock yourself out with that one -- but the fourth-year pro is undoubtedly a game changer. I do not believe that this would change if he were in another system or on another team.
System vs. philosophy
The two terms aren't necessarily synonymous. "System" refers to a given team's schemes and plays. "Philosophy" refers to, among other things, the priorities a team places on certain tenets or goals. Both are important to the context of what a certain player would do going from one team to another.
For Pete Carroll and the Seahawks, philosophy is a big deal, and their top priority, above all else -- seriously -- is, "it's all about the ball." Carroll preaches ad nauseam about limiting turnovers on offense, and this philosophy has been hammered into Wilson's head since the day he arrived at the VMAC. In 2014, Russell Wilson finished fourth in the NFL in interception percentage (percentage of times intercepted while attempting to pass) -- behind Aaron Rodgers, who is an alien; Carson Palmer, who played in six games; and Alex Smith, who never throws the ball more than about 10 yards.
In other words, Wilson did an excellent job at what he was required to do above all else by the executive vice president and head coach of his football franchise. This philosophy of protecting the football has manifested itself in Wilson's play. At times, he'll fail to pull the trigger on throws that he probably should've made. There are times where he chooses to eat the football and avoid a dangerous throw, and instead takes a sack. Wilson's sack rate among NFL quarterbacks is right up there among the worst.
Would Wilson take more chances with dangerous throws on another team with a head coach who holds a different philosophy? Could this boost his numbers? Would he have more interceptions? Would he take fewer sacks? I think so, on all accounts. Would he be viewed differently? I think so.
Another key component of Carroll's philosophy is that running the football and maintaining balance on offense is absolutely essential. The Seahawks have run the ball more than just about anyone over the past three seasons, and no starting quarterback throws it less than Wilson does. Is this because Wilson sucks? No, it's an integral piece of Carroll's philosophy where clock control, ball control and physically beating up on your opponent are the main pillars.
There have been times where the Seahawks have been trailing late in the half or late in games, and had to abandon this grind-it-out philosophy. Wilson has shown that he can string together tough passes and move the ball down the field. Those record 15 game-winning drives through three seasons attest to this.
If Wilson were to head to another system, he may look a lot different and may be utilized in a more traditional manner. His new team would potentially ask him to make a different repertoire of throws. His new team would potentially limit him to the pocket more, ask him to make quicker throws or utilize play action or bootlegs less frequently. It's tough to tell you how he'd fare in these types of systems, but it's worth pointing out that, as Wilson said prior to getting drafted by the Seahawks:
"I played in a West Coast offense at NC State and had to transfer to a great new team in Wisconsin and learn a whole new system, a vertical, play-action-style offense."
He learned this system in a matter of weeks, then went on to have the most efficient season in college football history.
Looking at Wilson's passing stats in that NC State West Coast offense as compared to Wisconsin's run-based, vertical play-action scheme, you may know why the Seahawks liked him for their system so much.
|North Carolina State
|North Carolina State
|North Carolina State
|North Carolina State
Wilson fits what Seattle does and has wanted to do very, very well. His ability to throw on the run fits the team's play-action passing game like a glove. His deep ball accuracy and touch fits the Seahawks' aggressive streak in downfield passing. His discipline fits their philosophy for avoiding turnovers.
Additionally, Seattle has adapted around its starter, and utilized some of his unique skills to augment what it already wanted to do. Prior to Wilson's arrival, the college option game wasn't a big part of Carroll's offense. Wilson's ability to effectively run the read option without putting himself in danger of getting hit, though, meant the Seahawks put that trust in him to continue to push the envelope there.
This was a huge part of the reason Seattle led the NFL in rushing last year. It's why Tom Cable recently said that, "Marshawn needs Russ like Russ needs Marshawn. It's like ham and eggs or peanut butter and jelly. They've got to have each other for this thing to work. Neither one of them is bigger or greater than the other. And they probably wouldn't be very good without the other one, to be quite honest with you."
Everyone likes to say that Wilson benefits from a top-five running game, and while Marshawn Lynch is an amazing running back and breaks more tackles than any player in the NFL, Seattle's run game would be significantly diminished without Wilson at quarterback. The mere threat that Wilson provides on those read-option plays takes one, sometimes two defenders out of the box. When Wilson did pull the ball away from Lynch and run with it, he rushed for 296 yards and six touchdowns while averaging almost 8 yards per carry. He added about 550 more yards on designed keepers and scramble plays, reminiscent of the great Fran Tarkenton.
Would Wilson's new team be committed to running the read option? Would it embrace Wilson's scrambling ways? These are major questions that could affect what Wilson could do in another system.
You're the Seahawks GM. What would you do?
The bottom line
There are a few players who are so transcendent that you could pick them up and put them in any system on any team and they could excel in it without limitation. If you have a player like that, coaches and fans, just go ahead and toast to yourselves, because you won the lottery.
Outside of those few generational talents, you could argue that just about every other NFL quarterback is a "system player," because coordinators typically know what throws their quarterback can and can't make with consistency, and look to build around that. They know they should avoid asking their quarterback to do things that he sucks at -- or simply cannot do -- and design their plays with this in mind. It's called common sense.
I'm not going to try to convince you that Russell Wilson is a transcendent player. He has limitations just like nearly every quarterback in the NFL. His pocket poise is a work in progress. His vision can be affected by his height. He rarely throws to the short middle of the field. He has had his struggles on third down, particularly in 2014. He needs to improve in many areas. He mixes in a few bad games here and there. He will make a bad decision a few times in a game.
I think Wilson best fits with a team that runs something akin to both the Wilson era at Wisconsin ran, and the current Seattle offense. Both are characterized by a physical, run-based game plan that features a lot of play action and vertical explosive passing. That's his wheelhouse. Could Wilson play in a West Coast offense? Probably. He has experience in one. But his efficiency numbers would likely take a dip and he'd probably create more turnovers. He'd improvise less. Bootleg less. It'd be different.
Either way, an offensive coordinator who doesn't look to highlight and feature his quarterback's best skills isn't going to last too long in this league. Wherever Wilson would theoretically go, you have to assume the team would look to emulate what the Seahawks have done with their star signal caller, at least in some ways.
It's time to stop pretending that Wilson is only good because he's on a team with a strong run game and defense. Seattle's offense finished fifth in weighted DVOA (measures efficiency, not rate stats) in 2014 -- a feat it simply could not have accomplished without Wilson captaining the offense -- both in the run game and the passing game.
Similar to how Lynch and Wilson relied on each other in a symbiotic run-game relationship, so too did Seattle's offense and defense. Seattle's offensive group helped the defense establish itself as the cream of the crop by consistently putting together long drives (averaged over 3:00 per drive, third in the NFL), dominating time of possession (third in the NFL at over 32 minutes per game) and by scoring at a consistently high rate (ninth-most points per drive). This despite the fact that Wilson was by far the most pressured quarterback in the NFL (on 34 percent of dropbacks). The Seahawks don't pick their linemen because they're good in pass pro, you see, but Wilson was still second in pass DVOA (value per play) when under pressure.
If you're still not convinced, consider this stat, because it helps paint a picture of what kind of passer a quarterback really is without pressure and volume involved. In 2014, Wilson finished third in passing DVOA among quarterbacks when facing no pressure, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo. In other words -- when Wilson could sit back and throw without a defender instantly in his face, he balled out.
It's probably not going to happen, but it's still interesting to imagine how Russell Wilson would look on another team. Seeing him in another team's uniform would definitely take some getting used to, for everyone. No matter where he ended up, Wilson's star would continue to rise.
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