If this were four months ago, the thought of uncertainty, quarterbacks and the Seahawks may have invoked feelings of anxiety or frustration due to the picture of a somewhat muddied and questionably promising situation. Heading into the off-season there were many directions the Seahawks could go at the position.
Coming off of a 7-9 record - with a 5-3 finish - the team's identity grew primarily through the running game and defense in the second half of the season, but much of the attention was ultimately placed on the quarterback spot, in particular the teams' inability to win in the 4th quarter, which was largely driven by the offense's lack of execution and consistency at the end of games. One could say general shortcomings and lack of depth at the position was a monkey wrench in the Seahawks' chances at finishing at anything better than 7-9 for most of the year. Even with the improvement of not being a team that lost in "grand fashion" as in 2010; naturally the responsibility for the teams' struggles fall on the quarterback.
While Tarvaris Jackson has acknowledged that he needs to work on closing games, Pete Carroll took responsibility for some of the late game struggles during the post-season presser, acknowledging their practice wasn't as complete as it could have been in regard to late game situations; perhaps the effect of the lockout and feeling rushed had something to do it. In general, I believe we saw reason to think this team is going the right direction. Presumably Jackson could improve even a little bit in his first offseason working with Carroll, Carl Smith and co.; the defense and team around him appear to be growing as well. We've seen Jackson be a legitimate competitor when leading this team - i.e. playing injured for weeks - and after all, he is currently the starting quarterback. At the very least, a full season with him healthy and a team playing similar to how they did in the 5-3 stretch, I personally don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that there could be improvement in record next season with him the starter, threaten to or maybe even make the playoffs if things continue to trend up.
But of course, there's a competition theme in Pete Carroll's program and this year coach intends for that theme to fully apply after an unusual 2011 training camp where Jackson was the guy before he took a snap. In the grand scheme of things, as this team grows, so should the depth the quarterback. With Whitehurst gone, Jackson is immersed in his own uphill battle and Josh Portis remains a major unknown to most that don't have VIP access at the VMAC. In January I advocated for an off-season quarterback plan that upgraded the roster to a point where there would be competition soon, if not immediately, a blueprint that enacted a variety of plans that could simultaneously play out. It wasn't about finding a replacement that could win right now, it was about creating a framework that collectively offered more chances at finding a quarterback of the future, at the right time, as the championship window opens. More chances at winning, more chances at creating trade assets, a more promising outlook for the future at quarterback and the team in general.
In such a plan Jackson would define his position once and for all and Josh Portis would also enter the fray, but not necessarily competing for starter - the front office speaks positively of his progress almost any chance they get, making a point to publicity talk him up. Carroll said to Brock and Salk on Wednesday, "Josh Portis is really making a statement too....He's done nothing other than make us think that maybe he can compete." Vague sentiments yes, but out of the running completely, presumably not.
Exit Charlie Whitehurst and enter Matt Flynn, a quarterback with championship experience in the NFL and at LSU, but only two NFL starts under his belt - albeit two statistically strong starts. Unproven yes, but unaware of what it takes to win he's not. Not a guy that will wow you with arm strength, but he's adept before the snap and can manage the game. He's fundamentally sound and the perception is he can get the job done when given the chance.
The Seahawks signed him to a relatively low impact contract to compete with Jackson; I think a great option to pair with Jackson simply because even with the hype Flynn remains unproven. This isn't Brett Favre we're talking about. And while I am not too familiar with Jackson's competition resume in Minnesota, I do know he was a raw quarterback coming out of college - my inclination is that he was "overdrafted" as well - and I am giving the benefit of the doubt here that this Jackson isn't the same one that lost out to other journey men signal callers four, five, six years ago.
As a trio, a stronger group than last season no doubt with Flynn replacing Whitehurst. My impression is that most believe that Flynn will emerge as the victor with Jackson the backup, (though I personally am hoping to see Jackson elevate his play to the situation), and Portis is the wildcard; are we talking ready to backup, or is he somehow ready? Not sure, but in the end this trio doesn't create a situation that breeds too much uncertainty. We know Jackson's floor - which hopefully is a bit higher in a full season of health - and there is an expectation for Flynn. Portis becoming a player in the competition is a bonus.
It's tough to carry four quarterbacks - Schneider told Softy Mahler that having four on the roster to battle it out is a situation they've "quite frankly been waiting to get to," though Schneider said keeping four on the end roster is unlikely; Carroll told Brock and Salk it's a great problem to have, being that deep at the position where it's an option to keep four.
