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Russell Wilson is at a critical juncture in his career

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

It’s taken me a bit to really put my finger on what exactly made the Seattle Seahawks’ Wild Card defeat versus the Los Angeles Rams so dispiriting. Perhaps it was the fact that they never led, they never forced a turnover, they never offered up sustained offensive success, and even the units that had been carrying them in recent weeks (defense and special teams) had their hiccups that contributed to their demise.

But while Pete Carroll took his lumps, Brian Schottenheimer lost his job, and the offensive line had yet another dismal showing in a big game, 2020 marked perhaps the first time that Russell Wilson has been under considerable scrutiny for the team’s early exit. His 11/27 for 174 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT outing was worse than even that box score indicated. You could make a case that him and Drew Brees have had the two worst quarterback performances of this entire postseason.

The heartbreak of 2012 against Atlanta despite Russell Wilson’s 2nd half heroics still had the optimism of “they’ll be back,” and sure enough they were. The ending to Super Bowl XLIX has largely fallen on the shoulders of Darrell Bevell and Pete. The previous two playoff exits were cited as prime examples of the coaching staff holding Russell Wilson back schematically with an outdated, run-heavy approach to playcalling and design. Let Russ Cook didn’t just spawn out of thin air — there was good reason to be pissed off over this absurdly stubborn gameplan.

Then the 2020 season began and amazingly Wilson was allowed to cook! He looked like an MVP candidate for two months! DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett were terrorizing defenses for shits and giggles. But as has been the case for virtually his entire career he never sustained that level of consistency as a passer over a full season. The uncharacteristic turnover bonanza led to Carroll dialing it back. Seattle was still pass-heavy but far less explosive and far less efficient. It’s been easy to conclude that Carroll handcuffed Wilson again so he could play “Peteball,” but my counter to this is that Peteball has always involved the long ball, so taking Russell Wilson’s strength (and the strength of the Seahawks offense) out of the gameplan to avoid turnovers is self-defeating.

From the Arizona Cardinals rematch through the playoff loss to the Rams, Wilson’s EPA/play was barely better than Jared Goff and worse than Drew Lock and Mitchell Trubisky. Wilson’s turnovers had gone away but we saw a quarterback who was a below-average starter against a stronger schedule of defenses than he’d played at the start of the season.

The collapse of Wilson bared some resemblance to the 2017 season, which was pass-heavy by necessity due to a laughably bad running game. After an MVP-caliber game against the Philadelphia Eagles to put Seattle in position to win the NFC West, Wilson was producing a worse EPA/play than DeShone Kizer and the Seahawks offense disintegrated (along with its playoff hopes). Darrell Bevell and Tom Cable both hit the unemployment line, and you know the rest of the story.

I personally think attacking the coaching staff and more specifically Carroll — I’ve done my fair share over the years — has been done to death. We may yet reach a point where Carroll/Wilson becomes Seattle’s McCarthy/Rodgers but I’m not quite there yet. In some ways it does a disservice to Wilson to deflect blame to everyone else. There needs to be a serious and honest assessment of what Wilson is right now and what he’s always been. Former Field Gulls regular “Best Guy Around” had a recent Tweet Thread that sums it all up pretty damn well and I recommend giving it a read.

We’ve had nine years of discourse about the bad offensive line, or not throwing it enough, or not having faster tempo, or inadequate coaching, or inept playcalling, or the new thing in 2020-21 which is to speculate that Wilson has been playing injured since the Cardinals loss. I’ve bit my tongue on that last bit because a hidden concussion has been the prevailing theory, and I’d really not like for that to be true for no other reason beyond the absolute horror that was the concussion he suffered in college. We’ve been down this road before with Wilson twice before in the pros, so I’m not going to engage in that discussion any further.

We got to see Wilson in a proactively pass-first offense and it simultaneously brought out the best in him and resurfaced his terrible habits (bad pocket presence, hurried decisions, etc.) and unearthed new depths of shitty that are worrisome. He has had lulls before including in the 2015 campaign but never like this. I don’t think Carroll held him back to go spam Chris Carson rushes to nowhere. Schottenheimer absolutely deserves criticism for the predictability of his offense (which no doubt the Rams exploited) but Wilson straight up was not executing properly and that is entirely on him. When he is turning down open receivers because they aren’t open enough, or he’s forcing bad passes instead of running for an easy first down, he’s sabotaging the structure of the offense far worse than any Carroll meddling.

Which finally leads me to my main point. Next season marks year ten of Wilson’s career and he’ll be 33 years old in November. His contract is up after 2023. If there was a clear “philosophical difference” that led to Schottenheimer getting canned then I can’t imagine a scenario where Wilson’s vision of the offense he wants to run aligns with Carroll’s. Wilson said he wants significant input in the hiring process of his next OC, and justifiably so. But if under a new OC it’s more of the same Jekyll and Hyde offense, then Pete Carroll has to be on the hot seat, and Wilson’s future with the Seahawks beyond his current contract must be put into serious doubt. Despite his desire to play well into his 40s, the insane number of hits and sacks he’s taken is not conducive to still being an NFL starter at 40.

Just one more thing to think about: If Wilson randomly retires the minute after I press “publish” he’ll surely be looked upon as a Hall of Famer even with zero MVP votes or a Super Bowl MVP to his name. He is undeniably one of the greatest Seattle sports athletes of all-time, let alone one of the greatest Seahawks players. You want to know how I know Russell is already a legend whose impact on NFL quarterbacking has been profound? He’s been the comparison point for smaller quarterbacks such as Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield, who probably wouldn’t have ever been considered for #1 overall selection if not for Wilson’s success. The prevailing comparison for Wilson from a preceding era is Fran Tarkenton, who retired in 1978. Wilson has garnered plenty of praise, in-season accolades, and has evolved from an electrifying read-option quarterback to a more traditional dual threat who doesn’t really get designed runs anymore yet can beat you with his arm and his legs. If he is not as good as Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes then so be it. He’s already proven himself to be great his own way.

The question is, can Wilson stay great through 2021? If he can’t then we’re watching the beginning of the end of his glorious career. If he can, then the Seahawks’ championship window theoretically remains open.