clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Russell Wilson Starting & His Odds of Success

Aug 11, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) runs with the ball during the game against the Tennessee Titans at CenturyLink Field. Seattle defeated Tennessee 27-17. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIRE
Aug 11, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) runs with the ball during the game against the Tennessee Titans at CenturyLink Field. Seattle defeated Tennessee 27-17. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIRE

Odds of success? Isn't the starting job his now? Around the League seems to think so, stating it's now "Wilson's job to lose", which...uh....ok? I have to admit, even if I didn't have any other reason to admire Pete Carroll and John Schneider, I'd love em for the way they confuse the hell out of NFL pundits. Because it's not Wilson's job to lose, it is Wilson's shot to show he can be a starter right now. They already know Flynn can be, now Wilson is getting a chance to show he can at least match him. Not just in the game, but in a week of practice. As much as we like to get excited over single plays in the pre-season, the reality is the practices count at least as much for player evaluation.

Now, there's a lot of interesting things to discuss on the periphery of the decision to let Wilson start against the Chiefs. It legitimizes the notion that this was a true quarterback competition, though I'm not of the mindset that him not starting would have somehow made it all a fraud. If they had seen enough, they'd seen enough. They have more information than us, and might not need the additional information a start brings. But the staff decided they do need that information, and that's fine. Will this cause harm to the readiness of whoever eventually starts? Yes. But we knew that would be the drawback of any QB competition. You can't really rush the end in the name of readiness if you've been running the competition legitimately up to this point.

But the real question to me is "what does Russell Wilson need to do to claim the starting job?" He doesn't have it, but he has an open shot to claim it. Will he? Heck if I know. That is beyond my predictive abilities. I really liked him since before the draft and did a little dorky fistpump when we picked him, but his limitations do make it hard to gauge not just when he'll be ready but also when our offense will be ready to have him succeed. Even though Wilson was the most exciting pick since Earl Thomas for me personally, I thought all along it was a long-shot for him to start week 1 and still think so, but now the opportunity is there, and we'll see if he can do it.

The interesting thing in preseason games is that due to the lack of gameplanning, you are down to one-on-one matchups for many positions. Because of that, many elements of play can be judged fine (at least, by coaches) regardless of if you're playing first, second or third-team. This is less true for quarterbacks, but do keep in mind, I don't think the coaches are really interested in seeing if Wilson still has a strong arm and scrambling ability or bizarre luck on failed out-of-bounds throws. He was exciting to watch against the Titans and the Broncos, but he's not going to claim the job by playing the same way he did those games.

Exciting isn't the same as good. It's a joy to watch for a fan when a quarterback makes things happen on broken plays, and it's amusing to watch a quarterback who can freewheel and overclass a defense by improvisation, but the thing doesn't really happen in the NFL. OCs want quarterbacks who execute the gameplan. Yes, you can make things happen when protection breaks down and the plan breaks down, but how many successful plays do you think really happen that way in the NFL? How many NFL quarterbacks based their game on freewheeling? Greg Cosell discussed early-career Vick here and he makes an assertion that every NFL fan should needlepoint into his/her brain:

If you play the position properly, and much goes into doing that both before and after the snap, you will play within structure a very high percentage of the time. Improvisation and sandlot play may occasionally look spectacular, but they are random and arbitrary. By definition, they are both positive and negative. That's not the recipe for consistent success in the NFL.

Joshua Kasparek already discussed the way a scrambling quarterback usually works to the long-term detriment of an offense. But I'm drawing it a little wider than scrambling, and talking about improvisation in general. The core point lies in a lack of predictability and coordination from the viewpoint of offensive teammates and the quarterback's coach. American football matches tend to be very careful chess games. Imagine playing a chess game where every three moves your King moves in a random direction. That's about how well it works. That's not to say it can't incidentally succeed, but it is "random and arbitrary" whether or not it does, and structurally you can not build an offense that way. Scrambling and sandlot play are supplemental skills for any high-level quarterback, not core skills. You have to consistently complete passes within plays as designed to succeed as an NFL quarterback. Wilson notes himself here that he works to "just salvage the play as much as I can", but the quarterback's job is to do anything to stop a play from breaking down, not to bail the pocket and salvage. Extend the play first, salvage it second.

