clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What if Russell Wilson played every quarter like the fourth quarter?

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I won’t hold you in suspense. Below you’ll see Russell Wilson’s actual performance in 2019 compared to his fourth quarter performance prorated to four quarters.

They’re virtually the same. So what exactly does Russell Wilson mean when he says?

“Getting ahead is a key thing. I do believe in finishing strong. We’ve won a lot of games in the fourth quarter and been able to do some fun things in the fourth quarter. Let’s treat every quarter like it’s the fourth quarter. That’s my mentality. . . . I want to be able to make plays and give us a chance to win. That doesn’t mean just me chucking it around, but I feel like the more times I have the ball in my hands, the more things that can happen. I think the defense worries about that, too.”

I think he means something akin to “let’s go.” And by that I mean, “treat[ing] every quarter like it’s the fourth quarter” does not necessarily have any tactical or strategic implications. He simply wants to treat every quarter like the game is on the line. But do we really want that?

By adjusted yards per attempt, which is a simple measure of overall efficiency, Wilson is little better. His sack rate would be a career low which is awesome needless to say awesome. However his rushing attempts would shatter his career high, and his efficiency as a rusher would be worse even than his injury marred 2016 season. That year Wilson actually lost value as a rusher. Despite fewer sacks taken, it’s unlikely Wilson would actually be hit less.

Would he throw more frequently? Maybe.

Wilson did throw more passes in the fourth quarter than any other quarter. Which is unsurprising for a quarterback who tied for first in the NFL in fourth quarter comebacks with four. But his frequency of passes was not significantly different. Like every other quarter but the second, Seattle hewed very closely to a 50-50 split of runs and passes. That’s a mixed sample containing both games in which Seattle had to come back and games in which Seattle was protecting a lead. Many of those runs are runs by Wilson which means Wilson had the ball in his hands “more times,” but again the benefit of that is debatable.

Wilson did not play particularly well when behind with under four minutes remaining.

That includes three largely meaningless scoring drives conducted against the Ravens and Saints in blowout losses. Seattle’s 82-yard drive which ended with a touchdown pass to Will Dissly as time expired seems particularly distorting. Wilson completed 11 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown, an 8 ANY/A clip, but the slowness of the drive ended the game, and two interceptions were waved off because of flags on the defense. Point being, there’s little to suggest Seattle would be better playing every drive as if it were a desperation drive.

Like most things which originate on Twitter, Let Russ Cook seems like a shallow, half-formed notion with little connection to reality and no way of being applied. It’s so ambiguous as to be kind of irrefutable. It operates under the assumption that Wilson is being held back in some way, which certainly seems bad. But how?

While they may be similarly talented, Wilson is not a similar quarterback to Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes threw an absolute ton in a pass-first offense at Texas Tech, and he excelled. Wilson excelled for one season in a run-first offense, and has always played in a run-first offense as a pro. Wilson’s two worst seasons as a pro are the two seasons in which he passed most frequently. That may be a coincidence, but it’s noteworthy.

Let’s compare the two using only games in which either player threw 30 or more times in the 2019 regular and post-season. This is hand tabulated, as I could find no official numbers for this particular situation.

Mahomes outperformed his season average in ANY/A while Wilson performed a little bit worse. A team tends to throw more when it can throw more. Wilson’s performance would suggest he could throw more without too much lost efficiency, but, again, at the expense of more sacks taken and more fumbles lost. If we factor those fumbles into Wilson’s ANY/A, giving them the same penalty given to interceptions of -45 yards, Wilson’s average drops to 6.6. Mahomes’ average drops to 8.4.

That ignores the inherently dangerous nature of taking a sack, too. Playing a full season in 2018, Mahomes had 606 total attempts and sacks taken. If Wilson were given 606 chances to throw, given his rate of sacks taken in 2019 (which was in line with his career average), he would suffer 52 sacks, and surrender something like 10 fumbles. Like I’ve said before, Wilson cannot really throw more frequently until he is sacked less frequently. Among players of the modern era with comparable sack percentages, not one of Daunte Culpepper, Dave Krieg, Jeff George, Chris Chandler or Joe Theismann were able to stay healthy and consistently start 16 games. Theismann in fact stayed healthier than most. Until.

If Seattle radically remade its offense, hiring a new coordinator and investing many more resources into its receivers and pass protectors, it’s possible Wilson could throw more often without losing efficiency or unduly endangering himself. I can’t argue that. This hypothetical cooking show starring Russ may be more successful. And it really may not be too.

If we look at Super Bowl winning teams since the 2000 season, only four have been built around the formula of a standout offense orchestrated by a great offensive head coach: 2019 Chiefs, 2017 Eagles, 2010 Packers, and 2009 Saints. The far more common formula is great quarterback matched to great defensive head coach: Belichick and Brady, Roethlisberger and Cowher or Tomlin, Manning and Dungy. Those Super Bowl winning teams that won with offense typically had a highly respected defensive coordinator: Jim Schwartz, Steve Spagnuolo, Dom Capers and Gregg Williams. Most of the oddball winners had great defenses and great defensive minds on staff: 2001 and 2012 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, 2007 and 2011 Giants, 2015 Broncos. It may not be perfectly true, and it may not hold up over the next 20 years, but the explanation for this phenomenon has always been that while talent evaluation and coaching can make a defense, it takes a quarterback to make an offense. Great ones do not depend on coaching. Even great coaching cannot make a bad quarterback good for any length of time.

There is no evidence Wilson plays better late or in pressure situations. He’s a great quarterback. In pressure situations, he’s still a great quarterback. Wilson loses efficiency as he passes more frequently. He also, naturally, takes more hits; each one a potential season-ender for the Seahawks. Each one could also endanger Wilson’s career. Not only is it impossible to dramatically change Seattle’s offense this coming season, it’s not clear the Seahawks would benefit from emphasizing the offense so long as Wilson’s playing. Research suggests that the percentage of pass plays ending in a sack correlates best to the quarterback. No matter what line he plays behind, no matter who he’s passing to, Wilson will likely suffer more sacks than average. It’s his style to drop deep and hold the ball an awfully long time. He’s excelled playing this style of football. He’s excelled despite often mediocre or below-average surrounding talent. He’s won when his always excellent play has been matched with a good running game and a great defense. Nothing is likely to protect Wilson as well as a reliable run game and a stifling defense.

Let Russ Cook is not actionable. It’s not even a fully formed idea. It’s a pithy one-liner. Which, along with confusion, disinformation, argument, and mob mentality, seems to be what the medium of Twitter creates. Let Russ Cook, to me, is the remnants of a collectively shared hope that Brian Schottenheimer would fail as offensive coordinator. It’s a way to frame success as failure. Wilson has been excellent. The Seahawks title window seems to have reopened. But Wilson isn’t passing frequently enough. And, given the very high likelihood that Seattle does not win the Super Bowl in 2021, the same very high likelihood shared by every NFL team, it plays the long game of targeting Schottenheimer for blame in advance. We’re not likely to see Wilson “cook,” and so that scenario enjoys the immaculate perfection of only ever being hypothetical. Nothing short of a Super Bowl win can beat it.

To win the Super Bowl the Seahawks need the defense to improve markedly. The Seahawks need special teams to improve markedly. The offense is already championship caliber, even if it’s not as good as some. Wilson’s awesome. He’s improved these past two seasons. I’m thrilled. I didn’t love the hiring of Schotty either but I’m not going to warp the truth to support my preconceived notions. Coaches with bad reputations turn things around. It happens. What’s stalling the Seahawks, what’s bottling up their title hopes, is a head coach and a general manager with sterling reputations, who haven’t earned them in quite some time.