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Russell Wilson and a New Prototype of Quarterback

All is breaking down.

Darrell Bevell looks on grimly as Russell Wilson flashes some of his underused talent.
Darrell Bevell looks on grimly as Russell Wilson flashes some of his underused talent.
Dilip Vishwanat

The Seahawks are down eight to division rival St. Louis. Percy Harvin and the Percy-Harvin offense with him have been traded mid-week and for little in return. The remaining Seahawks receivers are a collection of try-hard overachievers more befitting a Tim Ruskell rather than a Pete Carroll team. It is third and nine. Russell Wilson has missed his opportunity.

The play design is dredged from a Bill Walsh b-side. Rams defenders are slack and predatory. Sitting over-top Paul Richardson's and Jermaine Kearse's deep out routes, playing with the kind of free money a lost season, third and nine, and an eight point lead at home grants, corners E.J. Gaines and Janoris Jenkins are awaiting a fatal forced pass attempt by Wilson. Wilson balks. He draws down. And three of his five potential receivers are kaput. Finishing expiring timing routes and now bystanders, but could they know to what they will be witness?

Luke Willson and Marshawn Lynch are running complementary but opposite shallow outs after chipping William Hayes and Robert Quinn respectively. Wilson never looks to Willson and the Rams oblige by not defending the second-year tight end. Wilson does look to Lynch, but the read, the connection, the pass and reception are undone by an elementary distrust. Could Lynch have caught and run for the first?

Maybe. Instead by being utilized as a decoy, a first decoy--Richardson will be the second, Lynch will become invaluable.

A second later Wilson does this.

Then this.

And ending like this:

52 yards up the left sideline which improves Seattle's chances of winning from 14% to 27%--or something like a quarter of a win.

Russell Wilson could break the game. For now he is game breaking in spurts. We are in the middle of one of the great periods of innovation in the National Football League's 95-year history. Yet that innovation like the above play appears verging on dissolution and failure. Why?

The Forward Pass

Rookie Sammy Baugh was bigger than his starting center. This was year eight of the Depression. Baugh had the good fortune of growing up where food was grown rather than rationed. He would define what the quarterback could be, what offense and passing the ball in the NFL could be, not as a quarterback but as a tailback. Baugh would not convert to quarterback until 1944, when the Allies were kickin' shit out of Hitler and a war time boom brought work to young men and bread to children.

As a tailback Baugh permanently defined the one talent and one skill every successful quarterback would need: accuracy. Though his completion percentage of 70.3% in 1945 is most remembered, it is his completion percentage of just 47.4% as a rookie which forever changed the NFL. By `45 the league on the whole would be completing passes at a 45.6% clip. The T-formation, which would become the I, pro set, split backs and foundation for most offenses even in today's NFL, was widely being adopted in the NFL. But in 1937 and just 23, Baugh would prove a passing game could be consistent, could produce at a rate commensurate with rushing, and could win games.

Others like Arnie Herber had shown the explosive potential of passing in the NFL. Herber had in fact preceded Baugh by one season, and in 1936 accomplished much of what Baugh accomplished in 1937. But Herber played out of a Notre Dame Box formation and as a tailback, and did not play with the consistent greatness necessary to prove his one season was something more than a freak occurrence, an aberration not unlike the so-called Wildcat which stormed the NFL in 2008.

Likewise, Benny Friedman was a precursor to Baugh, but played before the center to quarterback snap, before the abolition of the rule which stipulated passes must be thrown at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage, and with a rounder, less-wieldy ball. He played before his style of game was fully practical, and never mind whether his Jewishness hurt his chances of being an exemplar.

Whether Baugh was truly greater than his direct antecedents is open for debate. But Slingin' Sammy was the right man at the right time, and after him, the pass would never truly be marginalized again. It would be attempted on first and second down. Teams featuring great passers and passing offenses, like Sid Luckman's Bears, would win titles and form dynasties, and what we know now as the modern game of NFL football would be here to stay.

