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The Drive: How good is Russell Wilson?

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It is possible Russell Wilson is well past his prime. This is counter-intuitive because many quarterbacks play at their very highest level in their thirties and Wilson is not yet thirty. But Wilson has never succeeded as other quarterbacks have succeeded, and has never succeeded at all like most late-blooming quarterbacks have succeeded. Which is why we still debate how good Wilson ever truly was. We shouldn’t, but gird thy loins, that debate is likely to get a lot more toxic and stupid over these next few seasons. We’ll get there, but:

First let us consider Wilson’s undeniable prime, those years he was at his very best, and see why Wilson was once an exceptionally good quarterback and why he may never be that good again.

From his rookie season to his fourth season in 2015, Wilson was the central figure in the third most efficient offense in the NFL. Because debate in the NFL often does not rise above epithets like “elite” and “game-manager,” this is often forgotten. We may remember Wilson was electric. We may think he was in some ways a game manager, but we forget that he was among the best players in the NFL.

Average Offensive DVOA 2012-2015

New England: 19.0%

Denver: 16.7%

Seattle: 15.9%

Green Bay: 13.8%

New Orleans: 12.3%

Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees were his peer group. Wilson played a little like Rodgers and little like the other three, but his offense was equally as efficient, equally as dangerous. Unlike his peers, Wilson was not surrounded by All-Pro talent and Hall of Fame-bound coaches.

[First-team All-Pros or likely Hall of Fame inductees who contributed to our elite group of offenses]

Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, Ryan Clady, Louis Vasquez, Jahri Evans, Jimmy Graham, Max Unger, Marshawn Lynch

And I think this actually inaccurately minimizes the difference in talent between Wilson’s average offense during this stretch and those of Brady, Manning, Rodgers and Brees. Apart from shall we say elite contributors, the group of Brady et al were stacked with excellent and above average contributors.

Julian Edelman, Aaron Hernandez, Nate Solder, Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Zane Beadles, Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Jermon Bushrod, Ben Grubbs, Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks, Mark Ingram, Jermichael Finley, Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, Jordy Nelson, Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb and David Bakhtiari all played in their prime or within earshot of their prime for the Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Brees bunch.

Seattle had few such talents. Doug Baldwin is Doug Baldwin, Russell Okung is still a very good tackle and of course Golden Tate is excellent in a way peculiar to him, but they also fielded quite a few guys who either never got paid, immediately disappointed after signing a free agent contract, and/or who are now out the league. Zach Miller, Paul McQuistan and Sidney Rice were all near the end of relatively undistinguished careers. Jermaine Kearse, Luke Willson, James Carpenter and Robert Turbin survive as backups or fringe starters. Thomas Rawls, Christine Michael, Patrick Lewis and Breno Giacomini are all retired, willingly or not.

Further, while I do not want to get too deep into the morass of discussing coaching, our establishment group is headed by Mike McCarthy, Josh McDaniels, Sean Payton, and to a lesser extent, Gary Kubiak. Each has at least an outside shot of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even among the lesser lights, we see assistants who were promoted like Jim Bob Cooter, Adam Gase, Mike McCoy, Joe Lombardi and Ben McAdoo. Darrell Bevell is now referred to as a former NFL coach, who is not involved in competitive football at any level, though in his own words that’s not by choice. Tom Cable is coaching for the future Las Vegas Raiders. Whatever they are today ... I’ve read they have an outside chance of winning the Tahiti Football Festival.

For four years the Seahawks were as efficient on offense as any team in the NFL, and Wilson achieved that feat without as much help as his peer group, but instead of recognizing that fact and the implication that Wilson must have been transcendentally excellent, the anonymity of those offenses is often held against him. Specifically, the pernicious idea of identity marked Seattle as a defense-first team. The Seahawks were seen as a defensive juggernaut completed by a dynamic if nontraditional signal caller. A guy who was brilliant in bursts but who was, to some meaningful extent, a simple caretaker for an offense which rarely had to win the game on its own. Which was simply false. In three of the four seasons of Wilson’s prime, the offense either outperformed or equaled the efficiency of the defense. Yep.

While Wilson was a very efficient quarterback, it was the run game which allowed Seattle to be among the best offenses in the NFL. It was not as good as Seattle’s passing offense, but it was not the sinkhole so many NFL rushing offenses are. This too is often held against Wilson, not least because Marshawn Lynch is indeed very good, and also very, very entertaining. But Wilson’s dependence on Lynch is another myth.

