Russell Wilson's rookie season, under the surface: The last four games

Mike Ehrmann

PRELUDE

What a weekend. I didn't expect the Seahawks to blow the Dolphins out, but I did expect them to win. Something like 20-16 or 20-13. After Leon ran back the kickoff I definitely expected the Seahawks to win. But they didn't. They allowed 12 or 13 explosive plays to Miami, depending on your definition, so even though Seattle had a special teams touchdown and won the turnover battle - it's hard to win when your opponent doubles you in the explosive play category.

If the playoffs were an injury report, here is my take on the Seahawks chances.

OUT - definitely not.
DOUBTFUL - if the cornerbacks get suspended, then perhaps.
QUESTIONABLE - sounds about right.
PROBABLE - maybe a bit optimistic.

I think the official definition for probable is a 75% chance of playing, questionable a 50% chance of playing, and doubtful at 25%. Again, I think our playoff chances? QUESTIONABLE.

Yet, under the surface of the defensive breakdowns and a stalled running game, I have been living the last few days in a remarkably happy mood. And I think I know why. It started back in February, when I heard the Seahawks liked the 5-foot-10-and-a-half-Assassin. I watched clips and cut-ups of his games and watched his interview on Gruden's QB Camp. I was getting intrigued. I began to wonder at what round would the Seahawks have to draft him? My hopes for the fourth round began to dissolve over time. I knew the 1st round would be unnecessary. I was fine with Round 2 actually, and I thought Round 3 was the lowest the Seahawks could wait.

The Draft finally came, and as I sat with Danny, who I think posted about three full length blog posts as the picks began to drain, I had a freak-out as the Chiefs were one pick ahead of the Seahawks. They ended up selecting a Tackle named Donald Stephenson. At that point, I knew the Seahawks were home free and ESPN was already cutting to Wilson's house gathering, with his soon to be wife doing the WHOOOOP scream.

I carefully observed Pete and John's post draft interviews, looking for clues. They were enthusiastic, but were also managing expectations on the rookie. The Rookie Mini-Camp came, and then Pete named it a three-way competition. That was a big step, and the buzz was starting to hum. Then training camp, and then the pre-season. Then the Chiefs game. Then the announcement. I remember I was with my family at a restaurant in Carlsbad, California when the news broke that Russell Wilson had been named the Seahawks starting quarterback.

Funny thing is, every Seahawks game, about 2-4 times per game, I say to whomever is watching with me:

"Dude can't see. He can't see."

Maybe I am right, maybe I am wrong, but I am convinced there are plays he misses in the short middle of the field because as a short person myself, it's hard to see when you are short! But for every handful of plays he misses, I am convinced there are two handfuls of plays that many quarterbacks would not make. And with his combination of belief, work ethic, and natural talent - I am totally convinced that this is The Guy. He can be a very good quarterback in the NFL and lead this team to serious success.

And it wasn't the Patriots game that sold me, though that was an amazing game. I was already convinced Russell could throw deep play-action bombs. San Francisco took most of that deep stuff away, and in the second half Russell got nothing done against the 49ers - WR drops or no drops. I think what really sold me was the Lions game.

THE LIONS GAME

Before the Lions game, the Seahawks had been foundering on 3rd down and drowning in the Red Zone. It's almost like Russell was avoiding the Red Zone for his touchdowns and just dropping 30-45 yard touchdown bombs instead. Better percentage plays for him. But was that replicable and realistic?

So, before the Lions game, I was keying into about four things, and I hoped Russell would deliver on these and show me something:

1. Red Zone
2. Third Down
3. Stay in the Pocket
4. Short Game, specifically, short middle

And he won me over. He hit Zach Miller and Sidney Rice for two gorgeous red zone touchdowns. He made some key plays on third down. He showed an ability to dink and dunk and not rely on the explosive play. And he stayed in the pocket on some key throws. I knew he was accurate. I knew he could run. I knew he could throw play-action bombs and hit explosive plays -- but I wanted to see some basic quarterback skills that all quarterbacks have to perform to function at the position. In fact, all he has done over the last four games is verify that he is indeed the real deal.

THE LAST FOUR GAMES

Yeah, the Seahawks have been 2-2 over the last four games, and have lost two disappointing games on the road, but I think before I researched this blog post, I hadn't realized how good Russell Wilson was actually playing.

Consider. Over the last four games:

Russell Wilson has thrown 9 Touchdowns and 1 Interception.

He has completed 74 of 105 passes (70% completion percentage) for 821 yards (7.8 yards per attempt). He has converted at least 10 first downs in each of the past four games via passes. He has taken a total of seven sacks. The one interception he did throw was a miscue with Sidney Rice where he thought Rice wanted to go deep and Rice wanted to play the hole-shot. Not a great decision, but not necessarily inaccurate.

Here is what shocked me the most.