A First Prototype

Allow me to get my Ben Marcus on and provide a couple seemingly contradictory definitions:

Prototype: A hypothesized best of everything which sets the standard.

Prototype: A player whose specific skills and talents define a new standard.

Prototype literally means "first pattern or mold," and in precise use a prototype is an early, likely nonfunctional stage in a development which ends in a production model. But in the argot of football, a prototype or prototypical player is one that meets or exceeds the talent and skill requirements for his position. And ever since Baugh and extending at least until Terry Bradshaw, the initial defining characteristics of "accurate" and "smart," were augmented with a greater and greater emphasis on size and arm strength.

As the T formation took hold of the NFL, and the quarterback was no longer relegated to blocking, modern ideas like play action, run-to-pass ratio, and the pocket passer also took hold. The great quarterbacks were great deep passers, and the great and Hall of Fame enshrined quarterbacks were T-formation quarterbacks: Luckman, Otto Graham, Bobby Layne, Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield.

Then of course there was Sid Gillman, the man who took his thieving habits as a film usher (he would steal football footage from newsreels to study the game) and brought film analysis to football. Gillman did not introduce deep passing to the NFL. Layne, for instance, was known as the "Blonde Bomber." But Gillman standardized the deep passing game and proved it could work. Of it, he said:

"The big play comes with the pass," he would tell anyone who would take time to listen. "God bless those runners because they get you the first down, give you ball control and keep your defense off the field. But if you want to ring the cash register, you have to pass."

A then crazy like a fox Al Davis commented on working with Gillman "Being part of Sid's organization was like going to a laboratory for the highly developed science of professional football."

Passing was in. Passing could win. Passing could trump the run. And the foremost authority on passing the football favored the deep pass. And so tall, strong-armed pocket passers who could take advantage of speedy ends, today called wide receivers, were the first, and to this day, the paramount "prototypes" of a great quarterback.

This is why football fans know how far Kyle Boller could throw from his knees. Why, to this day, the NFL is dominated by the likes of Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco on down to Zach Mettenberger, Derek Carr and Ryan Mallett. So great was Gillman's legacy.

Run to sustain drives. Run to pass. Pass to cash in, and when you pass, by all means pass deep.

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun" Ecclesiastes 1:9

A Second Prototype

"The sun is new every day." Heraclitus

Bill Walsh did not set out to forever change the game of football. Those were the breaks.

The story of how Walsh joined Paul Brown's coaching staff in 1968 and created what would become the West Coast offense has been deeply and deftly explored by others, and so I will spare you the prolonged history and analysis. Walsh learned the deep passing attack under Al Davis, who in turn had learned under Gillman, and when necessity demanded, Walsh took the principles of passing deep, and found a way to maximize Virgil Carter's ability to pass short and highly accurately.

But by `68 Brown's best seasons were behind him, and his late-sixties and early-seventies era Bengals did little to convince the NFL on the whole that passing short and in rhythm was the wave of the future.

Many years later the partnership of Walsh and third-round quarterback Joe Montana would do just that. And so a second prototype of great quarterback was modeled after and imitated. Like Baugh, Montana's ascension was not simply a matter of discovery. The Mel Blount rule was instituted in 1978, and from Wikipedia to your screen, the rule stated:

To open up the passing game, defenders are permitted to make contact with receivers only to a point of five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This applies only to the time before the ball is thrown, at which point any contact is pass interference. Previously, contact was allowed anywhere on the field.

Which led to this:

Which in common phrasing is called "the passing explosion."

While I won't talk much more about Walsh and his many innovations, let's consider Montana and exactly what kind of model he defined.