Weighted for number of runs, here is how Lynch performed with prime Wilson and without, whether on Seattle, Buffalo or Oakland.

Lynch w/ Prime Wilson: 14.3% DVOA

Lynch w/o Prime Wilson: 9.8% DVOA

By comparison, Seattle’s no name group of backs averaged this performance either in complementary roles or as an injury replacement:

Bunch of dudes w/ Prime Wilson: 7.2% DVOA

I cannot access split DVOA, and so though Christine Michael was undoubtedly better in Seattle than he was in Dallas in 2015, I simply multiplied his overall efficiency (13.2%) by his number of carries for Seattle (39). This by no means proves Lynch was anything but excellent, but as Rawls proved in 2015, prime Wilson, his value as both quarterback and decoy, created a system in which running backs thrived. (I won’t stoop to the intellectual dishonesty of excluding Robert Turbin but, just as a piece of trivia, if you exclude Turbin and a very near retirement Leon Washington, that bunch of dudes which includes Michael, Rawls, Fred Jackson and Bryce Brown, jumps in efficiency to 19.6%.)

Which returns us to my original point: For four years, Russell Wilson was exceptionally good in ways that are not perfectly easy to calculate and therefore tend to be lost on less perceptive and thus often more influential analysts of the game. But now he is not. If we are to credit Wilson for the overall performance of the Seahawks offense during that stretch, which I think we can now agree if not perfect is as fair as we are likely able, we must also admit that Seattle’s recent mediocrity is also his responsibility. Since sustaining and playing through knee and ankle injuries in 2016, Wilson and the Seahawks offense have regressed massively.

Over the last three seasons, including this partial season, Seattle’s offense has been almost perfectly break even: 0.7% DVOA. Wilson has been the perfect embodiment of that squirmy adjective “mediocre,” while injured and healthy, under two different offensive coordinators, and though never surrounded by particularly great talent, not wholly poor talent either. And while I think it is wise to cast as wide a net as possible when searching for why, I think one variable stands out when breaking down the tape. Russell Wilson is running infrequently and inefficiently, teams have stopped scheming against that possibility, and most of his improvised scramble plays have turned into drive-killing sacks, sometimes of ten yards or more.

I will not stick with one drive this week but instead pick a sample of plays I think are indicative of the problem. Luckily enough for my purposes, Gus Bradley coaches the defense for the Los Angeles Chargers, and in 2013, Bradley was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Those Jaguars were not as good as this season’s Chargers defensively, but neither unit is great nor awful, and much of what I want to show is schematic changes rather than successes or failures of execution. Let us go back to that time when the news covered a wide variety of topics, few of which were apocalyptic, and Seattle was a contender. That time when optimism was almost oppressive, and wins were scrutinized for margin of victory. A time when a linebacker might spy Wilson with no concern whatsoever for his coverage responsibility, and be in no way punished for doing so. Like Geno Hayes (55) here:

Young Wilson, totally locked onto one receiver; Zach Miller perhaps looking at Hayes with befuddlement and perhaps just looking at the space he will run into; Golden Tate still running go routes and working for jump balls, despite showing little ability for either; 2013!

Wilson is not targeting Miller, who is astoundingly wide open, but Tate up the left sideline, because he got that one-on-one look, and so forth. The pass falls incomplete, but the opportunities available to Wilson are all very good. He has one-on-one up both sidelines. The underneath coverage is fixed shallow and largely ineffective, because it is both underneath coverage and Wilson containment. Targeting Miller would make for a free 15 or 20 yards.

Here’s the pre-snap look.

Now let us look at the same personnel running a similar set of routes out of a slightly different formation, but in 2018.

And after the snap.

Deep coverage is sufficiently deep. Vannett is covered. Most interior receivers are ~double covered. Though Wilson begins to scramble, the underneath coverage pays him no mind.

The most open receiver, Lockett (who is easily able to be identified by being so damn open), is ignored. Not everything changes, I fear.

When Wilson finally heaves a bomb—instead of running for a bajillion yards—coverage is excellent across the board.

