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The Drive: In Defense of Quarterback Wins

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Wilson’s contract expires in 2020. Perhaps you’ve heard. For a few days this was something of a story. Not a story as in a piece of journalism reported from sources but that increasingly more common type of journalism, in which innocuous facts are phrased, framed and interpreted to produce maximum click appeal. This is what I could find looking back for one of the stories in question.

Perhaps this is meant to trigger latent OCD. Sure Wilson is under contract and therefore does not need to negotiate a new contract, and the absence of an action which is not required and has no obvious consequences does not seem like a story, but are you sure you locked the door? Let us all worry about this absence of reassurance.

It would be difficult to “mention” much of anything when the active parties “have not engaged in a single contract discussion since the day they announced their last deal in 2015.” And I know this is only sports writing, but when did never naming sources, and hedging by constantly referring back to these unnamed sources become so stock-in-trade?

No other news appears in this story. It’s rounded out by a few rehashed and re-contextualized quotes and what is sometimes referred to as “encyclopedic knowledge.”

Never mind for a second the wider implications of this kind of shallow and speculative reporting, or that the reporter, Adam Schefter, is one of the most successful people working in sports writing, or even what sort of model that creates for a form of journalism which is frankly moribund, let’s just consider one assumption made by this story.

Wilson is the only quarterback set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020 who has been highly successful but who is not pushing retirement. I guess that is the source for “it would be expected to be the biggest in the NFL this offseason[.]”

Wilson would be paid more than Aaron Rodgers because that’s the little pissing contest NFL quarterbacks compete in. Pay is not linked to performance. The equation seems to be: be a franchise quarterback; get paid more than the last franchise quarterback. Consider:

It’s a list of players who have recently experienced career downturns and Tom Brady. Well ... I don’t know what the current scuttlebutt is on Andrew Luck, but if we’re abusing the metaphorical language of “downturn,” Luck’s recent career has been a series of hammerhead stall turns. To see him soar again is somewhat less surprising than the fact that he avoided becoming flaming wreckage.

Prior to this latest two-year deal, Brady famously agreed to play for less, so that Patriots could field a better team around him. Scott Davis and Cork Gaines of Business Insider estimated that Brady could have demanded anywhere from 60 million to 100 million dollars more from New England. Rather than chase the likes of Stafford and Cousins, I wonder if Wilson might pursue this alternative.

Wilson has always been best defined by the success the Seattle Seahawks have enjoyed since his rookie season. Among quarterbacks who rank in the top 100 in career wins, Wilson ranks 9th in career winning percentage between Jim McMahon and Ben Roethlisberger. Quarterback Wins is probably the most railed against statistic in the NFL, and yet it’s one of the simplest and best ways to evaluate a quarterback. Before that slightest bit of unorthodox thinking makes you bounce, consider my argument.

Passing stats, however processed, gussied up, or denatured, are team stats only assigned the quarterback as a convenience. A quarterback does not throw to himself nor does he run after the reception. Assigning a quarterback passing yards for the yards earned by the receiver after the catch is a bit like assigning Chris Paul not an assist for a pass which turns into a field goal but the field goal itself. The quarterback does not block for himself. In the case of Jared Goof, he does not even think for himself. The only quarterback I remember scheming for themselves is Peyton Manning, and so apart from calling audibles, a quarterback is trapped in a system of someone else’s devising, and at the mercy of the execution of his teammates. Which is not to belittle his value. But to recognize a quarterback performs as a part of a whole, which is why Matt Cassel couldn’t export his successful 2008 season to Kansas City. Maybe we should have thought of Cassel as being 53.0% DVOA worse than Tom Brady, given the relative drop-off in performance.

And passing stats do not fully measure a quarterback’s contributions. Wilson rushes and he seems to also help the Seahawks’ overall ability to rush. Maybe even the ability to sustain drives, something Pete Carroll has always emphasized, indirectly assists Seattle’s defense. The Seahawks outperformed their expected defensive performance in 2018. They ranked 14th in DVOA, 23rd in yards per drive, but 12th in points allowed per drive, and 11th in scoring defense. That’s not a mirage made by special teams either. Seattle finished 24th in overall special teams including 20th at punting. Sometime after hype had cemented Michael Dickson as the next great punter, he began to regress toward league-average.