Montana was a regular Joe insomuch that he was neither much bigger than an average man nor much more obviously athletic. Virgil Carter may have been quick and agile, but 1981, the first season Montana led his team to a Super Bowl victory, Montana only ran for 95 yards, or about three quarters worth of work for Russell Wilson. Montana rated a six out of nine in arm strength, and of his overall performance at the 1979 NFL Combine, one scout remarked:

"He can thread the needle, but usually goes with his primary receiver and forces the ball to him even when he's in a crowd. He's a gutty, gambling, cocky type. Doesn't have great tools, but could eventually start."

His draft class was glutted with big, slingin' prototypical types like Jack Thompson, Phil Simms and Steve Fuller. All fit the Gillman model but only Simms would succeed as a pro, and not half as much as Montana.

Montana in his role leading a timing-based passing offense (i.e. & e.g. the quarterback drops back three steps and throws to the spot where a receiver should be, and not to the receiver) fronted and made essential the quality of leadership in a quarterback. Yet Walsh himself understood the need to surround his quarterback with elite talent. A few years back, Danny Kelly wrote an excellent piece exploring this idea.

Quoting Pete Carroll, Kelly wrote:

[Walsh] convinced me that everything a coach does in designing his offense should be about making it easy for his quarterback, because his job is so difficult. He believed that everything should be be structured with the quarterback in mind."

In this way, the quarterback is the most important player on an offense but also its most sensitive to weaknesses. Joe Montana is surely the greatest quarterback to not be the greatest player on his own offense. Walsh demanded more intelligence, more excellence of execution from his quarterbacks than anyone before him, but less talent. Montana was happy to throw a "catchable ball" to Jerry Rice and watch the ensuing carnage. And that idea of a "catchable ball," and not a "bullet," a "bomb," a "dart," or a "laser," entered into the NFL with Walsh and Montana.

No longer was passing simply about "ring[ing] the cash register." It could sustain drives. It could set up the run. Passing became judged by percentages and spoken of in terms of efficiency. And a second prototype was established: the West Coast quarterback.

To this day, West Coast quarterbacks are common. Mark Sanchez, Brian Hoyer, Tony Romo and Teddy Bridgewater are all Montana-style quarterbacks, whatever offense they may play in. And the longevity and strange late-career peaks of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady depended and depend on the ideas popularized by Montana and Walsh: timing, leadership, coordination and short passing.

This is the quarterback as distributor. A mind to make decisions, an arm that delivers precise passes at a "catchable" speed, a personality that demands obedience and regularity from teammates, these are the traits of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and the lasting legacy of Walsh and Montana.

Defining the New Prototype

Baugh began as a tailback and played defensive back too. Montana was known for his ability to "keep the play alive." But neither men synthesized the run and the pass into a fluid in-between.

Fran Tarkenton may have, but Tarkenton was a marginal runner. Randall Cunningham may have, but Cunningham was a marginal passer. But Wilson, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Tannehill and Andrew Luck have, Aaron Rodgers and Daunte Culpepper did, and some many more like Johnny Manziel, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Geno Smith, E.J. Manuel, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota could.

Now what the heck am I talking about?

Let's consider that Wilson scramble for 52 again, and explore what defines the new prototype, before exploring whether any of the greater NFL coaching establishment has noticed.

In a play, a history lesson

Darrell Bevell learned under Brad Childress, and Childress under Andy Reid, and Reid under Mike Holmgren, and Holmgren under Walsh, and Walsh under Gillman, and if you want to see how the NFL is transitioning from Walsh's "West Coast," to something yet undefinable, it's all in this play.

Though out of shotgun, this is a typical timing route. Wilson's primary read is Kearse on the right, and to complete a pass to Kearse, Wilson needs to throw a back-shoulder pass which will be out of his hands before Kearse has completed his break. That way E.J. Gaines (#33) cannot anticipate the route, close and pick off the pass, the way Zack Bowman did against a similar play call this past weekend.

Such a pass is dangerous on third and nine, and against a ball-hawking team playing with a lead. Wilson does not like what he sees, and because his routes are timing routes, when he doesn't pass to his first read, the three initial routes are "dead." There is no second move to create separation, and the defenders will crowd the receivers and dare Wilson to make an ill-advised pass.