Am I saying Russell Wilson is a scrambling quarterback? Nope, but as Kasparek points out, throwing him in early may lead to learning bad habits. I'm not a believer in an absolute rule of sitting rookie QBs, you have to handle it case-by-case, and Wilson is a rookie who might benefit from this. But as a fan, I have no way of knowing for sure what Wilson is right now. He bailed on a lot of plays and freewheeled a lot in two games so far, but does that have to do with inferior protection? More opportunities due to inferior players around him? Coaches telling him to just have fun out there? I do find it worrisome to watch him play sandlot football and while it's fun to see him make miraculous plays, it's the passes from the pocket that most impress me. Though even on those, I see a continuation of the habit to put too much power on long passes, and a lack of movement inside the pocket, especially the latter one being worrisome.

I am postulating that the reason the coaches want to play him with the first now is not to see if he can still freewheel and scramble, they know he can, but to put him in a situation where he is challenged to be a structured pocket passer and to see if he can do it. That means that to succeed, it's not a matter of if he can score touchdowns or get first downs, but how he does it. We're not looking for incidental freewheeling plays, we're looking for good structure, good fundamentals. Can Wilson do it? I hope so, he's awesome. But I don't know for sure. I'll watch his pocket movement in particular with interest, since he didn't show much of it so far, either in the NFL or in college.

There is one set of reasons that make me doubtful about his chances to claim the job, and it has very little to do with Russell Wilson's skillset, and everything with his height and the rest of the offense. I hear the noise of thousands of pairs of eyes being rolled, but it's true. Wilson's height does not mean he can't succeed, but neither am I comfortable with people trying to handwave it away completely. It is a factor, and not a small one. It is a limitation you have to compensate with surrounding talent and play design.

Shorter quarterbacks need bigger throwing lanes, and with the Badgers, Wilson got those. He played behind the biggest offensive line in college, yes, but it was also an OL that was ridiculously more talented than the defensive lines they faced. It is an imbalance in talent that does not happen in the NFL (except for the 2005 Seahawks, of course). It is the domination of the offensive line and Montee Ball that lead to much wider throwing lanes, undisturbed pockets and that in turn leads to less batted passes. People who cite either that OL's length or the low number of batted passes as "proof" that Russell Wilson's height is not a factor really just don't understand the game of football. Batted passes measure the ability of the offensive line and the quickness of the quarterback's release, possibly the release point/angle, but certainly not height.

I went back to study Drew Brees at Purdue (where he looked like a noodle-armed QB who loved scrambling way too much) to the Chargers and Saints. Brees is not someone who can succeed in any offense. Because of his height, there are parts of the offense that have to be tailored to his limitations. A small offensive line? No, he operated with 6'5 and 6'4 offensive guards. Again, forget the whole 'big offensive line' thing. It doesn't matter if they're big, it matters if they dominate, as Brees' interior protection with the Saints has been the best in the NFL.

The difference between interior and edge pass rush is huge for quarterbacks with good pocket movement, like Drew Brees or Tom Brady. You don't leave the pocket for pressure unless you have to, you move inside it to avoid pressure. The additional difference for short QBs is that while edge pressure is avoidable and relatively less important, inside pressure is hard to handle, as it ruins your down-field vision. One of my notes on Brees says "inside pressure is the mind-killer", because that's what it looks like when he plays. In every NFL game of Brees I watched, Chargers or Saints, it is inside pressure that Brees struggles with more than anything a defense can throw at him. He moves extremely well to avoid outside pressure, stepping up or shading off into open spaces, but if the interior isn't properly bunched up by the guards and center bad things can happen, and often do. It becomes even more difficult when you realize a short QB needs deep drops and shotgun snaps to get good visibility, so he needs to be able to sense and respond to edge pressure much better than average QBs. Ideally for the Saints, snap-to-snap, the center and guards move the defensive tackles/ends into the center of the field, while the tackles walk the edge rushers around the pocket as best they can, affording maximum view of the field.

