Seahawks' rookie quarterback Russell Wilson had me picking my jaw up off the floor after his Friday night stage-grabbing performance, not because of his accuracy or because of his arm but because of the thing that makes those other two things better, his footwork. It seems like a small thing, and I'm sure fans have a passing knowledge of how it functions when they hear someone like Chris Collinsworth or Troy Aikman say "he threw that off his back foot," but the truth is, it's very, very important. When Mitch Levy asked Russell, shortly after he was drafted by the Seahawks, which quarterbacks he looks up to the most, Wilson replied, "Over the past several years, I've watched Drew Brees a lot. I have tons of film of Drew Brees on my computer, and I watched tons of film on him when I was at the University of Wisconsin as well. His footwork in the pocket, you know, that's what makes him so great."
Well, here comes a bit of a history lesson. Hey, stop throwing things at the blackboard! The next person that throws anything is going to be shipped to Buffalo! Anyway, when Bill Walsh and Paul Brown designed what would eventually be called the West Coast Offense by Bill Parcells, they had a big problem. The NFL was a running, \ grinding league at that time, back in 1968, and the Bengals, under Paul Brown, were really bad on the offensive line. Necessity being the mother of invention, Walsh and Brown built the fundimentals of the West Coast Offense to function as a substitute for the running game.
The goal, as Walsh would explain, was to create an offense around a quarterback, and to make his job easy. The big key was understanding how to create timing for quicker, more accurate passes. All quarterbacks that were any good in the league had catapults for arms and so a short passing game was nearly non-existent -- arms that strong required a longer release, making quick passes damn near impossible to complete regularly.
However, there was no discipline for this, and it was like creating a whole new field of science without the benefit of previous work and some dusty old papers. The footwork developed as more of a timing mechanism for the quarterbacks and receivers to know when the ball was coming out, and it also helped the linemen know how long they were supposed to block for, and how to set up the necessary pocket.
This created a short passing game and increased the accuracy of quarterbacks. Before the Walsh era in San Francisco caused everyone to reevaluate the passing game in general, it was very common to see quarterbacks with just over 50% completion rates and 50/50 TD-to-Interception ratios -- even the ones that were considered great passers at the time.
The footwork itself, though originally just a timing mechanism in it's design, was shown to help QBs, mechanically, with accuracy and touch and discipline to control their arms. We soon saw that this didn't just become the tool of a West Coast system, but a universal training tool that has now been stripped and adapted to every passing offense in the professional game.
Here are the basics to understanding QB mechanics and footwork:
3 Step Drop = Quickiest passing drop; deep designed routes, excluding nine routes (also known as 'go' routes) will usually be around 15 to 20 yards downfield. A 3 step drop is about 1.5 strides time to getting the ball out, and should be 2 to 3 seconds if play is properly executed.
5 Step Drops = Moderate passing drop; designed routes, aside from nine routes and go routes, will be 25-35 yards. QB will drop three full strides and then take a step to collect his momentum before he throws. This will help him push the ball downfield. Ball should be out in 3 to 4 seconds.
7 Step drops = Deepest passing drop; designed routes will mostly be 20+ yards, with the deepest being 35+ yards. The QB will take five full strides and step to bring his momentum forward for his throw. This play takes the longest to develop, but the ball should be out at around 4 to 5 seconds.
There are, of course, many more complex forms of these drops and if you'd like to understand more about this subject, this Instruction video by Bill Walsh below has everything a football nerd could want. You should watch all seven clips, but this one has the keys for the subject at hand.
I bring this all up because what I saw Russell Wilson demonstrate last Friday was a command of his footwork. He wasn't perfect, as I'll illustrate in a moment, but he's much more polished than I realized and that isn't just exciting, it says that he can focus more on learning the mental part of the game, and not as much the physical. This is actually one of the hardest aspects to learn for young guys who are just used to hitting any throw they made in college because their arms were better than 70% of the competition's.
Wilson doesn't just strong arm balls - he's letting his mechanics work for him and that puts him ahead of most rookies I've seen in the last 10 years watching this game on a weekly basis.
Greg Cosell described this last weekend on with Doug Farrar and Rob Rang, and noted:
"There's a reason - there's a reason - that 5'10 and a half quarterbacks don't get drafted high and have not started in this league. I'm not saying that Russell WIlson can't be an exception, he very well may be. But there's a reason, and it's legitimate. Really smart football people believe that it's hard to play quarterback at 5'10 and a half. But, I also started talking about Wilson by saying that I was most impressed with his quickness of decision making, and that is the critical element when you're shorter. You know, Drew Brees: what is one of the things that makes him special? -- How quickly the ball comes out. So far, Russell Wilson has done that.