So far, Wilson is a West Coast quarterback.

The next stage of the play is a timed release by Lynch and Willson.

Their dual role as blocker and receiver has given them space, but both receivers hover around the line of scrimmage and the first-down marker is many yards away. Lynch has a deep defender ready to close. Willson does not, but is the far weaker open-field runner. For reasons worthy of a post of their own, Wilson does not throw to either Lynch or Willson.

Wilson is about to break contain and run, which is nothing new for a quarterback. But how he achieves separation is something radical and revolutionary.

(Let's now transition to an underutilized graphic from the Raiders at Seahawks broadcast of Week 9.)

Russell Wilson blasts Marshawn Lynch with his eye-beam. Lynch now has +5 HP recovery. Wilson is empowered with the Fanaticism aura.


The yellow line tracks Wilson's path. He has broken contain. His offensive linemen are chillaxin right. The Rams defensive linemen are closing from the right.

The bright yellow aura around Lynch indicates he is Wilson's "read," as in the target he is looking at. The defensive linemen will not catch Wilson unless Wilson slows significantly. The Rams defender by the "30>" is the only defender who can pass-defend Lynch, and he is the only defender who can run-defend Wilson. The read and the pump fake force Rodney McLeod Jr. to decide between allowing Wilson the edge and entrusting Alec Ogletree to clean up, or risking Lynch in the open field and with this:

In front of him.

Below is what Wilson's pump fake is said to have done.

Which I think Rich Gannon called the defender "not having eye discipline." McLeod closes on Lynch. He has backup should he allow Wilson to run past. He does not have backup for Lynch. A pass is less certain than a run because a pass must be caught, but Lynch is surely the better open-field runner, and the runner Seattle would rather take blows in the open field. McLeod does the right thing.

But about Ogletree and about him being so squarely in no-man's-land, why?

Below is the farthest Ogletree ever drifts to his left. Significantly not as far as the CBS graphic would indicate. Ogletree was not chasing Lynch.

That's him, hands and feet a blur, beside the "3" of "30."

He's not over the numbers but in an even more desperate situation. He is so close to Wilson that he's lost the angle. He is fighting his own momentum as just seconds before he was running the opposite direction. (Moving bodies have momentum. Sports teams being incorporeal, do not.) But how did he get there, and why? Was it simply a mistake?


There is a second valid receiver and a second pump fake.

Paul Richardson has released from his route and is cutting back across the field. Rich ran a 4.40 forty and just this last February, and is certainly among the fastest if not the fastest player on the field. Wilson hits him with that separation and toward a Cover 2 shell--did I not mention the Cover 2 shell?--and he may very well house that mother. Ogletree may not look like he is covering Richardson but he's the underneath defender. He is not defending the receiver but the passing lane to the receiver.

Now is that why he closes? I'm not sure. He looks very much like he's chasing ghosts. But we know that because we have time and distance and multiple camera angles and rewind. Ogletree has to diagnose this by watching Wilson and, perhaps, listening where footsteps are falling behind him, (and maybe play designs and tendencies determined by watching game film.)

It's more than tough on Ogletree and the Rams defense. It's bona fide game-breaking, but instead of this being planned-in, a vital part of the Seahawks offense as schemed, this is an improvised play. Bevell has flirted with scheming around Wilson's exceptional ability to run and pass simultaneously, but it's a minor, almost trick play-like part of the Seahawks offense. That is frustrating to say the least.

Almost in direct opposition to Montana and Walsh, in the modern NFL, talent has surpassed NFL coaches' ability to design plays around that talent. And a generation of great, new prototypes at quarterback are being underutilized, almost wasted.

Who and how well?

I've mentioned many by name, and I pulled out and analyzed a play which I think of as representational, but how would we define this new prototype in words?

