Russell Wilson & The Signature NFL Throw

Kevin C. Cox

"I went to Drew's homecoming game against Minnesota, and sat around all Friday with Scot McCloughan's father, a long-time scout, and talked about what made Drew successful... he slides in the pocket, his vision downfield, and he delivers the ball when guys are still two or three steps from the top of their route. The ball is just there. And basically, Russell is the closest guy [to Drew] that I've seen since that day."

- John Schneider

That quote above comes from an interview on SIRIUS radio from back in February, where Schneider was talking to Rich Gannon about the pre-Draft process that went into scouting Russell Wilson, and ultimately what went into the decision to take the chance on the short-in-stature quarterback out of Wisconsin. Drew Brees as a short-quarterback precedent in the modern NFL evidently had a big impact on the process.

Wilson, obviously, ended up winning the starting job out of training camp and was immediately thrown into the fire as a 3rd round rookie quarterback. He started his career by throwing ten touchdown passes to eight interceptions in the Seahawks' first eight games of 2012 - eight games in which the Seahawks went 4-4. In the following ten games, including Seattle's two playoff games, Wilson threw 19 touchdown passes and ran for five more against only three interceptions, and his team went 8-2.

Of course, it wasn't always clear that Wilson could hack it in the NFL - he, and the Seahawks, had a fairly shaky start, and many believed the coaching staff had rushed to name him the day-one starter. I imagine this was a stressful time for Seattle's front office, but when Gannon asked John when he knew that Russell was 'the guy', Schneider mentioned the Carolina game in Week 5, when "the coaches said ‘let's let him rip it more than 14 times a game and see what happens.'"

Wilson went 19 of 25 in that game for 221 yards with a touchdown and two picks - and you may remember one distinct throw downfield to Golden Tate for 50-odd yards that was called back due to a Breno Giacomini hold. It may not have been the prettiest game, statistically, but at that point, the coaches knew Wilson could sling it if they needed him to. Wilson, handcuffs firmly in place prior to that game, hadn't thrown for more than 160 yards and that 160 yards came in a loss to St. Louis in which he threw three picks. The Carolina game was a turning point of sorts, and the following week, at home against New England, he dropped 293 yards and three touchdowns in shocking Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Now, I'm not going to re-hash the entire season, its ups and downs, and this wasn't originally/isn't actually meant as a Russell Wilson love-fest (though it did turn out to be, really, a Russell Wilson love-fest) - but the one thing that I keep coming back to about Wilson isn't that his read-option ability adds another dimension to the offense, or that his leadership qualities are off the charts, or that he has a knack for playing at a top level when the stakes are high - it's that he's actually a really, really good quarterback when asked to throw from the pocket. That golly-gee-gosh-darn fundamental old-school notion tends to get lost in the noise of the 'new school quarterback' and 'read-option' dialogue. I'm part of that - the Field Gulls team has written near ad nauseam about the read option and the wrinkles therein (HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE), but can you blame us!? It's a sexy new scheme to write about and it was seriously successful.

Plus, I mean, Wilson is a new-school type of guy and does things with his legs that most pocket QBs can't do, but he can also throw. That's what I'm saying. And that's important. Belee' dat.

Now, how does one illustrate that Russell Wilson is a good pocket thrower? There are hundreds of throws to choose from over the course of a season, but I decided that for the purpose of appreciating that he can, as scouts will say, "make all the throws", I'd highlight a few impressive 'deep out' passes from the Playoffs that serve as an excellent example.

I remember watching NFL Turning Point during the week following Seattle's win over the Redskins in the Wild Card Round of the Playoffs, and they highlighted a throw Wilson made to Golden Tate at the sideline - with the commentator noting the 'deep out' is "The Signature NFL Throw."

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The 'deep out' - a ten-plus yard up-and-out route by the wide receiver - 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 also inherently dangerous because if this pass is picked off, there's not much in the way of the corner or defensive back from returning it for a touchdown.

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.

In NFL Turning Point's example, early in the third quarter, Russell Wilson throws the ball to Golden Tate fifteen yards downfield, and puts the football in exactly the only location that Tate can get it - just out of the reach of Josh Wilson, who for his part has played Tate fairly closely. Look at Josh Wilson's left arm reach up to deflect the pass - had the ball been chest high to Tate, (Josh) Wilson would have just batted it down. Because (Russell) Wilson threw the ball up a little bit higher, for Tate to go and get it, the pass is completed and the Seahawks get some much-needed momentum.

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For NFL Turning Point's purposes, this was an excellent example of the deep out. But, I actually thought a pass that Wilson threw earlier in the game was a better demonstration of the type of elite skill it takes to play quarterback in the NFL.