Overperforming underlying indicators is often credited to luck but “luck” has become slippery shorthand for “we don’t know.” We don’t know if Wilson or the skilled and repeatable actions of anyone caused Seattle to outperform expectations. It’s a mess, statistically speaking, which is part of why I love gridiron football. Consider what figuring out the game has done for the enjoyability of say baseball or chess. Sport is entertainment, and winning only pushes ratings and attendance so long as anyone cares to watch.

Quarterback wins assign all credit of the outcome of a game to the quarterback. That’s foolish, and yet it accomplishes two things which no other statistic does, it does not exclude any possible way a quarterback may be contributing and it does not render the quarterback’s contributions so abstruse as to be stupefying. Quarterback rating, which is still widely in use, is idiotic. It is factoid knowledge, a kind of funhouse mirror by which traditional stats are distorted through outdated assumptions, cited only when that factoid by coincidence corresponds to a preconceived notion. If you know the history of quarterback rating, you may like me wonder if certain modern assessments of quarterback ability will seem equally dubious in the near future.

Which is why, homely as the stat may be, it is no coincidence that those quarterbacks which are remembered to be the greatest, are also those quarterbacks who have the most quarterbacks wins. And why, among those few, the greatest of the great are those quarterbacks who have the greatest quarterback records. It is a rough and imprecise measure of so many things: clutch performance, health, longevity, leadership and adaptability. A quarterback who is his best at the very most important times, who avoids injury, maintains his peak, thrives as the face of a franchise and stays great even as the game changes, wins.

Wilson has been a great winner. He may want to, now, become a man of ludicrous means. This ... alienates me. Watching a successful celebrity hock crap alienates me. I have tremendous respect for Tina Fey as a comedian, but why a tremendously respected multimillionaire needs to do a credit card commercial in which she endorses customers borrowing themselves into crippling debt is beyond me. It seems, for lack of a better word, evil. As if she is misanthropic or as if, for all her success, she still has almost no control over her career. We’ve so turned a corner as a culture, that a commercial in which Damian Lillard defaces his body for the benefit of the hyper wealthy, in which Lillard tattoos a marketing slogan on his body but only within the very narrow dictates of his handlers, is not considered disgraceful for all involved but ... rebellious? And so maybe this is a generation gap or something but it seems to me that the joy that briefly being the highest paid player in the NFL would provide, and the relative power Wilson would have because of 30 or 40 million more in lifetime earnings, is dwarfed by the joy of playing for a winning team. Maybe football is just a means to an end, and Wilson’s life dream hinges on maximizing his earning potential, but I doubt. I think playing in the NFL is the dream and winning is its fulfillment. I think whatever happens after he retires will be the epilogue of his life, in which no matter how wealthy he is, money will not be able to buy him the ecstasy of triumph. It will not be able to buy him the influence earned from winning. People will remember who he was when he was great not what he owned when he was washed.

Wilson becomes a free agent in 2020. Fomenting worry from absence of information will earn clicks while simultaneously poisoning the well of the entire industry, so expect lots of it. He is expected to become the highest paid quarterback in the NFL, and he’ll stay the highest paid quarterback in the NFL for some few months. Maybe. He will not, at the very least, show up to the pissing contest only to dribble down his leg. But he could, he could, choose to accept less so that he wins more. Rather than hang with the likes of Stafford and Cousins, he could model his career after Tom Brady. Few remember this, but Brady was initially thought a game manager. Someone carried to success by his defense, and that reputation stuck until New England began surrounding Brady with good and therefore expensive talent. It is when Brady had to do less—fewer checkdowns, less maneuvering within the pocket, fewer passes into tight windows, less reliance on yards before the catch—that he became widely known as among the greatest quarterbacks ever. Passing stats, pretty stupid, yet perceptually, Brady reclaimed the prestige of those early championship seasons by stacking stats. Sheesh.

Wilson doesn’t need to stack stats. He plays for a defensive-minded coach who emphasizes the run. Anyone who wonders rather than knows will perceive Wilson’s success through the gestalt of his performance. There is no stat for reduced underneath coverage because a linebacker is spying the quarterback, or additional yards gained because of boot motion, or average pre-snap depth of the deepest defensive back because of perceived arm strength. Quarterback rating, DVOA, and QBR do not know that Wilson may scramble more and thus become more effective in late and close situations. Nor will any stat account for surrounding talent, the salaries paid those talents, or the true expertise of Wilson’s various offensive coordinators. The exact greatness of Russell Wilson is to be wondered at but never known. But we will know who won. We will know the greatness of achievement, because unlike salary, that greatness is shared. Share, Wilson, and we’ll gladly give you credit for the team’s win.