As alluded to by Schneider, ideally they could have four quarterbacks shoot it out top to bottom; for the top spot, for the backup spot, for the third spot. Not to mention, having the guys that are competing for the third spot also competing for the top or backup spot is a bonus. John Schneider referred to it as a "healthy" competition; but it's also a very uncertain situation. This weekend is when the uncertainty geyser could open because that fourth quarterback officially enters the fray.
Third round pick Russell Wilson will make his first appearance as a Seahawk at the rookie mini-camp this weekend, his role for the immediate future unknown to all. I have been sprung on Wilson for a while - previously my "first" choice for Seattle's 3rd round pick - and believe he will be a factor in this situation, one way or another, because he's shown his adaptability as a player and this by no means is a clear cut situation.
On the radio with Softy Mahler last week, Schneider mentioned how he extensively consulted Ron Wolf about Wilson, evoking the 'tilt the field' conversation, which is not too surprising given Wolf's influence on Schneider.
I think's worth revisiting Wolf's sentiments on Brett Favre that I compared to Wilson in this post a few weeks before the draft, just as a refresher.
"Wolf, like Schneider, believed the quarterback and coach are the two most important people in the building, that an organization can't be great without stars at those two posts. 'You can't over-emphasize the quarterback's importance. He has to be able to lead a team, he has to perform consistently, and he has to make the big play in the most critical times. The better that player becomes, the better chance the team has to win...'
Now something more tangible. Wolf on his experience scouting Brett Favre the college quarterback: 'From the first time I scouted him, I was drawn to his special abilities. He wasn't the best quarterback I had scouted, but the more I studied him, the more I felt he was unique...When he played he raised his team above its normal playing ability. He could make his teammates competitive in situations where they should have been outclassed. He was the major reason Southern Miss pulled off huge upsets during his career.
More than anything else, this is the trait I want in a quarterback - the ability to instill in his teammates, when the task ahead of them seems impossible, the feeling that as long as he is playing they have a chance to win. That belief elevates squads and allows them to accomplish more than they are actually capable of...can they close it down then it comes to crunch time? Lots of people can handle the small stuff, but the true leaders withstand the pressure and pull off the really big performances." Wolf said that whenever "(Favre) he played the field tilted in his team's favor. Few players possess that ability.'"
One thing that is clear when listening to both Carroll and Schneider speak about Wilson on various radio interviews; there is almost nothing they both think he can't do as a football player, to the point that his character and leadership are the latter attributes they talk about. Schneider believes Wilson is a rare player and his compensating factors for his height - athleticism, anticipation, accuracy, arm strength in the pocket and on the move, ability to slide in the pocket and find passing lanes, his "grandpa hands" and long arms, the high release (JS notes Ryan Tannehill had 17 or 19 batted passes compared to Wilson's four in 2011), and the leadership - make Wilson different than any of the shorter quarterbacks to come out in the past decade. Schneider called him a "different animal" than what the Seahawks have with Flynn, Jackson or Portis.
Carroll praised Wilson's production as a senior and the fact that he was ACC rookie of the year as a freshman. Carroll believes if Wilson were taller he'd be in the conversation with the top players from this draft (more here). He singled out Wilson's "style of play" and ability to rise to the occasion in pressure situations, and mentioned how JS texted him from sidelines of the game against Michigan State (when the Spartans won on a hailmary) raving about how Wilson was tilting the field as they came back and lost. Currently, Carroll has no doubt Wilson is studying, trying to learn the playbook as quickly as possible, believing Wilson will surprise with his progress to this point. In sum; the duo seems very excited about Wilson and while Schneider said they will continue the course with the veterans battling for the top spot, Carroll went as far as to say it's up to Wilson to make it a three way competition... "I know that Russell believes that it is," Carroll told Brock and Salk on Wednesday.
That sends us back to Wilson's interview on KJR last Friday with Softy Mahler. First, he wants to learn from Carroll. He's excited to be on the constant quest for knowledge and to grow as a QB - sounds like a PC/JS kind of guy. "[There is] nothing like having the ball in your hands playing the quarterback position, every single play; it's about facilitating the ball to the right guy at the right time and taking your team up and down the field; converting on third down, converting in the red zone and bringing your team back in two-minute drills."
Some other nuggets from Wilson:
--He wanted to be Joe Montana - why he wore 16 in college - and also liked Steve young Growing up as a 49ers fan, during the end of the Bill Walsh era and beyond.
--He admires Drew Brees' consistency in leading the program - Schneider came to Seattle wanting to build a consistent yearly contender - and noted that beyond the physical skills of the greats; their intangibles, leadership, attention to detail help set them apart.
--His "height doesn't define [his] skill set." He studies Brees and Brady; wanting to understand what they do so well, why they those particular things as they do. He believes in understanding the whys of football; what's and whys of what the defense is doing, and trying to figure it out if he doesn't know.
