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Russell Wilson: Calm under pressure

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In our daily lives, we deal with stress and pressure every day. "How am I going to pay this bill?", "Did I remember to close the garage door?", "Do these socks go with these sandals?" (no, they don't). It's a constant internal battle that we are forced to continually face head on.

Now, I am not here to minimize these clearly "insurmountable" life struggles, but this is just the type of pressure we deal with. It's there when we go to bed, it's there when we wake up, and generally it lingers all day long even while we are at work. So, what if our job performance mattered to more than just our employers? What if how well we performed under pressure mattered not only to our bosses but also: our teammates, our fans, our family, Carl the guy who gives us wicked good free haircuts out of his RV, our agent, our sponsors and lastly of course, ourselves?

Now take Russell Wilson, quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks for example. He doesn't just deal with mental pressure, he deals with extreme physical pressure as well. Each snap Wilson takes from under center he realizes that at any given moment he may have 315lbs of man racing after him, looking to get ahold of any part of his body and hurl him to the ground. He is forced to perform at the highest level with not only the fear of letting everyone around him down, but also the pressure of making a split second decision while under heavy duress from his opponents. His job makes worrying about whether or not you're going to eat "Taco Bell or Wendy's for dinner tonight" seem like pillow talk, baby. So if our efficiency of performance is affected by the minimal pressure we deal with from day to day, then it's probably safe to assume that Russell Wilson's must be too, right? So the question now becomes, "just exactly how efficient is Russell Wilson while under pressure?"

Its no secret that Russell Wilson is almost as lethal with his legs as he is with his arm. Take, for example, week seven of this season, Seattle's matchup with the Rams in St. Louis -- Wilson became the first player in NFL history to throw for over 300 yards (313) and rush for an additional 100 (106) in the same game. An incredible feat, that up until 2014 had never been achieved, by anyone.

Now, I realize this one performance is merely a blip on the radar of Wilson's entire career and it doesn't quite reflect his overall abilities while under pressure. So with my hypothesis in mind I once again decided to nerd out and go to the numbers. Determined, I set out to see just how well Russell Wilson actually performs while at the helm under in-game pressure.

Here is what I discovered

Definition:

"Drop-back" - any time the quarterback is snapped the ball and drops back in attempt to pass.

So just how much pressure is Russell Wilson under? Well, over the course of the 2014 regular season, Russell Wilson ranked an NFL 17th in total quarterback drop-backs with 546. Truthfully, this middle of the road ranking is very much a byproduct of quarterbacking a run heavy offense, but nonetheless the statistics I found surrounding his minimal passing usage are staggering.

Despite the lack of top-15 drop-backs, Wilson still managed to take the 6th most sacks in the entire NFL with 42. That is the equivalent of one sack for every 13 drop-backs.

To give you perspective, Tom Brady dropped back 613 times in 2014, he took just 20 total sacks, making his sack per drop-back average just 30.65. Clearly by the numbers Wilson has been forced to deal with constant pressure. In fact, according to PFF (Pro Football Focus), Russell Wilson led the entire NFL in 2014 with a 46% pressure per drop-back average. Incredibly, that's an average of an under pressure drop-back every 2.17 attempts. What this stat basically means is that Russell Wilson is probably whispering a little prayer to himself just about every other passing down.

By the numbers, it's obvious that Russell Wilson is actually "under pressure", and a lot of it. So who's fault is it? Is it an offensive line issue or is Russell's love for extending plays the biggest contributor to his absurd levels of pressure?

Prepare for cheesy egg references

Who scrambles more, Russell Wilson or a chef at IHOP? Well, that's a trick question, because the answer is Russell Wilson by a country omelette mile (Pathetic, I know).

When I use the term "scramble," it doesn't refer to a QB run by design -- what it refers to is a play that has broken down to the point that the quarterback decides running in attempt to gain yardage is his best option. Not so surprisingly, Wilson's affinity for extending plays behind the line of scrimmage earned him the ranking of #1 in the entire NFL for "average time to throw" (ATTT).

