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A skeptic’s response to Let Russ Cook

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Wilson has proven me wrong about one thing. Before the season I argued that Wilson was at his best as part of a run-first offense. Seattle has not been a run-first offense. Wilson has had his best start ever.

To many this has been validation and the realization of “Let Russ Cook.” In a few paragraphs of text I have since edited out, I expanded on what I think about that particular slogan. Here’s a selection of analogies to give the gist of my thoughts while hopefully not derailing this post too much: a get rich quick scheme, the monorail to fix main street, Cathy Ames, a romantic partner who claims to love you while never wanting anything but to fix you, and video game football with injuries turned off. Ain’t I a stinker?

The Seattle Seahawks are passing more frequently, more frequently early in games and more frequently on early downs. The offense has excelled and they’re 4-0. Wilson has decreased his sack percentage, increased his completion percentage, and shown the greatest mastery of an offense I have ever seen from him. He has shown more of the old-quarterback skills which correspond with extreme longevity.

For most of his career Wilson did not play at all like Drew Brees or Tom Brady. However else Brees and Brady have stayed so good for so long, the simplest explanation is that both have depended less on their physical talent and more on mastery of technique. Read, timing, pocket awareness and decision making do not age the way athletic talent ages. Those are the techniques or craft which a person masters to become a great quarterback. One doesn’t worry about Jiro Ono’s age, for instance. Or Pete Carroll’s age, or that of a good plumber, or a great caregiver, or really anyone whose performance is most determined by knowledge, experience and wisdom and not athleticism, quickness and resilience.

Resilience does go with age, and while Wilson is throwing short and throwing the ball away more than ever it seems, his sack rate is still incomparably worse than that of Brees or Brady. His modestly improved sack rate highlights why I am not sure anything has really changed. The Seahawks have not faced a good pass rush. The Seahawks have not faced anything but really bad pass defenses.

The Seahawks adjusted sack rate is actually worse than what it was last season. They have played in favorable situations against bad or middling pass rushes. Whether Wilson has improved at what may be the most important old-quarterback skill is still to be seen. So is whether Wilson can be a great pass-first quarterback against a good defense.

I had thought New England would provide a great test of Wilson’s new style of play. Nope. The Patriots have the 27th ranked pass defense by DVOA. Atlanta: 31. Dallas: 25. Miami: 28. That may be overestimating those defenses too. Judging by a neutral stat which does not adjust for league context, Atlanta, Dallas and Miami have all allowed more adjusted net yards per pass attempt than the worst defense of 2019, the Oakland Raiders. The 2020 Patriots would have rated 28th in 2019. The Falcons 8.8 ANY/A matches the 2015 New Orleans Saints, often referred to as the worst pass defense ever.

This week may provide better clarity. Minnesota has the 9th best pass defense in the NFL according to DVOA. “May” is the operative word though, as the Vikings have not generated pass rush, and have not performed well as measured by ANY/A. They are allowing 8.3 ANY/A. That’s comparable to the aforementioned worst-ever Saints and the 0-16 2008 Lions.

As of Week 4, the Seahawks are performing better on offense than they did last year according to DVOA. The difference is not as great as you may think though: +4.6. The big driver of perceived difference is Seattle’s strength of schedule. Last season, Seattle faced the toughest run of defenses in the NFL. Their average opponent would have ranked 11th in the NFL with a -4.7% DVOA. This season, Seattle has faced the easiest run of defenses in the NFL. Their average opponent would rate 28th in the NFL.

Eventually, Seattle will face a good pass defense. Washington currently ranks third, San Francisco sixth, and the LA Rams seventh. LA and Washington are far less effective at defending the run. According to DVOA, so is Minnesota. If there’s any substance to LRC, we will know eventually. The Seahawks will pass early and often against a good pass defense. The Seahawks will not revert to a run-first approach even against a comparatively weaker run defense. And it’ll work. And they will win.

And I’ll eat crow. I’m only too happy to be wrong about all this. Wilson has left me happily flummoxed again and again. I could do without the soul-sucking cooking puns, but I would be thrilled if Wilson adopted a style of play proven to age well. I’ve seen improvements to his game which excite me. Weak as the competition may be, he has crushed it, and he has crushed it without the aid of a dominant run game. It’s weird to see but everything about this season has been really, really weird. So weird it doesn’t seem wise to extrapolate too much meaning from four games. I remain skeptical.