They are not scramblers or rushers but quarterbacks who have so mastered running and passing on the run, that they can begin to run to disrupt the defense and set up the pass, or pretend to pass to disrupt the defense and then run. It is this fluidity which makes each of the new prototype quarterbacks their own built-in play action.

Within this framework, there are passing-centric new prototypical quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, and rushing-centric new prototypical quarterbacks like Russell Wilson. But each maximize the value of each type of attack through the threat of the other. That is why, for instance, Luck--the purest passer of the bunch--led the NFL in rushing DYAR by a quarterback in 2013. His runs were valuable because his passing was more dangerous. And that same season, Young Turks Kaep and Wilson, neither fully developed as passers, ranked 8 and 9 respectively in passing DYAR. Whereas Luck ranked 14 despite 150 more attempts than either.

Combining the passing and rushing DYAR for our new prototypes, and current as of Week 10 of 2014, we arrive at this handsome-to-its-mother chart.

Those are not ordered in any specific way. Newton's fine rookie season was omitted for consistency. And I include Locker because he's contemporary, fits the mold, my damnable allegiance to the UW Huskies, and because researching this piece, Locker's failure and his consistent status as banged up couldn't help but remind me of Steve Young. My apologies.

The future of the future

Wilson breaks contain again but this time the run is a designed play fake. The underneath defender is sucked in and Cooper Helfet comes wide open between defenders. Wilson throws a nose-diving duck toward Helfet but the pass falls incomplete. You know this play, and it's been run successfully by Seattle before, but it's a one-and-only, a wrinkle within a largely dated and traditional offense. The principle of Wilson being his own play action is so infrequently employed by Bevell, it has been used fewer than once a game throughout Wilson's three seasons.


Well, fear of injury is part of it. Aaron Rodgers, who is not wholly of the new prototype but throws very well on the run and once had 4.77 forty speed, has been beset by injuries, missing time or playing banged up almost every season. Daunte Culpepper suffered a terrible knee injury when he was only 28, and had what projected to be a Hall of Fame bound career all but ended.

Coaches are justifiably cautious with their quarterbacks, and perception remains that running into the open field is more potentially injurious than staying in the pocket. At the very least, protections encoded into the NFL rule book still favor pocket passers, and something like a broken leg or busted knee seem more likely for a runner than a passer. But as Russell Wilson proves every Sunday, a mix of sliding, sprinting toward the sideline, a well-timed stiff arm and avoiding the machismo-fueled squaring up and throwing down, is an effective form of self protection. Meanwhile, scrambling quarterbacks like Cam Newton have been something of a pinata when forced to stay in the pocket.

Apart from injury there has been a lag in the arrival of college coaches schooled in optimizing play calling for the new prototype of quarterback. Chip Kelly has the chops but has had little chance to renovate Andy Reid's roster. Kelly inherited Michael Vick, but for all his footspeed, Vick could run and Vick could pass but Vick could never throw on the run with any accuracy.

Bill Lazor, who worked under Kelly for a season, is the offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. Under whom Ryan Tannehill has emerged as a potential franchise quarterback after looking every bit the bust his first two seasons. But I'll admit to ignorance about what Lazor is doing specifically.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress has been success. Wilson and Kaepernick have both been very successful, and Wilson and the Seahawks are reigning Super Bowl Champions. Change is rare when a plan seems to be working. Maybe not until a great offensive mind is challenged to innovate the way Walsh was challenged to innovate in 1968, will we see an offense built to maximize the potential of the new prototype of quarterback. And until then, a naked boot, an occasional "trick" play that transitions from scramble to pass, and whatever comes of broken plays and scramble drills will have to suffice for innovation. But the potential is immense, and someone soon will unleash that potential.

Why not us? indeed.

. . .

John Morgan wrote a book and then re-wrote it over the winter. It is called 100 Things Seahawks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. The author describes it as a "bathroom reader."