If you exclude the kneel down - Russell has led the Seahawks to a 83% success rate in the Red Zone (10 of 12)! To put that in context, the NFL has held a steady average for Red Zone success rate at 53%, and that number has not wavered for months, league-wide.

The Seahawks had been flailing down around 33% in the Red Zone over the first seven weeks, but the last four games have brought the Seahawks up to 52% in the Red Zone for the year. The Seahawks had been down around 33% on third down, and are now slowly inching up to 35%. League average for third down has been around 38.5% for the year, with the actual NFL team median being around 37% (I suppose the Patriots and Big-Ben-led-Steelers hovering at 50% skew the third down average up).

Though not mind-blowing, Wilson and the Seahawks have converted 19 of the last 48 third downs, during the last four games, for a respectable 39.58%. The devil is in the details.

He has also led them to 5/5 conversions (that's 100%, you guys) on fourth down during the last four games. Russell has also rushed for an average of 27 yards per game during this period.

THE RATINGS

People like to criticize the traditional Quarterback Rating, and I understand why. Traditional QB rating is derived from four things: yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdowns and interceptions.

Personally, I still pay attention to the system, even though it has its flaws. It obviously does not factor in down and distance and score/game situations and "clutch factors". It does not take into account when wide receivers cause interceptions or when an interception is actually on "ok" result - for instance throwing a deep bomb at the end of the half on 3rd and 17 from your own 40 yard line. It doesn't take into account sacks, or avoiding sacks, or QB scrambles.

I think it is something that should be viewed in addition to the other traditional stats and advanced metrics when possible. Take in all the information and come to your conclusions based on what's available. This is what I do in my job, and it's what I do when I am researching Seahawks related things.

So, let's look at both traditional ratings and advanced stats for Wilson in his last four games. First...

TRADITIONAL QB RATING:

Wilson's last four games, against:

Miami Dolphins - 125.9
New York Jets - 131.0
Minnesota Vikings - 127.3
Detroit Lions - 96.8

If you equal-weight the games, that's a four game average QB Rating of 120.25.

There are six quarterbacks with QB Ratings for the year over 100, and the top 3 are: Aaron Rodgers 105.6, Tom Brady 105.0, and Peyton Manning 104.8. Despite some early season struggles, Russell Wilson is now 12th in NFL QB Rating for the year at 93.9. The quarterbacks ahead of him are the superstars you know and love.

November:

Traditional QB Rating leaders for Month of November, league-wide, looks like this:

Wilson 128.6
Griffin 124.3
Brady 118.9
Brees 112.4
Henne 110.7
Dalton 105.7
Kaepernick 104.1

No other QBs were over 100 in November.

More important though - how good is a 7.8 yards per attempt clip in the last four games? Well, Russell stands at 7.33 ypa for the year (14th), and there is only one QB averaging over 8 yards per attempt, Robert Griffin III. Tom Brady sits at 7th with 7.84 yards per attempt for the year. Yes, the passing yards aren't impressive, but he has been consistently throwing only 25 to 26 attempts per game - and this has been a wildly consistent number all year long. He can't control some of that. He could "earn" more first downs with more 1st down conversions, but any Seahawks watcher knows that the offense limits the number of snaps and throws in the game. No NFL team has a higher run percentage than the Seahawks. Again, Russell doesn't have control over his attempts, but he can control YPA, and 7.8 over the last four games matches up well with anyone.

I am not saying he should or will make the Pro Bowl, but over the last four games, Russell is playing some of the best football in the league at his position -- a league littered with amazing quarterbacks.

ESPN TOTAL QBR

ESPN has an advanced metric scale - Total QBR - that scales a quarterback from 1-100, 50 being league average. Total QBR is derived from the EPA (Expected points added) metric. It attempts to build on the work of Football Outsiders and Brian Burke and those before them that developed the concept of "Expected Points". Basically, every yard-line on the football field has an expected point value (the way I think of it is that your team is probable to score "this amount of points" next). For instance, first and goal on your opponent one yard line is worth +6 Expected Points. Having the ball on your opponent 20 yard line is worth 4.5 expected points. The opponent 20 yard line makes sense as NFL teams are 53% in the red zone so you can think of it as:

(7 points*.53 =3.71 expected points) + (3 points*.47 =1.41 expected points) = 5.12 expected points (then you subtract all the times a team fumbles, gets intercepted, gets pushed back on penalties or sacks or misses a field goal) and 4.5 seems very reasonable.

I believe it shrinks down to about +1 as you move down the field to your own 20 yard line. It hits zero at your own 15 yard line. It becomes -2 when you have the ball on your own one yard line.

So, if your running back takes a handoff 75 yards and then gets tackled in the red zone, and your quarterback then throws a touchdown pass to the fullback in the flat- the running back added more expected points than the quarterback in that drive even though the quarterback obviously gets credit for the touchdown.

