I had to jump off Twitter during the 2nd half of the Seahawks week 1 loss to Arizona. I couldn't take it anymore. I had become more focused on batting down stupid, short-sighted fan tweets, than I was on watching the game. Many fans allow their passion for their team to blind them from the realism of a given situation, and on Sunday, Twitter was flooded with reflections of absurd expectations with regard to rookie QB Russell Wilson. The point of this post is not to talk down to anyone, but to provide perhaps a different perspective - one that will hopefully set a more realistic expectation for fans with regard to the rookie QB, and the Seahawks offense as a whole.
Let's start from the beginning - Russell Wilson is a rookie QB in the NFL. I don't care that he was drafted in the 3rd round. Even if he was drafted in the first round...guess what? He'd still be a rookie QB making his first NFL start. Ask Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill. This isn't a video game. Wilson doesn't have a set of "ratings" or attributes that will automatically equate to a certain level of success when you plug him into a brand new environment that he has never experienced. There are real, intangible effects of being a rookie.
It is, in fact, a very significant event, that a rookie is starting at QB for the first time in the NFL, in the first NFL game he's ever played in. No matter how mentally tough Wilson, or any rookie for that matter, is, there are psychological effects and impacts to anyone stepping into such a situation, and these impacts should be expected to effect a rookie's play.
The common rebuttal to this is something to the tune of "He's in the NFL! He should be ready, or he shouldn't play". Not true. You can never be ready for something you've never experienced. Ask married guys. Seriously though, it's impossible to be fully prepared for an unprecedented environment or experience. It would be oxy-moronic to think on the contrary. Yet every player, if he's ever going to play in the NFL, will have to experience that first moment and be thrust into that environment that he's never been in. That means every player in the league, at some point, stepped into their first NFL game unprepared, to some degree. This is logic.
Think about it - Russell Wilson stepped into a situation on Sunday that he had never experienced. And not just because he was playing in a league called the NFL, or because he was playing in a stadium he'd never played in. These points are both true, sure. But what about the fact that he hadnever experienced the game of football at the speed that it was played on Sunday? What about the fact that he had never been on the field with that much talent and speed coming at him? Neither practices nor preseason can adequately prepare a player for that.
This isn't Wilson's 5th season of college football, folks. Everything he experienced on Sunday was brand new. Everything. And there absolutely must be allowances made for that reality.
This is why, as a scout, I'm trained to look at certain attributes during college and in the preseason which indicate that a player might, at some point, be able to make plays consistently at the NFL level. Fundamentals, decision-making, instincts, awareness and athleticism (the latter being least important) are all key things to focus in on.
These aren't guaranteed projectors, but they're key indicators of whether or not a guy "gets" the game at one speed. Then, to a degree, you're guessing as to whether or not he's going to be able to fill the gaps between the drastically different speeds of the levels of competition. We evaluate these attributes with the full knowledge that they'll need to hold up in a much faster, more violent and confusing environment. There is no NFL simulator. This is why scouts "miss" almost as often as they "hit" on a player. The speed of the NFL game makes that much of a difference.
Matt Flynn probably would have thrown for more yards than Wilson. He might have completed one of those final passes to win the game. And the expectation of him to do so should be greater, because Flynn would not have been in a situation that he had never experienced. He's already had that moment.
Does this mean Matt Flynn should be the starter? Some would say yes. Not just media pundits or over-amp'd, short-sighted fans. Some NFL coaches, players and player personnel professionals would say "yes". To them, there's enough of a psychological impact, that it's not worth risking even one game's outcome to put a rookie in that position. I was in this boat, even at the end of the preseason, because to me, it was worth waiting on Wilson, to win now. I believe this organization needs immediate wins, and I thought Flynn gave the team the best shot in week one, on the road, against a vicious defense like Arizona's.
My thinking is, if you're going to put a rookie QB into this new environment, do it only when you have to, or when he can still experience the speed of the game and adjust to it, without the repercussions of failure being so great (i.e. in the 4th quarter of a blowout). But even then, he's not going to experience what he needs to, in terms of blitzes, press coverage, etc. He needs critical, high-pressure situational experience.
Other coaches/personnel professionals would say "no", in light of the upside that a guy like Wilson gives you over a guy like Flynn. They'll take more risk early, because they believe the reward later will be better than what the alternative option (Flynn, in this case) provides, and they think "the sooner, the better" to get the rookie acclimated. Pete Carroll has taken up this line of thinking, with regard to Russell Wilson.
