In Russell Wilson's rookie year, I was not a Seattle Seahawks fan, but I was rooting for him.
From watching him briefly, he seemed to be a good game manager, something I actually like in a rookie. But I really didn't follow him very much until I saw some of his scrambling. Generally speaking, scrambling is not a move by game-managers, particularly scrambles that resemble Fran Tarkenton's--and Wilson's did. Something else was going on here--this wasn't an ordinary game-managing rookie.
So I started going back and watching his games, and while the scrambling plays were a hoot, other things started catching my eye, qualities that spectators might easily overlook because they seem banal and insignificant, but, to my mind, aren't. I think most know about Wilson's spectacular passes and runs, but I wanted to focus on seemingly insignificant details that helped elevate my opinion of Wilson, quickly making him my favorite player.
The mundane qualities I have in mind are things like intentionally throwing the ball away, running for little or no gain (especially after a long scramble) and avoiding big hits. You might wonder what the big deal is about these things. Or, maybe you understand their importance, but you may not think they warrant discussion. In this post, I'm going to explain why they're a big deal to me.
Let's start with intentionally throwing the ball away. I'm not sure how others feel, but in my view, all QBs need to be able to do this, as sometimes this is absolutely the best move--e.g., no open receivers and a pass rusher is about crush the QB. Throw the ball away and live to fight another day--that's an important principle for QBs to understand; and yet: some QBs really struggle with this, especially the younger ones and the gunslinger types.
Out of panic, impatience, overconfidence and a misunderstanding of how to play the position, some QBs will force a throw when they shouldn't, often with disastrous results. This is a dangerous mindset for a QB to have, and QBs have to get past this if they ever want to get good at throwing the ball away (as strange as that may sound). Some never do. Not Wilson--as a rookie, he did a good job of throwing the ball away, and he seemed very comfortable doing it. Rookie QBs that do this really impress me, as it suggests a level of self-control, maturity, poise and solid understanding of how to play QB--qualities I associate with a seasoned veteran. That's how I felt about Wilson.
But Wilson not only did this on conventional pass plays, he also threw the ball away, and minimized costly mistakes, on scramble plays, which impressed me even more. For one thing, the physical demand is much greater. The QB needs considerable athleticism not only to initially avoid pass rushers, but to continue to avoid them as the play extends, as well as outrunning defenders when becoming a ball carrier.
Wilson was terrific in all these areas, making it look effortless at times, but this is fairly well known. What may be less well known and less appreciated is the way he'd use his athleticism to avoid big hits. I'm thinking especially about those runs where he'd gain as many yards as possible and then just slip out of bounds untouched at the last second. This may sound strange, but I got really excited about seeing him do this consistently. A lot of athletes use their physical abilities to make a splashy play. These moves were for something less spectacular, but no less important (just ask RGIII). And while the move may be mostly a result of natural instincts, it seemed like something more--specifically, a thoughtful and intelligent use of his physical gifts.
He wasn't just using his great athleticism to make the spectacular play, he was using it to make the smart one, something rather unusual. It was the move of a wily veteran would make if he had a younger, athletic body.
Wilson displayed good decision-making during these long scrambles as well--something these plays require to a greater degree. For one thing, the decision-making process is more complex. Not only does the QB have to decide whether to pass, who to pass to; whether to throw it away or take a sack, they also have to consider whether to tuck the ball and run or to continue extending the play.
The decision-making process for Brady or Brees almost never includes running or extending a play--both of which strain the judgment of a QB--adding another option to weigh and also because they reduce or eliminate the normal cues that guide a QB during a play.
For example, no receivers being open after going through a progression of reads is a signal to throw the ball away. But what if the QB scrambles after that has occurred? A lot of those cues go out the window when a QB scrambles, especially if he is willing to attempt those Tarkentonian ones. (Theoretically, the play can go on indefinitely as long as the QB can evade the pass rushers.) A scramble play can also challenge a QB's poise and intestinal fortitude. These are the reasons I think scramble plays end badly and why I wouldn't want my QB doing them.
But Wilson was different. Not only would he consistently avoid disaster, but he seemed to be in total command, displaying poise and sound judgment amid the pressure and chaos. What gave me the impression wasn't only the success he'd sometimes have, but other little things as well. For example, he'd continue to look downfield rather than quickly tucking and running with the ball.
When QBs scramble and takes off, it often suggests panic and/or impatience (of not wanting to let a play develop). Wilson would quickly take off at times, but he would also frequently scramble to continue to scan the field, which suggested he's not scrambling or running out of panic--just the opposite; and when he had nothing there, he seemed content to throw the ball away or run back to the line of scrimmage.
All of these behaviors are incongruous with scrambling and scrambler's mindset. Scrambling is a more extreme version of forcing a throw from the pocket--the QB attempts to make more time for himself, believing that he can (and maybe must) single-handedly make something happen, on that play--versus moving on to the next play and relying on the defense, special teams and other offensive players.
While a lot of good things can happen during a scramble play, it is often a product of recklessness, poor judgment, egotism and a lack of understanding. Throwing the ball away or running back to the line of scrimmage, when done frequently, suggest the opposite--namely, poise, patience, and the proper understanding of quarterbacking. When Wilson acted in this way during these scramble plays it showed he could maintain the benefits of scrambling while reducing its drawbacks.
That's not a small thing. Even if scramble plays occasionally lead to an explosive offensive play, scrambling is a bad if the QB also has a tendency to lose a lot of yards, turn the ball over or take a devastating hit. The negatives would far outweigh the positives in my view, and my estimation of Wilson and his playmaking ability would be a lot less if this were the case.
But suppose, at the worst, a QB would generally get the ball back to the line of scrimmage on these scramble plays. In my view, that would not only make the scramble play acceptable, it would make it a very valuable offensive weapon. This is one of the main reasons Wilson's ability to avoid costly errors and big hits and get the ball back to the line of scrimmage is so important.
Just to be clear: I think Wilson is a terrific playmaker, making spectacular plays with his arm and legs, displaying strong indications of what Bill Walsh referred to as spontaneous genius--that is, the ability to make something positive happen when a play breaks down. Equally important, Wilson has shown the ability to do this in big moments. All of this make him a very special player in my view.
But Wilson's savvy at avoiding disaster--a big loss, a big hit or a costly turnover--is critical as well. Without these attributes, he wouldn't be nearly as special in my view. Really, It's the juxtaposition and synthesis of the these diametrically-opposed qualities--free-wheeling playmaking, on one hand, and rock-solid game management, on the other--that make him such a unique and exceptional QB.