Many of the best quarterbacks in NFL history throw or threw interceptions at a very low rate. But that list is pocked by quite a few mediocre quarterbacks too. Quarterbacks like Alex Smith, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater who avoid throwing interceptions by avoiding difficult throws. Russell Wilson finds himself somewhere between that group and the quarterbacks he aspires to be like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. I do not mean that condescendingly. I think Wilson was every bit as good as those two in his own way, well maybe not quite, but Rodgers and Brady are among the greatest quarterbacks to ever play. But Wilson’s “own way” may not age well. It may not have survived the season, in fact.
At 32, Wilson cannot avoid throwing interceptions by regularly scrambling a receiver open. Which, especially these last few weeks, has led to Wilson playing an awful lot like that cautious bunch who slowly kill the offense through sacks and checkdowns. There’s a larger discussion to be had about how Wilson’s particular skill set will age, but this is a short post with a limited scope. All I want to know, all I seek to figure out, is whether Wilson has become too cautious.
I cannot answer that question fully but I can offer something of a survey. Let’s split Wilson’s seasons into three periods. Let Russ Cook (LRC), The Downfall and Post-LRC. These are imperfect. Wilson excelled in Week 8 against a San Francisco team in total disarray. That however falls within the period I describe as “The Downfall.” But I won’t exclude it. Nothing’s ever so simple and I do not wish to cook the numbers to reach a desired result.
LRC (Weeks 1-4)
EPA/P: 0.419 (3rd)
Air Yards: 8.7 (3rd)
Interception: 1.4% (4th)
Sack: 7.4% (25th)
The Downfall (Weeks 5-10)
EPA/P: 0.156 (17th)
Air Yards: 9.2 (4th)
Interception: 4.1% (32nd)
Sack: 8.8% (31st)
Post-LRC (Weeks 11-17)
EPA/P: -0.006 (23rd)
Air Yards: 8.0 (12th)
Interception: 1.3% (3rd)
Sack: 7.1% (24th)
First let me clarify a couple decisions I made. My garbage time filters are robust, and only plays which occurred when the win probability was between 20 and 80% were considered. EPA/P and Air Yards are compared to other quarterbacks in that time frame, because that data is available. Interception and sack percentage is compared against season totals for teams.
This seems to confirm my guess. Wilson is playing more conservatively and if EPA/P is to be believed Wilson is playing too conservatively. I do not know if EPA/P is to be believed as that’s very fishy, but I can’t look under the hood to scrutinize the formula.
I noted that Wilson’s performance in Week 8 was not typical of that stretch of games. I can only break down stats into ranges, and so I can’t compare Wilson’s performance over weeks 6-7 and 9-10 to other quarterbacks, but in terms of absolute value, how did Wilson perform in those four games?
The Cooked Downfall
Air Yards: 9.8
Poorly, and yet if EPA/P is to be believed, still better than he has in the last seven weeks. Other problems arise. This isn’t adjusted for opponent. It’s also not adjusted for game plan or game situation. Therefore I do not think this data necessarily supports only one conclusion. It’s inconclusive! But it does invite interpretation. Here a few.
Facing a run of debilitated or inherently weak offenses matched with good defenses, like Seattle did almost every week in the final seven games of the season, Wilson may have been instructed to be more conservative. The Seahawks finished 6-1 down the stretch meaning that Wilson’s diminished performance only at worst cost Seattle one win.
Or it may be that Wilson or Wilson’s coaches overcorrected. Wilson shouldered blame for what were largely losses caused by inept defense. In the four game comprising the downfall Seattle’s defense lost Seattle a staggering 57.15 EPA. Seattle’s defense was awful, Wilson was tasked with rescuing a drowning hippo, and poor performance ensued.
Or Seattle’s coaches believed Wilson’s style of play and/or turnover problems were directly responsible for the defense’s poor performance. Seattle’s defense added 18.38 EPA in the period I marked as Post-LRC.
Or, most speculatively, Wilson may be injured. Elements of the Post-LRC period bear a striking resemblance to Wilson’s 2016 season. Wilson was overall more effective in 2016, averaging the 13th best unadjusted EPA/P, but his sack percentage and average air yards are very similar: 7.0% and 8.1 in 2016 and 7.1% and 8.0 in the Post-LRC period. Perhaps avoiding hits at the expense of going deep is an act of self-protection.
Ultimately, I don’t know. I don’t think we’ll get an answer this weekend either. The LA Rams have every reason to lean on their defense and protect their offense. Which means Seattle has every reason to stay conservative. That’s worked for nearly half a season, and, as the saying goes, it’s hard to argue with winning. But unless Wilson greatly improves his performance, I doubt that winning will continue. Maybe Wilson can call on it when it’s needed. Maybe Wilson will heal. Maybe all of this is explained by the innately high variability of the deep passing game. It’s a mystery, for sure. Two months ago, I never would have thought Seattle would go 6-1 down the stretch with Wilson playing like an execrable checkdown artist, but here we are. Can he and will he be allowed to stop?