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Russell Wilson: the pocket passing, running, game-manager point-guard quarterback

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Al Bello

There have been some really great articles about Russell Wilson on the site these past couple of days - Jacob addressed some of the concerns with Wilson's play that have popped up over the past few weeks, his downfield vision, accuracy, and play outside the pocket, and Kenneth broke down Wilson's season from a statistical point of view in amazing detail - so I'm not going to spend too much more time on the subject (ok I probably will), but there were a few things I wanted to talk about from a macro point of view. Because, there have been some interesting perspectives presented this week from analysts I respect, that go against the national media narrative which will likely focus on Wilson as a runner.

With so much focus on the read-option and all that of late, it's easy to get caught up in 'the new NFL' and all the fun things teams could do down the line with dual threat quarterbacks. I readily admit that I totally get caught up in it - it's schematically fascinating and has been ridiculously efficient thus far, as ESPN Stats & Info tells us:

The Seahawks had a lot of success with the option [against Washington], netting 110 yards on 11 option rushes (including Lynch's game-winning score), with 66 of those yards coming in the second half). Seattle averaged nearly 8 yards before contact on its option runs, compared to 2.6 yards prior to contact on its other runs. The Seahawks have the most option rushes (61) and option yards (474) of any team since Week 13.

That's 7.8 yards per carry.

As Greg Cosell puts it, "The more quarterbacks run, the more that mentality takes hold. You've got to be really careful with that stuff, and it's easy to be hypnotized by all that." Yes, it is. It's also easy to be hypnotized by how damn well it has been working, and want your team to do it more and more. You have to be careful with that stuff, though.

The read-option may be here to stay as one weapon in a team's arsenal (I hope!), and even though the pistol can play a role in a team's offensive game-plan (would be interesting!), the bottom line, long term, big picture, is that you want to limit the amount of times your quarterback gets hit, period. That means, you want your offensive foundation to follow this simple structure: your quarterback passes, your running back runs the ball.

For Pete Carroll and Tom Cable and Darrell Bevell - all three of whom seem to be 'football purists,' this type of football is the all-time best way to consistently win, especially late in the year (which we're now in). Mitigate as many detracting variables from the Super Bowl winning equation as possible: having an injured starting quarterback is one of the most compounding variables out there. Ask the Redskins.

Pete Carroll got to see with Robert Griffin, first hand, what the detrimental effect an injured quarterback can have on your offense and team and ability to win. Carroll also witnessed this first-hand with Steve Young during the 1995-1996 seasons. As Davis told us last week, Carroll was defensive coordinator for the 1996 San Francisco 49ers team that went 12-4 but faltered in the playoffs, a large part due to injuries to Steve Young, including concussions and broken ribs.

Steve Young was asked today about the 'new style' of quarterbacks that are emerging in the NFL, players in the mold that Young pioneered. Indeed, some have even compared Russell Wilson to Young, and name Young as the model for what Carroll envisions Wilson becoming. Young told a group of reporters, over a conference call:

"So with the pistol and with quarterbacks that can move around being better trained earlier, I think you're going to see that people will see the benefits of mobile quarterbacks in the long-term and that will still be hopefully the prototype. Now, Peyton [Manning] and Tom [Brady] have forever proven me wrong on that, but I think you're starting to see that the potential for what mobile quarterbacks can do on third down and just piercing plays to defenses, as they learn the job. Because as soon as a mobile quarterback learns the job, Andrew Luck is probably going to be the first one that gets there, that's when you get to complete capitulation of defenses. They just don't know what to do. You've seen RGIII do that at times this year as a rookie and you've seen Russell Wilson do that as a rookie. It's incredible the things these guys can accomplish.

Now, the second part is the thing that you wonder, can you stay the long haul. Can you stay healthy? ... How can guys that can move around stay healthy, have long careers? You get smart fast, and you use that weapon really judiciously. And I think RGIII learned a ton this year, and with this injury will be forced to deal with learning a lot more - and quickly. He's a smart guy. He will. ...