His average time was 3.2 seconds from the moment of the ball being snapped to the point where the ball left his hands or the play ended via scramble or sack. That probably seems like nothing right? Well consider this, Peyton Manning's ATTT was calculated at 2.24 seconds, almost literally a full second faster than Wilson. It's actually an alarming gap when we consider the statistical difference in passing production between the two players.

So what else is happening during Wilson's extra time with the ball in his hands? As most football fans know the "throw away" is one of the safest tactics an NFL quarterback can use to protect themselves from turning the ball over or taking a loss of yardage from a sack. In this regard, Russell Wilson again ranked 1st in the entire NFL with 39 (throw-aways), and the next nearest quarterback wasn't even close (Eli Manning/Matt Stafford came in second with 28).

So is anybody up for a slice of perspective again? Well chiggity check it... Peyton Manning, on 614 drop-backs (68 more drop-backs than Wilson), threw the ball away only 6 times in all of 2014. Eat that up. Alas, the benefit of Wilson's decisions to throw away the ball don't just by opinion prove to be smart moves, they also by-numbers back him up as well.

The advantage of intellect

Russell Wilson is truly the mutual fund version of an NFL quarterback. He's safe, consistent, and in the long term you know exactly what you are going to get out of him. Perhaps it's his insane knack for staying risk-adverse with the football in his hands, or maybe he owns himself in a fantasy football league, but either way -- he just doesn't turn the ball over.

Rather than force a ball into the jaws of a defense, Russell usually elects to either: A) scramble, B) take a sack, C) throw the ball away.

If you're a Seahawks fan, you probably feel like you've seen one of these three things take place "like infinity times" (say that with a Napoleon Dynamite voice). So what do the numbers say about Wilson's under pressure decision making?

Well, the numbers state that Russell Wilson's three interceptions while "under pressure" ranked him good for the 22nd lowest total in the NFL in that facet. By the digits, Russell Wilson finished better than all of these marquee quarterbacks: Drew Brees (9), Philip Rivers (8), Andrew Luck (6), Tom Brady (6), Matt Ryan (5), Tony Romo (5), Matthew Stafford (4), just to name a few.

What we can infer from the above information is that Wilson is either extending the play to the point that his only option is to throw the ball away or that downfield coverage is so good he has no choice but to chuck a souvenir into the crowd. Regardless its almost a guarantee that his decision will never be to force a ball into a tight window out of haste. So by the numbers I am led to believe that Wilson propensity for exiting the pocket stage right is limiting his passing options to the 1/3rd of the field he rolls towards, and his insane "time to throw average" is forcing him to eventually throw the ball away. Disagree? Then how about we look a little closer at a set of tables I'd like to call "Fast RW (Russell Wilson) vs Slow RW"?

"Fast RW" will be examined based on a 2.5 or less ATTT (Average Time To Throw)

Dropbacks

% of DB's

Att.

Comp.

Comp. %

Sacks

QB Rating

249

45.7

245

182

74.3

4

113.2

"Slow RW" will be examined based on a 2.6 or longer ATTT (Average Time To Throw)

Dropbacks

% of DB's

Att.

Comp.

Comp. %

Sacks

QB Rating

296

54.3

206

103

50

36

73.8

You're kidding me right? Its like a case of Jekyll and Hyde here. What we see is that when Russell Wilson gets rid of the ball in less than 2.5 seconds (still a ¼ of second slower than Peyton Manning season average) his completion percentage rises almost 25%, his QB rating is almost 40 points higher and he takes 32 less sacks. Without even bringing in the offensive lineman grades, I can tell you that Wilson's love for extending plays is arguably one of the #1 contributors to his intergalactic levels of throw aways and sacks taken.

Now, I realize the skeptics response here is that his 2.5 seconds or less statistics are due to hitting receivers running quick/short routes. If this is your belief then may I please direct your attention to a list of the top-7 quarterbacks based on yards-per-attempt in 2014.

