The 2019 season could be it for Russell Wilson. This could be the year the Seahawks star breaks through from “also considered” on watch lists and into the spotlight as the NFL’s most valuable player.
The Seattle quarterback has been a positive presence since being drafted in 2012. His role grew more and more important as the mistake-erasing Legion of Boom defense was eventually sold off for parts. As new defenders dotted the starting lineup, Wilson became the heart of the Seahawks as a whole.
That’s never been more evident than this season. His team is 4-1 as a result.
That’s an impressive start for a team breaking in a cache of young playmakers and in the midst of a defensive overhaul. It’s also not as impressive as the way Wilson has pushed Seattle back to the NFC’s upper tier. He’s been the league’s most efficient quarterback, mitigating risk and creating precious few opportunities for opponents to leverage.
Wilson’s innate understanding of which chances to take and how to deliver a pass through tight, rapidly closing windows has made him 2019’s most unstoppable quarterback. Through five weeks, he looks like a bonafide MVP.
Wilson’s always efficient, improvisation-heavy game has reached a new level
Wilson has been a low-key MVP candidate pretty much since the moment he stepped on an NFL field in 2012. He’s had a passer rating of 100+ more times (four) than he hasn’t (three). He’s ranked in the top 10 for adjusted yards per pass — a metric that factors in touchdown passes and interceptions to measure overall impact — in six of his first seven years as a pro. He’s been named one of the league’s top 25 players by his peers each year since 2014.
He delivered the state of Washington its only Super Bowl win to date. He’s never had a losing record or missed a start despite playing behind what’s traditionally been one of the league’s leakiest offensive lines. He’s been to the postseason in all but one year as a pro.
Despite all that, Wilson’s been a Pro Bowl MVP but has never earned a single vote from Associated Press writers when it comes to the real thing.
If the season were only five weeks long, that streak would end in 2019. The veteran quarterback has been more valuable than ever for a Seahawks team that refuses to slide into rebuilding mode.
Seattle has handled its business to be one of only a few four-win teams in the NFC, even with a defense that ranks 21st in points allowed per play this fall. The biggest reason why is Wilson.
Wilson is the genesis of 14 of his team’s 17 offensive touchdowns. He’s got a league-leading 126.3 passer rating thanks to a 12-touchdown, zero-interception season to date. He’s completing a career-high 73 percent of his passes for an uber-productive 9.0 yards per attempt. He’s added 24 rushing yards per game and generally used his legs to extend plays and create magic. He’s found ways to burn opponents for touchdowns in roughly a million different ways, four of which were on display against the Rams:
That’s Wilson’s pass chart from Week 5. The blue streaks that completely stretch the field are his touchdown throws. Only one came from the pocket, and two were from more than 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Wilson’s become so good at escaping an eternally collapsing pocket — he’s been sacked at least 41 times in each of the last six seasons — that he may somehow be better under duress.
That play chart also showcases his ability to stick to a plan, even in the midst of those scrambling improvisations. Seattle threw away from LA’s over-the-top safety help in the middle of the field, but was in no way conservative about it. This was huge. It resulted in the Seahawks’ first win over an opponent with multiple wins in 2019 — and the defending conference champs, to boot.
It also posed the burning question every team left on the schedule will have to answer. How are opponents supposed to prepare for a quarterback who can exploit your team’s weaknesses with throws to any spot on the field while glossing over his own?
Wilson is doing all this with an unproven cast of targets. Doug Baldwin’s offseason retirement pushed Tyler Lockett, Will Dissly, and rookie DK Metcalf to the top of Wilson’s wish list. They’ve responded with 65 catches — nine for touchdowns — in five games with a 74 percent catch rate. They’re also uniquely attuned to their quarterback’s ability to spin hay into gold:
i was 80% sure Russell Wilson was just throwing this ball away pic.twitter.com/K7UBNqmNPI— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 4, 2019
This is a Shakespearian sonnet compressed into a few seconds on a Thursday night in Seattle. That pass had a 6.3 percent chance of being completed, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats. That made it the league’s most surprising catch of 2019. It’s not the only time you’ll see Wilson on that list of improbable plays — his 54-yard strike to Metcalf against the Saints only had a 13.9 percent chance of completion before Wilson made it work anyway.