Sometimes, thinking "deeper" about something means thinking practically. And far too often, fans and even media members simply don't think practically. They grade or report on each play, or each game in a vacuum without any consideration for the fully legitimate and very substantial psychological and situational impacts that a rookie QB experiences in his first game. Heck, Wilson hadn't even experienced the game at this speed from the sideline. It was all new. Have I emphasized that enough?
Name any professional, in any profession, who you would expect to perform better the first time that he or she is in his/her new environment, than after he/she has spent even a little bit of time in that environment.
I went back and watched every offensive play three times, and came away with one undeniable observation - Russell Wilson got better as the game progressed. What I was looking more closely at, than anything, was his decisiveness.
I took a look, specifically, at how quickly he identified what was going, and then reacted to it - all in the following order: 1. Read the defense pre-snap, 2. recognize the blitz; 3. feel pressure around and behind him, when in the pocket; 4. adjust in the pocket (move feet, evade rush/pressure, create throwing lanes - all with eyes downfield); 5. move through his progressions; 6. identify his target; 7.release the football; and 8. place the ball accurately. Evaluating this process from end to end, gives an indication as to how quickly a quarterback is deciphering information, and then the outcome of the play indicates, to a degree, the QBs decision-making process and acumen.
We also have to look at, and consider the environmental "pluses" that Wilson encountered. What I mean by this, is those environmental factors that could be considered above-average, or extraordinary. For example, Arizona's defense is probably a top-10 unit in the league from day-1 this season. The speed in the secondary is "plus", and the disruptive capability of a guy like Darnell Dockett up front is certainly a "plus". Another way of explaining this might be to say that we're "identifying environmental elements that a rookie most likely won't face every week". This week, it was Dockett and the interior penetration that proved to be the key "plus" area for Arizona. Combine that with rookie J.R. Sweezy's inexperience at guard, and you've got an extremely tough situation for a rookie QB, or even a veteran QB for that matter, to step into.
The hope, with a rookie QB, is that you see some indication of the game "slowing down" to him - which really is a fancy way of saying that the QB adapted, and showed that he is adjusting to and picking up the speed of the game. Many rookies don't accomplish this in their first game, or even in their first season. Some never accomplish it. Blaine Gabbert, for instance, never caught up to the speed of the game last year, although he appears to be more acclimated now.
After watching every offensive play three times from week 1′s contest, it's clear to me that unequivocally, Russell Wilson was adjusting to the speed of the game as it progressed. He bailed on the pocket early a couple of times in the first half. He locked onto receivers. He forced the ball (backward pass to Lynch). All to be expected in such a new environment. As an analyst, I'm not panicking when I see that, simply because my expectation is that these things will happen, especially early. My focus coming into this week was with seeing how Wilson adjusted and reacted when he did make the inevitable mistake or bad decision. I came away impressed. He did what he had to do against a tough defense in a hostile environment - put the team in position to win. Even with the outcome of the game being a loss, I graded Wilson as "good" for this contest.
I would encourage fans to think logically and think practically here. There has to be a curve for a rookie QB. There has to be an allowance for mistakes, mis-reads and bad decisions. And to be quite honest, Wilson didn't make very many, considering his environment.
This is another thing that fans and media often forget - environment. There isn't a position in football more dependent upon the actions of it's teammates than the quarterback position. QBs must be graded against a backdrop of the play-grades of those teammates that he depends so heavily on. It's not fair to the team, the QB or the organization otherwise. If Darnell Dockett is able to get consistent penetration up the middle, the QB (rookie or not) is going to be out of rhythm - particularly in an offense that is so rhythm dependent like this one.
In order to avoid going absolutely nuts for these first few weeks of the season, fans need to have a realistic expectation of Russell Wilson. He's not going to look like a veteran as often and as consistently as he did in the preseason. The speed of the game is drastically different. He's going to make mistakes. Expect them.
Focus instead on how he responds to the mistakes, and I think there's a really good chance that you'll be encouraged by what you see. This philosophy of "patience" doesn't always mesh well with one of a "win now" nature, but if Wilson can continue to respond and improve as rapidly as he did on Sunday, the Seahawks will have a realistic chance to go far this season.
Derek has transitioned from doing league-wide NFL Draft analysis at his blog to a more focused and specific Seahawks-centric draft - free agency - pro player personnel site called "ScoutTheSeahawks." It's now up - and it's definitely a site you must bookmark. Derek also maintains a really great free agent tracker that is much more in-depth than most places because of his background doing deep scouting of NFL Draft prospects. It's updated daily.