  • 1) Tony Romo 8.52

  • 2) Aaron Rodgers 8.43

  • 3) Ben Roethlisberger 8.16

  • 4) Ryan Fitzpatrick 7.96

  • 5) Peyton Manning 7.93

  • 6) Andrew Luck 7.73

  • 7) Russell Wilson 7.69

Its not like Wilson is in the bottom-5 of the league averaging an anemic 6.12 yards per attempt *cough* Blake Bortles *cough*. In fact if you really want to get down to brass-tacks about it, when comparing all quarterbacks in the entire NFL vs one another (based on 2.5 seconds or less ATTT) Russell Wilson ranks: 3rd in completion percentage with 74.3%, he's tied 3rd for the fewest sacks taken with just four, and lastly he ranks 2nd overall in QB rating. Essentially as a passer Wilson's ability to pre-snap read defenses and put the ball where only his receivers can make plays in a limited amount of time moves him into a very elite tier of quarterbacks.

So how did the offensive line grade out?

Do you remember back in grade school, well before people's fragile psyches or feelings were taken into consideration? Back when teachers used to grade papers using that red pen that by today's standards is considered a "harsh" or "primitive" method. Good, now that we've jogged your memory just imagine before we tour this section that I've opened a family size box of them, because this isn't going to be pretty.

With the exception of the ever solid Pro Bowl center Max Unger (who appeared in only 6 games) every other majority starting offensive lineman in Seattle ended 2014 with a negative overall positional grade per Pro Football Focus. Just to give you an idea of the vast variance in these grades, the highest graded left tackle in the NFL Jason Peters graded out at a +38.2. These numbers can go up and down incrementally by a tenth of a point, so they are extremely accurate in the sense that they are designed. Here is how each of the 5 projected starting Seahawks linemans final grades looked.

  • C - Max Unger (+12.4) [6]

  • RG - J.R. Sweezy (-7.6) [16]

  • RT - Justin Britt (-18.5) [16]

  • LG - James Carpenter (-6.6) [13]

  • LT - Russell Okung (-1.5) [14]

* Position - Player Name (PFF Grade) [Games Played]

Firstly, anyone who knows Justin Britt personally should probably advise him to get a melanoma screening considering how badly he was burnt in pass pro in 2014. Britt, a 2nd round rookie selected out of Missouri was the Seahawks worst offender when it came to "QB hurries" in 2015 as he surrendered nearly a league-worst 38, which is a little over ⅓ of the entire team total 124 hurries (11th most in the NFL). As you can see, without getting into the very advanced parts of these grades, the Seahawks offensive line was consistently problematic for Russell Wilson -- whether it be in regards to health or performance in 2014. Now, before we look at the run and pass blocking season outcomes, how about we examine one of the other team issues, penalties.

Penalties

In addition to the leaky offensive line in front of Russell Wilson, the Seahawks' offense as a whole managed to finish by grade as the 5th most penalized group in the NFL (-13.5) . Riddle me this, how many times can you remember watching drives get absolutely halted by a James Carpenter penalty? I can actually answer that, it was 8.

All around it was a rough year for total team penalties, as the Hawks were whistled for 68 (an average of 4.25 per game). Even with how bad 68 team penalties sounds, that wasn't the stat that made my head nearly explode. The stat that really chapped my rear was when I read that Russell Wilson himself finished 2nd only behind Derek Carr as the most penalized QB in the entire NFL with 8. Those 8 penalties by Wilson were more than: Tom Brady (2), Andrew Luck (3), & Drew Brees (3) combined. Needless to say, it's a solvable problem that the Seahawks as a whole need to better regulate entering 2015.

Pass & Run Blocking

So, how did the Seahawks' offensive line finish in pass and run blocking in 2014, you ask? Extremely middle of the road per Pro Football Focus.

Officially, Seattle finished 17th best in pass blocking and unbelievably -- despite the league's best rushing offense -- they graded out as the 18th best in run blocking. Finally, as a whole, the at-times broken offensive line graded out with the NFL's 10th worst "PBE" (Pass Blocking Efficiency) score of 77.7.