He has scrambled but not effectively, ignoring both the acre of space in front of him and the wide open Lockett. The Chargers have ignored Wilson and effectively. Coverage surrounds every potentially targeted receiver. The outcome is the same, an incomplete pass. But the range of outcomes is wildly different. In 2013, Wilson missed one golden opportunity and two or three other solid reads. In 2018, Wilson misses, but how exactly could he have succeeded?

By running, but he won’t.

Hand off with boot decoy 2013:

Tyson Alualu (93) is playing contain, and Josh Evans (26) has flown up from deep to account for the little dude with game-breaking speed.

Hand off with boot decoy in 2018:

Derwin James (33) is hedging and in his greenness will chase Wilson outside, but Melvin Ingram III, the player just in front of James, never pays Wilson any heed. Though very different players, he is the functional equivalent of Alualu. He keys handoff, everyone but James keys handoff, and everything is more tightly packed, messier and more difficult for the ball carrier. Wilson, who had run 15 times through two games in 2013, is much more intimidating than Wilson, who had run 19 times in seven games in 2018.

I wish I could go on all week. The tape is fascinating and there is so so much to discuss. But I’m going to school full time and I fit these in when I can, and I’m running out of time tonight. Let us move toward a conclusion.

Few phrases are quite so morbid as “age is just a number.” While age is not definitive of all things, it is a damn important factor. Wilson was a pup in 2013 and he’s living the final days of his 20s in 2018. Ok. But not so long ago Wilson was crazy fast for a quarterback, and unless he’s injured, he should be quite remarkably fast in 2018. Informed by as much research as I could conduct in a short amount of time, and using former fastest man on earth Usain Bolt as a guide, I calculated that speed tends to peak early, anywhere up to 26, and afterwards decreases by about 0.5% a year. Which is to say a healthy Russell Wilson should be 98% as fast as he ever was. And that’s damn fast.

And, oh by the way, some of these dudes have suffered catastrophic knee injuries. But Wilson is not running. Nor is he scrambling well. His sack percentage is up three percent from last year and he’s leading the NFL in fumbles. In the last two games alone, Wilson has suffered sacks of ten or more yards three times. A sack of that magnitude can be worth nearly a field goal in lost yards, and resulting bad down and distance.

Wilson could be hurt, but if he is, we must ask if Wilson can continue his preferred style of play while staying healthy. Injury and decline are often overlapping phenomena.

Or he could be receiving bad coaching. Brian Schottenheimer, under the advice of Pete Carroll, could be attempting to “fix” Wilson. Carroll recently invoked Pygmalion saying of his “coach[ing] the hell out of players until it comes to life,” as being “as Pygmalion as it gets.” But Pygmalion has an unhappy ending. Higgins does not marry Eliza.

It is fantastically difficult to make it into the NFL; ten times more difficult to become a starting quarterback; to be even for a few seasons among the greatest quarterbacks in the league is an accomplishment of almost ludicrous unlikelihood. Wilson had it, had it all, and maybe he will never capture it again. He was great, genuinely great, as good as any player in the NFL. Now and for two and a half seasons, he has been thoroughly mediocre. He has run but without a run game, and for all the talk of him being an MVP candidate in 2017, quarterbacks of 9-7 teams with league average offenses do not win MVP awards. He has run infrequently and inefficiently while astounding us that he could play at all. Now he is not running seemingly because he has been coached not to run. Hoping he can be both a true franchise quarterback as he intuitively knew how to be, and a wholly different kind of franchise quarterback as he is being taught to be, is improbable to the point of straining credibility. It is optimism buoyed I think by delusion.

Four years from now, Wilson could be clocking a 4.74 40 or better. His initial 40 time was exactly the same as Steve Young, and Young ran for over 1,200 yards from his age 34 to his age 37 seasons. Wilson is not Brady or Brees or Peyton Manning. He does not stand tall in the pocket. He mostly depends on his pre-snap read. But he’s so damn good his own damn way. Or he was. If he can’t do it anymore, well ... that’s sad. But if he can, if Wilson is being coached away from his talent in order to protect his and the team’s future, well then I think Henry Higgins said it best: “Time enough to think of the future when you haven’t any future to think of.” Let Russell Wilson be Russell Wilson. Win Sunday, win next Sunday, keep winning, and as for 2023, none of us will make it there by sacrificing 2018.