This:

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I mean, seriously: What better example is there of highly-skilled, highly-trained, elite, freak athletes being featured in a big-stage, high-pressure situation which requires pinpoint precision fundamentals in regards to kinetic form and body control? Is there a more apt situation in which said athletes rely on innate talents that have been honed, harnessed and focused for the specific duties required in the sport of football for over a decade or more, all in order to achieve optimum, peak performance when absolutely needed? I mean, there's probably a ton of examples. But this is a damn good one, in my mind.

The sheer amount of hours spent by athletes, trainers & coaches in order to execute this particular play at this particular moment is unfathomable. Imagine you and me trying to complete this play. It'd be hilarious; I'd probably tear my rotator cuff making the throw and you'd probably pull your achilles just getting off the line. Takes me back to Craig's post from last week about how insanely good these NFL players really are. This is in real time. This happens so fast. Unreal.

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Of all of Russell Wilson's throws from 2012, his rookie season, this one might've been the most impressive (or is perhaps tied with his absurd Romo-Spin-Move-Then-Throw-to-Rice in the Dolphins' game).

Let's do rudimentary math to get an idea of how tough this throw was. Wilson lets loose from about the 47-yard line and is roughly in the middle of the field (53.3 yards wide). He hits Sidney at the sideline at the 11-yard line (36 yards downfield). Using the pythagorean theorem, if you're calculating the hypotenuse (the trajectory of the throw) that's approximately a 45-yard frozen rope dagger, a "p-rod," as my old high school baseball coach might call it, with pinpoint - absolutely pinpoint - placement. The read-option could go fuck off and die and I'd not lose a minute of sleep - because Russell Wilson can make this throw.

I mean, let's not forget to mention Sidney in this because he seems to make at least one of these absurd catches a game. It's a deadly combination to have a player that can make these types of catches and a quarterback that is willing to pull the trigger on these types of throws. Rice's toe-tap running full speed toward the sideline while jumping up to make the catch on a ball thrown 40 yards upfield is... well, it hard to do. Ask any high-school or college-level receiver - catching a well-thrown, high velocity pass at a dead run with a helmet and pads on, when you're wide open, is tough enough to do. This, is absurd.

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The cool thing about Wilson's ability to throw the deep-out is that it's more frequent of an occurrence than you'd think. In the next week's matchup with the Falcons, Wilson connected on several more of these throws, from the pocket. Here's a few examples:

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Some believe that arm strength is an overrated attribute for a quarterback. I am not really in that camp, but Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell are two high-profile analysts who are firmly entrenched opposite those who believe that - they consistently espouse their beliefs that arm strength - "arm talent" - still has to be one the main factors in quarterback evaluation. In this West Coast Offense day-in-age, there are things you can do to manipulate an offense around a guy who has a sub-par arm, but E.J. Manuel was a first-rounder & Matt Barkley fell to the fourth round for a reason, and arm strength is probably the main culprit.

As Cosell noted in the Pre-Draft runup - "I'm a big believer in arm strength, by the way. There are certain times you've got to make stick throws into tight windows, often in critical situations. So, I believe in arm strength. I don't want my offense to always have to be manipulated, managed and controlled by the coach, in order for the quarterback to be successful."

Russell Wilson doesn't have a cannon - Matt Stafford and Aaron Rodgers, for example, are stronger throwers - but the dude can spin it well enough to 'make all the throws'. Plenty well enough to make these throws consistently, and in critical situations. Cosell also often mentions that the throws one does or doesn't make is what separates the good quarterbacks from the greats - the greats will make stick throws downfield into traffic with velocity and precision, and the mediocre QBs won't even attempt it. That's pretty hard to evaluate, really.

I guess I'm just glad that you see Wilson doing it fairly often. He's in a system that is allergic to turnovers, but he's also coached by 'Big Balls' Pete, who loves the power of the explosive play and the downfield strike. It's a weird dichotomy.

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So, what's this mean for the Seahawks? Well, it's exciting in the fact that I feel pretty comfortable in knowing Wilson wasn't a flash in the pan that was spurred on by the read-option. There are those that believe the read option will die and at this point it's all conjecture so I'm not going to argue one way or another - but what I do know is that even if it does die, Wilson is a strong thrower from the pocket nonetheless. This bodes well for his long-term success. More important though, 2013 is exciting.

