On Monday NFL.com analyst Michael Robinson published an article prescribing three ways the team that earned him a Super Bowl ring, the Seattle Seahawks, can re-establish their championship form. Because he’s aiming for a general audience, Robinson doesn’t rely on any advanced statistics but does find some subtle yet clear figures to illustrate the differences he saw in the Seahawks’ performance in 2016: “Seattle's average margin of victory last season (3.9 points) was its lowest since 2011, far below the high-water marks established in 2012 (10.4) and 2013 (11.6),” Robinson says. “After five straight seasons of ranking in the top five in turnover differential, the Seahawks plummeted to 16th last season.”
Robinson’s suggestions are pretty standard stuff: improving offensive balance, staying healthy, regaining urgency—but I was surprised to see Robinson include a claim that Russell Wilson is “at his best when he is a complementary factor.” As evidence, Robinson reminds us Seattle was playing in Super Bowls back when the team rushed more times than it passed, contrasted with how in 2016 that balance tilted all the way around as the Seahawks passed 567 times against only 403 rushes. It’s a peculiar argument for one who should be more familiar with Wilson’s portfolio of skills. Robinson had already addressed the club’s struggles with running back depth and on the offensive line, so it’s strange to follow that by implying it relied too much on Wilson or Wilson’s style was the problem.
I want to be fair: I hope Seattle can find more success running the ball next year too, and the organization clearly agrees. Robinson may even try at times to be exceedingly critical when discussing his former teammates, so as not to appear partial, and I’m not accusing him of taking shots at Russell Wilson. Although injuries seem like the more meaningful coefficient here, Wilson’s rate stats were down last year. And the Seahawks have a far worse record (16-13-1 in regular season games, including all five losses and the tie in 2016) when Wilson throws more than 30 passes than when he throws 30 or fewer (40-10).
However, we also know by 2017 that leading/winning or trailing/losing games is far more predictive of run/pass volume than the other way around. That was literally the first ever post at Football Outsiders, 14 offseasons ago. Likewise, having a good rushing game should be a helpful tool for any offense, regardless of quarterback. So it’s disappointing that this narrative about Wilson’s specific capability to drive an offense with his passing continues so late in his career. It’s the football version of “fake news”—some faulty talking point that no matter how it’s been debunked remains part of a conversation just for the sake of completeness.
For sure, we at Field Gulls should be familiar enough with this particular yarn by now not to have to recap all the numbers and analysis that disprove it. Here are just a handful of examples:
- Cian Fahey breaks down film in 2015: “He may be most well-known for his outstanding athleticism, but some of [Wilson’s] most impressive plays have come when he was able to read the alignment of the opposition and adjust his offense to instantly find the weak spot in coverage.”
- Pro Football Focus’s John Breitenbach quantifies Wilson’s scouting scores relative to the league a year ago: “Wilson is one of the top among quarterbacks in terms of accuracy, ranking in the top three in accuracy percentage, deep accuracy, and accuracy under pressure last season. While Wilson’s impressive numbers under pressure are partly due to his ability to extend plays, there are plenty of examples of him making plays from the pocket.”
- ESPN Stats & Information puts Wilson’s “game manager” reputation in context with Tom Brady’s and Ben Roethlisberger’s early careers.
- Our own Jason Drake performs a meta-analysis with certain advanced stats: “Even slapping on a discount for the Seahawks frequent rushing (and a bigger bonus to other quarterbacks who pass more than average), Wilson slots in at #2 [from 2012-2015] behind Aaron Rodgers with a combination of efficiency, productivity, and unambiguous team offensive success [DVOA].”
- As recently as January, Sam “Hawkbadger” demonstrates how Wilson has the highest career passer rating in history through a quarterback’s first five seasons, highest yards per attempt (adjusted for touchdowns and interceptions) in history for a quarterback’s first five seasons—and for the last three years the highest AY/A of any quarterback in the NFL, including Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and all other quarterbacks considered better pure passers.
Just this week, Jonathan Kinsley of Brick Wall Blitz ranked Wilson sixth in the league among quarterbacks after watching tape on all 32 projected starters heading into training camp. You may not like all of Kinsley’s placements—he lists Andrew Luck and Cam Newton not just ahead of Wilson but also ahead of Brady, who is fourth—but it’s hard to see how the sixth best quarterback in the NFL wouldn’t be an excellent pocket passer, even if as Fahey puts it “you carry high standards for the distinction.” Beside, Kinsley already took aim at the then-prevailing Wilson narrative even before the 2015 season, when Wilson famously solidified himself as a capable pure thrower with an astonishing finish to that year: In that piece Kinsley watches and comments on all 15 of Wilson’s game-winning drives in his first three seasons, noticing how “Wilson contributed for 72.5% of his team’s total yards on game-winning drives from 2012-2014.” Doesn’t sound like someone whose wins record has been dependent on accumulated rushing offense.
So what does it mean that influential voices, even voices as sympathetic as Michael Robinson, still label Wilson as a “complementary” player? Is it just habit, like Evan Hill says when sizing up Wilson’s accomplishments against Luck’s and Newton’s last summer, that “when comparing quarterbacks statistically, it’s easy to throw around often false, shallow media talking points that fail to contribute to intellectual discussion”? Or is it a dynamic local to Wilson and the Seahawks, because of his shape, his draft pedigree, his coordinator’s playsheet? “He's different, and many people are afraid of different,” as Kenneth Arthur once put it. “In an era where passers are regularly topping 4,000-5,000 yards passing like it's not even a big deal, Wilson typically finishes with a below-average number of attempts.”
I think this part about the volume is what I find so baffling about the exercise. Like Kenny says, Wilson was categorized as “not elite” early in his career in part according to these low passing totals. When Bleacher Report’s Adam Wells tried to figure out what kind of second contract Wilson might command in 2015, for example, Wells named low attempts as a determining factor: “There's no denying that Wilson has been a valuable part of what Seattle has built, but … the Seahawks have not ranked higher than 31st in pass attempts in any of Wilson's three seasons at quarterback.”
By the same reasoning, had he thrown more often earlier in his career he should have been sooner considered elite. But in this case, now that Robinson points out he is passing more often, instead of using it as evidence for his arrival at eliteness, it rather means he should be throwing less?
As a matter of fact, at one point during the 2016 season, after the Seahawks knocked off the eventual Super Bowl champions in their own stadium, Robinson declared Wilson the “best I’ve seen him from the pocket, ever.” It’s incredibly circular then to freeze characterizations of Wilson in the period when he was a more complementary player. Wilson has been great as a passer in his career, and when adjusting for injuries seems to be still improving that dimension of his game. Seattle will certainly try for more balance in 2017, and if it has success running that will most likely yield a new round of “Russell Wilson isn’t the focus of the offense anymore” foolishness.
Perhaps our old friend Danny Kelly summarized the conundrum best right before Super Bowl XLVIII: “Russell Wilson has always been more susceptible to falling under the game manager classification because he's a short, plucky third-round pick that plays in an extremely low-volume passing offense and has an elite defense behind him. At the end of the day though … this is a semantics argument.”
As with four years ago, as always, the only way to overcome doubt is by winning it all, winning forever.