Russell Wilson is the last man standing of a tactical revolution which has all but ended in defeat. Scrambling quarterbacks do not age well. Colin Kaepernick sells shoes. Geno Smith, Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles wear shoes on the sideline. Jake Locker lost his passion for the sport. It sucks to suck. Ryan Tannehill has been reborn a pocket passer. Johnny Manziel, all things considered, lived like a rock star through his early 20s. His opportunity bought by Wilson, etc. And it’s with the mention of Manziel that this rhetorical device feels strained.
Wilson is two weeks from turning 32. He’s on pace to have his best season rushing since 2017, but, in general, he has worked to transition away from being a rushing/scrambling quarterback. The writing’s on the wall, to invoke another cliche. If Wilson wants to be the greatest quarterback ever, if he wants to play until he’s 45, he has to adjust. He has to develop the skills of an old quarterback: timing, touch, read, anticipation, and, I would offer, ethical egoism.
Wilson has significant capacity for self-improvement. The last two seasons he improved his pre-snap read markedly. This season he has shown the ability to quickly and accurately make post-snap reads, too. He has arrested his impulse to scramble prematurely. There’s a little shuffle he does when he wants to run but knows he needs to stick back and see if something materializes. This is possibly my favorite moment from the season, believe it or not.
Aldon Smith flashes free for a split second. Smith had already sacked Wilson three times. The impulse to scramble is very strong but Wilson overcomes it and calmly steps left. Brandon Shell recovers, Smith’s pass rush is neutralized, and a second later Wilson finds DK Metcalf for the game-winning score. That moment when his legs widen and you can feel him overcoming a once useful but now undermining tendency is just so damn awesome to me. I don’t know. I’m weird.
The composition of this season’s contenders is anything but weird. The five teams rated most likely to win the Super Bowl all follow the classic formula. It’s boring in a way but KC, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Green Bay are all built around a franchise, likely Hall-of-Fame bound quarterback. Nothing wins in the NFL and nothing presages winning in the NFL like a great passing offense. Tampa Bay’s is a bit iffy, at the moment, but they’re contenders all the same, and they’re contenders because Tom Brady chose to be selfish. He wanted to play for a very talented offense. One that he wouldn’t need to carry. One which would make it easy for him to succeed and easier for him to excel. Though I’m reluctant to place the word beside his name, in this way Brady was ethically egoistic. What he wanted for himself was also good for his teammates, coaches, team and fans of the Buccaneers.
One potential good that can from this, uh, hashtag? is that Wilson has accelerated his transition into being a venerable old quarterback. I’m not talking about the dozens of hits he’s taking, either. Old quarterbacks need help. They need great surrounding talent. They’re incredibly needy, really the opposite of the humble, team-first, advantageously cheap quarterback Wilson was when he entered the league, when he won a Super Bowl, when he was an excellent MVP candidate unappreciated by a backwards electorate. Brady, Drew Brees, are game managers. So, to an extent, is Ben Roethlisberger. They win because they enable and manage the incredible talent which surrounds them. Patrick Mahomes, whose success I would guess spurred all this LRC nonsense, inherited an offense which made Alex Smith look good. He doesn’t carry his team. He puts it over the top.
Winning the MVP this year will not mean too much for Wilson’s legacy. Of that I’m sure. Quick, tell me three things about John Brodie, Brian Sipe or Rich Gannon. Fans remember great seasons, and if a great season incidentally earns the MVP, fans may remember that too. But more than ever the MVP award has become the kind of news story which justifies its newsworthiness by being a news story. It’s self-perpetuating and meaningless.
By becoming the kind of quarterback who earns MVP consideration, Wilson may help improve his longevity and the window of contention for the Seahawks. May. He has skills to master, for sure, and he’ll need Seattle to markedly improve their ability to draft talent on offense. Where would this team be if not for some dumb as nails analytic knocking Metcalf into the second round?
Passing from the pocket is age-resistant. It doesn’t depend on quickness or youthful resilience. It depends on skill and skill is earned through experience. Perhaps forced, perhaps done for the wrong reasons, and perhaps counterproductive in the short term, Let Russ Cook is ensuring Russ gains experience as a pocket passer. This new Wilson, this perhaps better Wilson, this orthodox Wilson, who wins the classic way and who may one day be recognized by an award which rewards players who win in the classic way, needs help too.
I hope LRC is a passing thing. But needing to pass to win, and the hardships that imposes on Wilson and this offense, could help Wilson learn new skills, and help the Seahawks better understand how to build around their newly pass-first quarterback. That’s an investment. Wilson is investing in his future, because quarterbacks stop scrambling one way or another. For now and maybe 10 or more years, Wilson’s future is the Seahawks future. The Wilson we knew, the Houdini act, the rushing, the perilous snap after perilous snap, was likely to age poorly. One day, somehow, Russell Wilson needed to learn how to thrive without depending on his significant athletic gifts. Having a hashtag turn into an ersatz game plan is not how I would have preferred it to happen, but it’s happening. He’s the best passer he’s ever been. And he’s slowly, arduously crafting a style which may make his boastful goals a lot more possible.