I have a post by Mike Sando permanently bookmarked, and in that article, Sando somewhat nonchalantly slips in Wilson's total numbers inside and outside the pocket in 2012 - and the numbers are encouraging:

In 2012, Russell Wilson worked his way outside the pocket to throw on 119 plays - he completed 65 passes on 105 attempts, a 61.9% clip. On those plays, he threw for 814 yards with 7.8 YPA, with 5 TD to 2 INT. His NFL rating on those 'outside the pocket' plays was 93.9 and his Total QBR was 73.4.

On plays in which he dropped back and stayed inside the pocket, he completed 187 of 288 passes, a 64.9% completion percentage, for 2,304 yards, 8.0 YPA (!!!) and 21 TD to 8 INT. He was sacked 24 times (a number that, in my mind, will almost surely go down in 2013 as the line improves and Wilson better recognizes defenses and sets protections). HIs NFL Rating inside the pocket was a cool 102.3 and his Total QBR was 73.5 - nearly identical to his numbers outside the pocket.

So, he can throw from the pocket, regardless of whether the read-option is on or not. That's my point. That's pretty cool.

Old Rusty Wilson was on the Bob and Groz show the other day and talked about some of the ways he was looking to improve in 2013. He singled out a couple of interesting things:

"I think the biggest things are footwork and protection," he said. "Those are the two most important things, I think, in terms of playing the quarterback position. Now, how can we get protected up: just understanding that and learning that as much as I can. And, then also in terms of the footwork side of it, the better your feet, the more plays you can make, you know? And, it's not just necessarily throwing on the run or anything like that - because it's all those throws too, and those throws and those plays are really, really explosive - but it's also just sliding to the right one (step), or sliding to the left one, whatever it is. So, you really have to be able to expand your game in that aspect."

Sounds Brees-y. Subtle slides inside the pocket are what make Brees so good at his height.

Wilson was then asked about the three-way competition in training camp between Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Flynn, and himself.

"I think it did hinder me a little bit," he admitted, "because you're only getting a third of the reps. It's one of those things where you're trying to get all those reps and physically get those reps and throw with the guys, but you just have to take it and try and learn mentally as much as you can.

"So, that's what I did last year - this year? It's both. I get all the mental reps and also the physical reps in terms of repping with the ones, and just getting in there and I know my offensive linemen, I know my tight ends, I know my receivers, I know my running backs, I know who's really really good at getting in and out of routes, I know who's good at coming back to the football, whatever it is. You know, you get a feel for those guys and you get an understanding of what they're really really good at, and you want to play to their strengths and you want to put them in the best position possible.

"And, just feeling comfortable in the huddle, and taking charge, and understanding the offense that much better, and how to change plays and go from one thing to the next, and so, I think that I've definitely matured even more, and that's the great thing about it. Coach Carroll and the offensive staff did a tremendous job helping me through the process, and learning and just trusting me, and giving me everything that they possibly could."

As for the read option?

"I definitely think you can expand on it, the more you learn about it the more you can understand it and understand how it works and how it doesn't work - at the same time, you know, that's just a curve ball for us. That's not our best pitch. It's one of those things where, you know, your best pitch is handing the ball off to Marshawn Lynch from under center, and I'll throw play action off of it, and just dropping back normal - so I think [those are] our best pitches. But, [the read option] is a tough one to stop when you can do that too, as well."

That's well said by Wilson and goes along with my post - the read option is a change-up to the rest of their offense and the frequency bears that out as well. According to Sando (another post I have perma-bookmarked), the Seahawks only ran the read-option 5.6% of the time in 2012. Of course, that number jumped up toward the end of the year, so for accuracy's sake, let's look at the last ten games - you'll remember that Wilson threw 19 touchdown passes and ran for five more against only three interceptions while the Seahawks went 8-2 - Seattle used the read-option on 11.8% of their offensive snaps. Also worth remembering that toward the end of the year, Wilson was handing off to Lynch or Turbin most of the time on these as well.

Throw throw throw. Throwing is important. There's no real way to end this post so let's just say that I'm excited about Russell Wilson's prospects in 2013. I think he's going to blow people out of the water. Maybe I'm a homer. But still. It legitimately makes me laugh when I see people on Twitter saying that Russell Wilson is overrated. You guys are so dumb. You are really dumb, for real.

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Thanks to BigTrain21 for making me these GIFS!!! And thanks to Glen Peer for sending me a transcription of the John Schneider interview on SIRIUS. You guys are cool in my book.

More Reading:

The Numbers Game | X's & O's Breakdowns

What does Antoine Winfield do for the Seattle defense?

How DangeRuss is the QB rush?

Malcolm Smith: Now or never

91-man roster: Seahawks age chart as of May 1st, 2013

Seahawks' 20-man rookie class age/height/weight/speed

Schneider's schooling

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