You can make these phenomenal plays - 80-yard runs, make five guys miss - sooner or later you'll expose yourself to something that you nor your team can afford, and that's just judiciously understanding your weapons and using them in the right way and with experience. I wish for RGIII to get fully healthy, to get back on the field with no remnants of this injury, so he can continue that path. Because if he continues the path, he can be one of the great weapons that ever played at quarterback. But that's the challenge for anyone that moves around. Guys who don't move around don't have to worry about it. They hold other skills."

The injury to RG3, which Carroll witnessed up close and personal, and the history of injuries that Carroll witnessed with Steve Young don't necessarily mean the Seahawks will move away completely from featuring the read-option or pistol during these Playoffs (and less importantly to the discussion this week, into next year). It just means, most likely, (and I begrudgingly hope) that it will be just one portion of their play-sheet, and probably a relatively minor auxiliary portion. This is what happened versus the Redskins -- Seattle saved the read-option stuff, mostly, until late in the game, when they really needed it.

I could be underestimating the conservative approach with it, of course, but the point-guard quarterback theme that Carroll has talked about implies that he wants his quarterback to be distributing the football to offensive playmakers, not trying to make all the plays himself. He's not looking for Allen Iverson, he's looking for, say, Chris Paul, maybe.

The Seahawks' still-conservative approach to the read-option (I say that even though they run it more than any other team... but it's still a fraction of their plays), for the most part, aligns with the way that they've managed Wilson and their offense. As Davis Hsu framed it: before unveiling read zone midway through this year, the Seahawks laid the foundation of total commitment to zone scheme with Tom Cable, Marshawn Lynch, their offensive line top-heavy drafting and commitment to the run these past few seasons. Only THEN did they focus more strongly on deep shots out of play action. Only THEN did they implement the zone-read. They needed a strong foundation and four walls before they could start adding on extra wings and a mother-in-law in the backyard by the pool.

It has helped that Carroll has loosened the reins on Wilson, as Wilson has proven the ability/willingness to slide and protect himself from big hits. However, even Russell Wilson's uncanny ability to avoid hits and protect himself will get tested here and there, and the lick he took to the head near the goal-line last week against Washington is an easy reminder that dudes in the NFL are big, strong, fast and explosive. Asking Wilson to get downfield too often, amongst the ever-increasing-speed of linebackers and safeties, is probably tempting fate. Besides, and here's the important thing, Russell Wilson appears to be a guy that can make his money from the pocket/behind the line of scrimmage.

Now, I differentiate from Wilson making his money as a total 'pocket passer' because it doesn't seem like that's honestly what the Seahawks want him to be anyway. John Schneider's told Brock and Salk some of the traits he looks for in a quarterback, long before he drafted Wilson, a quote I keep coming back to because I think it's a good summation:

"How does he manage the game? What's he like on third downs? How does he handle pressure? Is he staring at the pressure coming at him or does he keep his eyes down the field? Can he square his shoulders, can he back out? Can he move? You have to be able to move in this league. I mean, Brock will tell you, we were in Oakland [the infamous Halloween massacre to the Raiders in 2010], I wasn't sure we were going to be able to bring the guy [Hasselbeck] home.

"You have to be able to move and avoid shots and keep your eyes down the field. You know, like Ron Jaworski would say on MNF, "You gotta be able to stare down the gun barrell."

So, to this front office, obviously, movement is important. This can range from the subtle pocket movement where Wilson is finding throwing lanes, to movement where he's escaping pressure (real pressure) and getting outside the pocket to keep plays alive. Seattle's guard situation has been in a state of constant flux this year, something that hasn't really been touched on all that much here, unfortunately, but is extremely important when it comes to a stable interior pocket for a short quarterback. Prior to this season, the closest contemporary facsimile to Russell Wilson that I can think of, Drew Brees, has had the benefit of two All-Pro caliber offensive guards to protect him up front and create passing lanes for him.

