On Thursday, Russell Wilson became the fastest quarterback ever to win 93 games. Don’t sprain your sockets rolling your eyes. Yes, that’s a questionable achievement. 93 is an ugly number and it doesn’t even possess the heroin chic of ugly numbers. 93 is not prime. Even my wife, modest fan of football, hater of math, couldn’t help but comment how arbitrary that particular statistic seemed. The fastest! Zuh? To 93! Oh. Quarterback wins! Cringe. Yet no stat may better capture Wilson’s greatness.
Quarterback wins may be the most openly reviled statistic, if one even deigns to call it that, in all of sports. It is not analytical. It credits the quarterback for the achievement of the team. Rather than separate and describe a particular aspect or particular achievement, it awards one player a kind of quasi-ownership of the whole enchilada. It’s not hard to find games in which Wilson seemingly played poorly but won or games in which he excelled but lost.
In his rookie season Wilson completed 7 passes and won 58-0. Not a year later he completed 8 and won 29-3. In that second game, he attempted 19 passes, was sacked four times, and threw a pick. It’s easy enough to see the fallibility of crediting one player with the performance of a team. But the team won and for Wilson no other outcome could be better.
No person within a team, the greater team, the operation of a football team, is more important to the outcome of a game than the quarterback. Tom Brady’s success with Tampa Bay I think fully and finally settles that argument. Coaches are important, hugely important, but there’s a reason even the highest paid coaches are paid less than a third of what the highest paid quarterbacks are paid. From a business standpoint, the quarterback is a team’s true CEO. He will make the very most important decisions, i.e. he’s the chief decision maker or executive. And like a CEO owns a quarterly report a quarterback owns the outcome of the game. You can trace the history of the NFL by the quarterbacks who played in it.
Great quarterbacks performed in the critical moments which won games. The greatest quarterbacks performed exceptionally well in the critical moments which won championships. This is not an appeal to populism either, a Derek Jeter is the greatest shortstop of all time because of winning and clutch argument at all. Yes, winning the Super Bowl is more valuable than winning the conference championship, and the conference championship more important than … and any playoff win is more important than any regular season win, and any win which earns a team a chance at making the playoffs more important than ... and any win in a contending season is worth more than any win in a lost season. The value of wins can be expressed by some hypothetical exponential curve. It could make a subject for an economics paper. Which quarterback contributed the most in the highest leverage situations? And that matters! But the ability to play well in the most important situations is valuable for a more subtle reason too.
It it is too hard to know exactly how good a quarterback’s supporting talent is. Too hard. It is too damn hard to fully understand how good an opposing team is. Too hard, we know in generalities. Health is a hugely confounding variable. Great defenses can plummet to mediocrity in a week—in a play. Players are lost. Injury which does not force a player out of a game may diminish their performance. “Diminish their performance” is three words which define an infinite set: diminish their performance [slow straight line speed and/or decrease cutting left and/or make tentative … ]
The very actions of football have nothing of the simple regularity of baseball. DK Metcalf may be a better receiver than Tyler Lockett but Tyler Lockett matches better against Patrick Peterson. Who’s worth more WAR? Right? It’s a preposterous question. “Match” as word and prefix performs more purposes in football than Marklar does in Marklar. It is the operative word in the shoptalk philosophy of football. The aphorism I’ve heard most often most recently is “styles make matches.” Lockett’s style, which is another infinite set, succeeds against Peterson’s style, infinite set.
The gold standard of quarterback stats, or I guess I should write the standards bearers since I do not think any one of DYAR, QBR, ANY/Y or EPA/P has achieved anything like the position of gold standard. But the best, the supposedly and indeed best, mostly adjust for opponent. If you want to appear savvy, if you want to express in statistics what is expressed rhetorically in disdain for quarterback wins, these are the stats you use. But, for the reason cited above, they do a hacking job at opponent adjustment. There’s no “styles” variable nor could there be. There’s no “the nickelback’s playing through plantar fascitis” variable.