Throughout the interview you could feel Softy building to the following question. Mahler mentions how now all of a sudden somebody says to Wilson hold a clipboard and learn what it's like to be standing on the sidelines; he asks how does a guy like Wilson adjust to that? Wilson:
"I don't change at all. Your competitive nature should never change. It's not going to change for me. Whether I'm starter day one, day 25 or two years from now; it's the mentality, you always have to be ready, you never know when somebody's going to go down, you never know when your opportunities going to shine on you. You just have to be ready to go. Mentally, I just have to prepare as if I'm going to be the starter and prepare and learn as much as I can as quickly as I can; understand the nuances of the offense."
He played in a West Coast offense for three years at NC State and knows the terminology; we saw his adaptability and intelligence through learning the playbook at Wisconsin in three weeks. He sees that as an advantage, that prior experience jumpstarting his learning of an NFL playbook.
Wilson strikes me as the type of person/player that makes expectations for himself; or he's made them for himself already and they might be higher than yours. So even though outside expectations will happen, he mentioned understanding the need to ignore the noise - both good and bad. His goal revolves around the organization and their expectations, and I think means something when JS says the two players they wanted were Irvin and Wilson, otherwise they wouldn't have been happy coming out of the draft. He's proven to handle pressure as a player, self-implemented expectations that don't need scrutiny; some of those intangibles Wilson spoke of the "greats" having.
In an interview with Softy - I promise, last one - Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema on Wilson, "I've never met a more complete human being....the person he is twenty four-seven is really, really special." He noted how in a program that relies upon developing hard working players over three, four years, Wilson came in and over a month's time learned the playbook and was unanimously voted captain. He mentioned how the Seahawks better teach Wilson what they want him to do correctly the first time around, because Wilson is an incredible learner and he's going to do it how they say. After gushing about how pro- ready Wilson is, Bielema ended the glowing ramble sounding almost out of breath, "he's so special, it's unbelievable." He cited former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez as saying they knew no one more prepared for a job than Russell. "He has that unique quality in a really special way of doing things." No, I'm not making this up.
Ok, so back to reality; how is this all really going to work? I got nothing. There is no doubt he has some stiff competition in the form of two veterans and a second year player in Portis, but it's telling that Carroll says that 'if this is a 3-way competition' is up to Wilson - does the same apply for Portis? There are a lot of ways this could go down, and resulting roster changes, but going down that will lead to a digression and a path not worth tracing, for now. A theme emerging for me, through Wilson and Bielema's words in conjunction with the seemingly excited uncertainty of the front office; Wilson wants that one chance to play and he is the type that once he gets it, he doesn't intend on going back to the sidelines. We'll see if that actually happens, how quickly the staff gives him the chance to set his own ceiling. Regardless, I have an inkling that there's little doubt in PC/JS's collective mind that the hype could get real, quickly. It's an uncertainty they seem excited to embrace.
This weekend's rookie mini-camp is not the true test as to whether or not he can effectively lead the Seahawks' offense from day one. The test comes when he's around the actual team. Carroll, on how a leader like Russell Wilson will handle the transition into the locker room, in terms of rookies properly demonstrating respect towards veterans they assimilate; "we're going to find out. I'm extremely interested to see how he handles the situation. It will be easy this first weekend, but on Monday it's different. He's going to have to go back to when is a freshman in high school or N.C State - (freshman year) -- and he's not to be comfortable, and that's a good thing."
Carroll noted he's going to look to see how each quarterback affects the level of the play around them; beyond the physical stuff, the intangibles. "If we're so lucky that our guys have that affect, then we really have a great competition, that'll make it really hard and that's a good thing." If that's the case then it will start to "lead into who has the bigger ‘it' of it."
This isn't an ‘it' measuring contest, but Wilson is all about the ‘it;' Flynn has been around and a part of it, Jackson is trying to learn it; Portis, who knows. I'm personally rolling with Russell for the long term, but there is no way of being certain that he'll even be active on Sundays this fall. Heck, I think wondering how he'll handle being both a rookie and a leader is a valid question to keep exploring - that fine line between confident and cocky as the new kid on the block. Though, that said; as mentioned earlier, I think expectations aren't really a factor for Wilson and my thinking is he'll find a way to make the transition smooth enough.
Honestly, after all of this, I don't have an answer for who has 'it' or who will start Week one. But at the very least, I can bring you back to where we started. Today: the thought of uncertainty, quarterbacks and Seahawks may invoke feelings of excitement and anticipation due to an increasingly attractive and promising quarterback situation.