For Seattle this year, James Carpenter played well for a spell, which moved Paul McQuistan to the right side. Carpenter got hurt, moving McQ back to the left, and now there's a literal platoon at the RG position with John Moffitt and J.R. Sweezy swapping in and out during the course of a game, for crying out loud. I still don't know who will start on Sunday.

I'm not going to tell any of you that we should temper our enthusiasm for what Russell Wilson might bring to the franchise because I'm just as excited as anyone about his potential. That said, because we pick nits here at Field Gulls, we should acknowledge that he's not a finished product. Greg Cosell, as Jacob pointed out, still seems to be rather reticent to sing Wilson's praises, and Cosell's close friend and colleague, former NFL QB Ron Jaworski, ranked Wilson as his overall No. 13 NFL QB at the end of the season (despite Wilson's insane hot streak over the final 8 games that statistically ranked him above pretty much any other QB in the NFL, mind you). Jaws noted,

"Wilson debuted at No. 31 when I updated my rankings after Week 4. Look at him now, leading the Seahawks to the playoffs. I was a little concerned with his Week 17 showing against the Rams, as I thought he left some plays on the field. A little too often his No. 1 target would open up, but he'd already moved on to his next read. I thought he just lost a little discipline in that game, which gives me pause as he goes on the road for his playoff debut. He needs to regain that calmness that led him to such a stellar second half of the season."

Wilson didn't really regain that "calmness that led him to such a stellar second half of the season" against Washington, so the criticism remains valid. It's also pretty much in-line with what Cosell said about Wilson, not coincidentally, as Jaws and Greg often watch film together at the NFL Films headquarters.

Jaws joined Brock and Salk this morning and had some really interesting comments to add to this.

"As I'm watching him and trying to figure him out, I do think there's a disadvantage to being short, and I see some of his movement is basically because of that, but he's such an instinctive, intuitive passer, he's able to move and find people. A lot of guys can move (but then) can't find people. That's what Russell Wilson is able to do."

I think this is a very important distinction when it comes to Wilson's escapability and movement behind the LOS. Not all quarterbacks can make things happen after being flushed from the pocket. Wilson consistently does.

"There's going to be some plays where he has to move because he just can't see things. There are some things where you're designing things so you can get explosive plays down the field. But, they've now evolved to a wicked play-action passing team. They run the ball so effectively, that the play-action opportunities are there. Normally on play-action, you're going maximum protection, you're allowing your receivers to work down the field, and you're going to hold on to the ball a little bit longer. And, defenses are now much more aware of the escapability of Russell Wilson."

Jaws' comments line up with some stats that Mike Sando posted this morning, comparing Wilson's numbers inside the pocket to his numbers outside the pocket for the entire season and playoffs combined, and those numbers are encouraging, for those of you that might be feeling a little glum right now after reading my post.

Wilson's completion rate on passes from inside the pocket is an excellent 64.5% (198 of 305 for 2,449 yards), for 8.0 yards per attempt, 22 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. Let's write that again.

Wilson's completion rate on passes from inside the pocket is 64.5% (198 of 305 for 2,449 yards), for 8.0 yards per attempt.

Conversely, ... well, not conversely, because he's very good outside the pocket too,.. additionally, on passes outside the pocket, he's 69 of 114 for 856 yards (60.5%) with 7.5 ypa. 5 TD to 2 interceptions.

That YPA stat from inside the pocket alone can tell you that despite what the national media narrative will tell you this week, Russell Wilson can and does pass from the pocket well, and looking at the other numbers tells you that he does pass from the pocket a majority of the time. His completion percentage and yards per attempt from there are both very good, and moreover, 22 of his 27 touchdown passes came from within the pocket.

As Sando writes, "Note to self: The fact that a quarterback moves well doesn't mean he should be perceived as one lacking the skills traditional passers possess. The templates we've used in categorizing quarterbacks must change as players such as Wilson defy them." I will remember that too, Mike.