Brees stays in the pocket as much as possible, except in short-yardage redzone situations, where the busier short field means you have to create your own visibility. If "Brees rolls out to the right, passes to half-back/TE on or near the goalline" sounds familiar, it's because it's the play they always run on 2-point conversions. But you won't see Brees roll out too much outside of those plays, which makes sense, because bootlegging means you're limiting the portions of the field you can throw to effectively and if it's a constant part of your gameplan you are making it easier on the defense both in taking away part of the field, and in putting your quarterback out there to take hits.

Another big factor is your wide receivers. Not all of Brees' WRs are tall - Lance Moore is a diminutive 5'9 and has been an important part of that offense for years. That said, tall WRs/TEs are preferable, from the 6'4 Antonio Gates, 6'5 Malcolm Floyd and 6'5 Kassim Osgood with the Chargers to the 6'4 Marques Colston and 6'7 Jimmy Graham with the Saints. Tall WRs make any QB's job easier, but there is some added benefit for short ones in how easy it is to spot them and how high you can place the ball for them to go up and grab, thus properly spiraling it over defenders. More than height, the most important factor is trust and timing. At Wisconsin, Wilson worked with the 6'3 Nick Toon, 6'2 Jared Abbrederis and 6'4 Jacob Pedersen.

This is important for every QB, but Brees does have to throw to WRs - especially the shorter ones - blindly a lot, and he needs to know they're on the same page as he is, and that their timing is impeccable. Watching him with the Saints first against the Vikings and then against the 49ers, he throws passes to the 5'6 Darren Sproles and the 5'9 Moore (for a touchdown) where there is no way he can see them over or through his line and the defenders.

In both these elements, you can see where the envisioned Hawks offense offers perfect circumstances for Wilson. A huge, bruising offensive line and dominating run game help keep pass pressure off (again, the interior being most important), while tall WRs make easy targets. That's the envisioned Hawks offense, which would actually run a lot more like the Brees-led Chargers than the Brees-led Saints. That might be a key distinction to frame future expectations in, but that's for a later date.

But the Hawks offense right now offers a dinged-up, somewhat leaky offensive line and could be missing key wide receivers, not to mention Wilson has not practiced enough with them to develop all that much rhythm. This is true for this one game against the Chiefs, but it'd probably be true for week 1 and much of the early season as well, as both the offensive line and wide receiver groups are unsettled due to injury and/or competition. These are disadvantages for Matt Flynn as well, but they're not quite as troublesome for him.

On top of that, we haven't seen all that much pocket movement from Wilson. I know he can do it. Even going back to his time with NC State, from my viewing of the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl versus WVU (starring Bruce Irvin!), there are several moments I noted good pocket movement and small subtle steps to create passing lanes for himself. But he didn't show a ton of it in college, and even less in the NFL so far. Though it's an extremely limited sample size, Davis noted recently, 'not one time, in two games, has Russell Wilson stepped up and climbed the pocket under pressure to throw the ball.' He can do it, but has he mastered it sufficiently?

It's a tall order for Russell Wilson to succeed in this offense right now, as opposed to succeed in the NFL eventually (which I'm fairly sure he will do, in the right circumstances). I wouldn't be particularly disappointed if he falls short, nor is it "his fault" if the surrounding offensive talent doesn't offer the right context, but it would then be wise to wait until our offense is more stable and improved. He's a rookie, and the circumstances aren't set up well for his limitations. Nor can we say with certainty this game will allow him to show his skills in this area, as there could be a big need for moving pockets and bootlegs. Still, if he shows good pocket awareness and movement, as well as good post-snap decision-making on his throws (even if they do have too much salt on 'em for long throws), he can claim the job. Just realize we haven't seen enough of this kind of ability from him yet to say much one way or the other, and I would speculate that this is exactly why he is being tested as a starter. To start right now, he has to show that even within this limited offense he can display good passing fundamentals, extend plays from within the pocket rather than by bailing, and not rely on scrambling and improvisation as core skills. Let's see if he can do it...