Adjustments also do not adjust for the pressure or lack of pressure applied by the opposing offense. That’s another weaselly expression of football shoptalk, but, whittled to its core, pressure is scoring efficiency, most specifically, but also ability to avoid turnovers and create favorable field position when not scoring. I’ll have to check if it’s disappeared down the memory hole, nope, but Mitchell Trubisky’s stellar performance in 2018 as rated by QBR is a victim of missing this variable. The Bears were the best scoring defense and the best defense by DVOA. Like a lot of quarterbacks who burned bright playing wing man to an all-time great defense, Trubisky could be modestly efficient in low pressure situations, but as he had fewer good opportunities and a greater need to score, his efficiency vanished. That’s how Mitchell Trubisky ends up as the third best quarterback of 2018: a cleverly designed stat which omits vital data because that vital data is exceptionally difficult to number.
It’s impossible to account for every known unknown and unknown unknown, and we shouldn’t feel paralyzed by our imperfection. But it’s worth mentioning one stat captures everything and omits nothing but also claims nothing which it cannot prove. Wins. United with an all-time great defense, Trubisky could win, and no other quarterback could do better. They could win more but they could not win better. This win stat does not overawe you with method and intimidate you into passivity. A fan could qualify Trubisky’s win however they felt correct, but the essential duty of the stat, to record something which actually happened, was ably performed by wins and losses. It enabled thought and discussion. It did not seek to replace, occlude or obsolete thought and discussion.
Wilson being the fastest to 93 wins ever invites thought and discussion. It is rich with meaning without claiming anything it can’t. I could prattle on thousands of more words about all the specific ways in which Wilson won or lost a game, his crazy rookie contract, his mentorship of DK, abstractions like “culture” which is a deprecated consideration because of Moneyball blah blah blah but which is vital in football. But I don’t have to! I don’t have to command from on high what is, because unlike the opinion which becomes a kind of statistical measure through a tailored process, a metric, quarterback wins is a simple stat. It’s like height or population or income or density or velocity or fatalities or price … that is, it exists. It is not a factoid.
And that’s Russell Wilson.
He is the subject of so much damn opinion, the tailored processes of human perception, and he’s been great and he’s been a game manager and he’s been a scrambler and he couldn’t read a defense and he’s been held back by pedestrian receivers and he couldn’t win a shootout and he’s too short and he’s Houdini and he needs a line and he undermines his line and he’s the best deep passer in the league and he may or may not be a Hall of Famer and he’s worse than Matthew Stafford and he was coddled and the Legion of Boom killed him every day in practice and he’s better than Andrew Luck and he’s not a pocket passer … and he’s an MVP candidate because he wins and wins and …
Russell Wilson is the fastest quarterback to 93 wins and wins don’t mean nothing but fun nights at the Morgan household, let me tell ya. Right? Wins are motherf—king wins! And Russell Wilson got 93 of them for anyone who’s ever even liked the Seahawks for a day for purely monetary purposes. He provides direct to the consumer, steals from the source, harvests happiness straight from the Bay Area for girls and boys the world over.
For about 200 years statistics has meant “numerical data collected and classified.” One at bat. One double. One for one. Two of four. In 2012 Russell Wilson was a rookie. That’s another way of saying he had played in zero seasons heading into Week 1. Zero of zero possible games played, undefined, and in his first chance to play, he played, and in his first chance to start, he started, and in his second game starting as the quarterback, his team won. 92 more times, and nine really damn important times disqualified because of the innate stupidity of statistics, he won. And no quarterback, in the history of football!, has given fans so many wins so fast.
It’s notable is all. Stacked 93 high and omitting the post-season why omit the post-season? but stacked 93 high, and those 44 stabs to the eye and one peck on the cheek to a sibling nearby, we do not see Wilson as a component of a process to be made more efficient but a human who has won and won and won. 93, that’s a dumb place to stop, but sometime early next season, when he’s won 100 and the roundness of it the aesthetics of it make it less silly to acknowledge, let’s not give quarterback wins the high hat. Wilson is too great in too many ways. Too complex, changing. He’s not a coordinate but a tree with seasons and florescence. 93, mid-November his 32nd birthday little more than a week away, is a wonderful piece of data which in shorthand tells a very long tale. Each of us knows some it and none of us know it all. But it’s awesome.