Make sense? (If not, it is explained here).

ESPN Total QBR then attempts to add on overthrows and underthrows and then a "clutch factor" on top of the Expected Points foundation. It is no surprise to me that Football Outsiders DVOA and ESPN Total QBR have similar rankings for Russell Wilson when you think about it this way.

So, again, Total QBR scales a quarterback from 1-100, 50 being league average. Per TQBR, fittingly, Jay Cutler is at 50.4 and Sam Bradford is at 49.4. Russell Wilson, for the year, is 12th (of course) at 61.8 (Beekers also mentioned to me that 65+ is sort of the break-off point for 'elite/great', as Mike Sando mentioned previously). Tom Brady and Peyton Manning lead the way at 81.6 and 79.5 respectively. The guys in between Tom and Russell are the usual suspects, including Andrew Luck and RGIII.

The metric is broken up into "Pass EPA" - or what ESPN defines as "Clutch-weighted expected points added on plays with pass attempts," giving more weight, I assume, to a 7-yard completion on 3rd and 6 on the opponent 35 yard line when you trail by 2 versus a 7-yard completion on 3rd and 17 on your own 35 yard line when trailing by 20.

They also have an EPA for running, sacks (or avoiding them), and penalties (like creating defensive pass interference).

Russell has the 15th highest Pass EPA, 8th highest Run EPA, 19th highest Sack EPA (I guess they aren't impressed with his escapes), and 10th highest penalty EPA. These are all impressive season numbers for a rookie, but let's look closely at the last four games via the lens of Total QBR.

Consider the Miami game. Russell had the number one Total QBR Score for Week 12 at 90.7. It was ahead of Cam Newton at 89.3, Ryan Tannehill at 88.9, Eli Manning at 87.9, and Robert Griffin III at 87.5. If you think about how well these other quarterbacks played in their games, that is quite amazing.

For week 12, Russell had the 2nd highest Pass EPA for the week (behind only Matt Stafford), and the 2nd highest Run EPA (behind only Cam Newton). Of the 350+ quarterback performances for the year, ESPN ranks the Russ Wilson Miami game as the 39th best of the year.

The Lions Game was even better. The Total QBR score of 93.7 was the fourth best performance of Week 8 and the 27th best quarterback performance for the year.

In fact, it was the highest rated quarterback performance in a loss for the entire NFL season. The 26 performances ahead of it were all wins.

Moreover, only four of the top 40 performances for the entire year resulted in losses, and Russell has two of them! The loss to the Lions and loss to the Dolphins. The only other losing performances in the top 40 were Big Ben losing to Oakland and Peyton losing to the Patriots. That's it.

In between, Russell put up a 45.8 Total QBR (19th for the week) versus the Jets, and a 82.8 versus the Vikings. His average Total QBR the last four weeks is 78.25. Again, to put that in perspective, there are only two quarterbacks that have a season TOTAL QBR over 78. Tom at 81.6 and Peyton at 79.5.

The last four weeks:

Because of bye weeks - I took the last four games and eliminated quarterbacks that were injured like Big Ben or Alex Smith. I equal-weighted the Total QBR for the last four games and took the average. Again, the max on this scale is 100, and 50 is considered "average".

Tom Brady 90.6 (insane)
Russell Wilson 78.2
Josh Freeman 77.1
Drew Brees 74.5
Andrew Luck 74.3
Robert Griffin III 72.8
Andy Dalton 71.7
Matt Ryan 70.6

No other quarterbacks are over 70 for the period.

FOOTBALL OUTSIDERS DVOA/DYAR:

FO now lists ESPN's QBR numbers alongside their DVOA and DYAR metrics on their weekly tables, and as Mr. Beekers pointed out this morning, prior to Sunday's loss against Miami, Wilson was 15th in DYAR and 13th in DVOA. However, even in the loss, he improved to 13th in DYAR and 12th in DVOA this week among all starting quarterbacks in the NFL after the game.

12th in DVOA and 12th in TQBR. Again, fitting.

Wilson's DVOA ranking falls right behind Matt Ryan (9th), Matthew Stafford (10th), and Tony Romo (11th) and ahead of Eli Manning (13th), Andy Dalton (14th), and Josh Freeman (15th). Cam Newton (16), Joe Flacco (17), Andrew Luck (18), Sam Bradford (19), and Ryan Fitzpatrick round out the top-20 per DVOA.

As Thomas noted, Wilson's not used as much as other quarterbacks, so his total value (DYAR) is lower than his value per play (DVOA).

------------------

I have no idea what is going on with the Seahawks defense, and I don't know if they will make the playoffs. But I do know that Russell Wilson over the last four games is playing his balls off no matter how you cut the cake or break down the metrics, and that's a far bigger long-term development than the Miami loss or Adderall-gate. Take heart twelves.

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