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The Drive: Russell Wilson’s New Style

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

One forges one’s style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines. —Email Zola

I’m battling a stomach bug, so this will be short.

Late last season Russell Wilson began stepping up into the pocket in a most peculiar manner. Unlike I’ve ever seen him do. Unlike I’ve ever seen anyone do. He seemed to be experimenting. The move was never used against Dallas in the Wild Card. Maybe it was a failed experiment never to be repeated again. But I found it interesting.

[Proceeds to search condensed games for over two hours]

Well, shucks. I can’t find a single incidence of him doing it.

The move, if you’d call it that, involves Wilson tucking and running up into the pocket. He was not climbing the pocket, that is, he wasn’t retaining a throwing posture, but he wasn’t rushing either. In some way, he was faking a scramble up the gut, to both draw the underneath coverage and find room within the pocket. Only after scrambling did he return to a throwing posture.

The move didn’t seem to stick, as evidenced by my complete inability to find footage of it. But I wonder if he won’t develop it over the offseason.

While in many ways Wilson was able last season to reverse what seemed like a downward trajectory to his career, he was more sack prone than ever. By the completion of next season, Wilson will likely have overtaken Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Boomer Esiason and Dan Fouts in career sacks taken. If he plays long enough to match Manning’s 265 games started, and retains his current pace, Wilson will have taken over 700 sacks in his career. Brett Favre tops the current leaderboard with 525 in 298 starts.

Brian Schottenheimer’s emphasis on deep routes also seemed to increase the yardage lost for each individual sack. Wilson lost nearly seven yards a sack last season. Dave Krieg tops the list of most yards lost via sack for a career. Wilson trails Peyton by a single yard, and if we again project Wilson’s current pace to 265 games started, Wilson would surpass Krieg by nearly a thousand yards: 4,619 to 3,794. Wilson is also on pace to become the all-time leader in fumbles, again surpassing Favre.

The frequency Wilson was sacked, the yardage lost, and the frequency he fumbled is a big part of why Wilson finished 11th in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. Even by DVOA, he was only 10th. For three seasons now, Wilson has inhabited that queasy nexus of the borderline franchise quarterback. His peers have been guys like Kirk Cousins, Marcus Mariota, Alex Smith and Jameis Winston. In fact, if we average their respective QBRs, not weighting by attempts per season, the three year averages are very similar.

Mariota: 57.8

Smith: 58.4

Winston: 59.9

Cousins: 61.5

Wilson: 61.5

Total Quarterback Rating only rated 33 quarterbacks in 2018—that is, 33 qualified. Among the 22 who finished behind Wilson, five were rookies, and four were backups or are now likely to be backing up. Which means that among his peers, among established quarterbacks who are still starters for their respective teams, Wilson finished 11th of 22. I am not saying this defines Wilson. We obviously do not know how to separate the contributions of the quarterback from his teammates or his coaches. And Wilson still contributes more as a rusher than all but Mariota, but it’s an unsatisfactory rating, all the same.

My favorite measure of a quarterback is overall efficiency of the team’s offense, and by that measure, Seattle ranked 9th. That’s good, but it’s not what we’d think of as championship caliber. In this century, six teams have won the Super Bowl with an offense ranked ninth or below by DVOA. One is the miracle Giants of 2007. Among the other five, Denver in 2016 had the best defense in the NFL, as did Pittsburgh in 2008, New England ranked second when they won in 2004, Tampa Bay also ranked second, and so did the 2000 Ravens. (That Ravens D was the greatest I’ve ever seen.) Two teams which won the Super Bowl ranked eighth in offensive DVOA, which is pretty comparable to Seattle’s finish last season. Pittsburgh finished with the third ranked defense in 2005; Philly ranked fifth in 2017. If Wilson and the offense cannot improve, Seattle will need to assemble an elite defense to be a realistic contender. That’s hard, and that would seem to be a long-term goal at best for a young and iffy Seahawks defense now stripped of its two best players.

And so I’ve been thinking of that little semi-scramble move. Wilson stands very deep in the pocket, probably to account for his height. When he scrambles, he typically scrambles to his right or left. As he’s lost speed, and maybe too as he’s attempted to become more of a pocket passer, some of those scramble attempts have turned into sacks. It may be impossible to separate what is most valuable in Wilson’s game from what is least valuable. I don’t know. But Wilson will not regain his previous ability as a scrambler. He’s likely never going to satisfy anyone’s definition of a pocket passer. Which means he needs a new way to achieve elite efficiency.