It’s not just his receivers, either. Chris Carson has quickly developed from seventh-round pick to 1,000-yard rusher, providing the safety valve Seattle needed to relieve pressure from Wilson’s capable shoulders. Carson has also caught 88 percent of his targets so far this season, giving linebackers something else to think about when he flits out of the backfield and further compromising opponents’ plans to contain the Seattle offense.
Wilson’s out there every week, spinning through probabilities and route progressions while simultaneously spinning away from defenders. When he finds a desirable solution, he’s got the arm strength and accuracy to make it work — and now, he has more help.
Keeping this MVP pace will be tough, but Wilson’s consistent enough to do it
Wilson has been the league’s most important player through five weeks. That’s enough to get him a 4-1 record and an inside track on a playoff berth, but not much else. If he’s going to stake his claim as an award-winning quarterback instead of merely a low-impact nominee, he’s going to have to continue to decimate opposing defenses.
A look back at his track record suggests he can keep this pace, or at least something close to it. He probably won’t have a 16-game campaign without throwing a single pick, but he’s not going to melt down either. His 1.8 percent career interception rate is identical to Tom Brady’s and lower than other recent MVPs like Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton. He leads the league in touchdown passes with 12, even if his 7.7 percent touchdown rate is actually lower than it was last fall (8.2).
While his completion rate will likely fall back to Earth from 73 percent, Wilson’s ability to find daylight on the ground and keep drives alive helps bolster the argument against any major regression. He’ll also have the chance to exploit some soft secondaries through the month of October. After Week 6’s showdown against Cleveland’s banged-up secondary, he’ll take on the tattered remnants of the Ravens and Falcons once-proud defenses in Weeks 7 and 8. This could all get better before it gets worse for Seattle.
The rest of the NFL MVP race will provide some tough but manageable challengers to Wilson’s premature throne. Although 2018 winner Patrick Mahomes was an easy pick for the honor after three weeks, he’s thrown just a single passing touchdown the past two weeks and a lingering ankle injury threatens to damper the dynamic playmaking that makes him so dangerous. Christian McCaffrey made the Jaguars’ linebacker corps collectively consider retirement in a 237-yard, three-touchdown performance in Week 5, but a non-QB hasn’t won MVP honors since Adrian Peterson in 2012.
Deshaun Watson has been good enough to earn legitimate MVP hype, though he is perpetually at risk of being halted by head coach Bill O’Brien’s baffling decisions. He’s had three games with three-plus touchdowns this fall and two with 160 passing yards or fewer so far. Lamar Jackson’s hot start has fallen off for a Ravens team that doesn’t look nearly as intimidating as it was after rolling over the Dolphins and Cardinals to start the season. Tom Brady has beaten up a bunch of punching bags and made some impressively dumb mistakes in the red zone along the way.
This is a flawed MVP field, and Wilson’s shined the hardest out of the bunch. Even with a few missteps, he can climb to the top of the mountain.
Wilson has always been good and sometimes low-key great. In 2019, a combination of experience and an upgraded offense has made him undeniably outstanding. His offensive line is approaching competence, he’s got a tailback who can force opposing defenses to gameplan away from his passing for the first time since Marshawn Lynch roamed the backfield in Seattle, and his receiving corps is filled with young playmakers.
That rising tide has lifted Wilson’s battlecruiser to a more prominent role. The Seahawks’ quarterback has gotten off to his hottest start yet not just by making the right decisions downfield, but by throwing amazingly accurate passes to players who have been perfect complements to his escape-making quirks in the backfield.
That’s made him the NFL’s top quarterback through roughly one-third of the regular season. If he can keep it up, he’ll finally get the recognition he deserves from MVP voters.