"Now, he's obviously going to face, if he's the starter, he's going to see a lot more in terms of defensive pressure concepts, coverage schemes, hybrids, all kinds of stuff, and then we'll see what happens. I can only tell you what I've seen so far and that's probably what's impressed me the most as I continue to project him as a potential starter, is how quickly the ball comes out. The bodies are not getting to him.
"And, the other thing that's impressive, and we can talk about Jake Locker, who is the exact opposite, but [Wilson] has the ability to just drop back, hit his back foot, and just throw it. He doesn't have to step up, and hitch up into throws. And, that's critical, because the shorter you are, if you start hitching up, all you're doing is moving yourself into the rush, and there's no possible way you can be successful doing that."
A large part of what allows Wilson to get the ball out quickly, apart from his confidence, knowledge of defenses and the like, go back to the West Coast Offense footwork and timing, as developed by Bill Walsh. As Cosell puts it, Wilson doesn't need to hitch up to throw the football. This ability is pretty rare for a rookie.
Here are five examples of Russell Wilson's footwork from Friday's win over the Chiefs:
(1st Qtr 12:51 1st and 10) Simple three step throw to Sidney Rice on a comeback; Darrell Bevell called this, probably, to help Russell get rid of his tension by a quick easy throw. Unfortunately Wilson takes a bit of an extra step here and looks like he noticed his mistake because he tries to rush the throw at that point, but the hiccup in momentum causes him to sail the throw high and Rice makes a good play. Bear with the photos, as it's tough to illustrate footwork in stills.
(1st Qtr 3:33 2nd and 4) Looks like it was a 5 step drop but Giacomini got beat inside. This play caused me to drop my jaw even watching it more closely. This is a really good play from Wilson, he sees the inside pressure and knowing that he won't be able to step up, reestablishes himself outside in a pinch with a solid throw that I actually think judging by the angle he was trying to get it out of bounds but fortunately Edwards makes a great adjustment on the ball and brings it in. I would not be surprised if this was one play graded an A+ by the coaching staff.
This I think shows a fundamental difference between Seneca Wallace and Russell Wilson. Seneca when he moved in the pocket almost never reestablished on a throw like this. It's not designed but it's not true improv either because he never takes more than a couple of steps before letting go of the ball. Allowing his receivers the time they needed to work.
(2nd Qtr 0:34 1st and 10) This TD throw to Charlie Martin is not only perfect footwork - the way he steps back and then slides to collect his momentum from the shotgun - he also seems to understand the situation. Think about it, there are 34 seconds left with no timeouts, he could have thrown it to Turbin who was wide open in the flat but instead he throws a perfect pass to Charlie Martin. 9 out of 10 times Seneca Wallace is probably trying to get away with a throw to Turbin. 4th and 14 passes to Mack Strong, how I hated thee. (Ironically that pass was also against the Chiefs in 2006)
(3rd Qtr 14:10 1st and 10) An incomplete pass on a little trick play. Well designed and got the result, Russell throws this a little flat footed though and with nothing on it - the decision is right, the read is perfect - but the throw should have had more zip and led Tate away from the defender. Learning experience for Russell there but he'll have many of these in his rookie year even if he's playing well enough to keep the job.
(3rd Qtr 8:26 1st and 10) This throw to Terrell Owens is a great adjustment by the receiver again, but it's actually a fundamental design of the West Coast system. Once Wilson sees the safety stay in the box on this play, Owens becomes his primary read. The footwork is perfect, the decision is good, I just think he missed by getting a bit of air under the ball. However, he's still getting an A from me on it. The ball being placed against the sideline makes it a no win for the defender. This is a play in contrast to his Edwards TD connection against the Titans, where he threw the ball into the seam and the defender. He got away with that and scored a TD, but just because you can get away with it sometimes doesn't make it the right thing to do. Just ask Brett Favre.
A few important things to keep in mind:
1) The Seahawks are a run-first team despite using the West Coast system, which is designed to be all about passing with a limited rushing playbook.
2) This offense uses the shotgun formation. Famously, Mike Holmgren said he disliked the shotgun because it spoiled the rhythm and technique of the system, but eventually installed it in 2007 when protection was an issue. With Wilson, the shotgun will be a key part of what he does.
3) Checks and audibles to quick throws are something I think we still have to see more, because he'll have to make more of them as defenses dial-up pressure against a rookie. Arizona will be the first of many tests of his mettle on those kinds throws and situations.
In conclusion, I like Wison's confidence, his smooth tools are far beyond most rookies and I am excited for his potential after seeing his throws and decisions in the redzone. I think the potential is high here. I'm still nervous, but his game against the chiefs showed has potential to get it done. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts and opinions as we head into the last preseason game.