All of this makes what Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch did individually as rushers an incredible feat. Now, despite everything I've just said, the statistic I am about to drop may take all the heat off the offensive line and put it all right back on Russell Wilson. You can take this stat with a grain of salt or any way you please, but based on the records at PFF:

Max Unger (0), James Carpenter (0), Russell Okung (1), Justin Britt (5), and J.R. Sweezy (4) attributed to only 10 of Russell Wilson's 40 sacks. Even with every backup offensive lineman, fullback, running back and tight end factored into the total, it only adds an additional 7 sacks, which puts the other 23 squarely on Russell Wilson's shoulders.

What is our the conclusion?

Of course, a lot of this article is based on the eye test, film review and human grading, but I can assure you the neutrality of the post is consistent.

After his 3rd NFL season, Russell Wilson is coming off a year where he found himself breaching into career highs of: passing attempts (452), passing completions (285), passing yards (3,475), rushing attempts (118), single season rushing yards (849), rushing touchdowns (6), and Interceptions (7, a career low) -- just to name a few.

Despite an at-times a porous offensive line, and no true number one wide receiver, Wilson still managed to lead the Seattle Seahawks to a 12-4 season record and back to back NFC Division Titles. As far as the numbers dictate, Wilson was incredibly effective as a passer firstly and rusher secondly while under pressure, as he set career highs in both areas of work.

Even as the most "pressured" quarterback in the entire NFL, Russell Wilson still managed to finish as the 13th best overall quarterback by season-long grade (WHAT GRADE?), but this is where I feel the human grading falls flat on its face.

You see, one could look at the amount of sacks and throwaways Wilson had and refer to them as "inefficient", but that's not how I infer this data. I look at it as progression, I recognize the decline in turnovers by Wilson as a byproduct of his "inefficient" decision making. If him throwing the ball away 38 times on the year means the Seahawks are back to back divisional champions then I say, "screw it, make it 50 and bring us home another title".

To be clear, though, it isn't just "throwing the ball away" that equates to team victories; the throwaways do play a big role in Pete Carroll's overall team philosophy -- a philosophy that manifests itself in the form of Russell Wilson's onfield play.

Pete Carroll has long made it known that the Seattle Seahawks' goal every game is to force turnovers on defense, and prevent turnovers on offense. In a quote from ProFootballTalk.com back in October of 2013, Pete Carroll put Russell's onfield decision making into perspective perfectly:

"He's a fantastic competitor, he gets it, he knows what we're after and what we want and so that means that there is some risk involved, and I think that he's as much of a risk taker out there as anybody playing the game. But I think that he can manage that risk really well."

Carroll's sentiments on Wilson's quarterback play echo what is truly taking place. As Wilson has shown time and time again, protecting possession of the ball and himself over all else will ensure the team gets to live and fight another down. Its this combination of Wilson's own style and Carroll's philosophy that attribute to many of Russell's sacks taken. As a Seahawks fan this is a fact that we will just have to accept, just like James Van Der Beek is never going to be on the big screen again, even though it hurts to accept.

In light of the last paragraph, we understand that the non-offensive line related sacks however fall squarely on Russell Wilson's shoulders, and the remedy to that is undoubtedly quicker decision-making, and growth inside the Carroll system.

So in the end, I believe the conclusion was exactly what we thought it was going to be: a growing young quarterback who has played very well on every level by extending plays with his legs, a young offensive line that never really got a chance to find its collective rhythm, and a true inability for the offensive line as a whole to create time in the pocket for Wilson to function without pressure (plus, as Tom Cable has said, he's not a normal quarterback, so it's not normal pass protection).

Wilson's future production will always be tied to a strong run game, but the hope here is that Seattle can eventually bolster this offensive line, and give Wilson the pressure-less time he needs to be the high end passing talent the numbers state he can be. If the Seahawks address these needs through the draft or free agency in the offseason, along with some added weapons on the outside, I truly believe the leap Russell Wilson will make from 2014 to 2015 will be massive.

Sources:

www.ProFootballFocus.com

www.Rotoworld.com

www.NFL.com

www.ESPN.com

www.ProFootballTalk.com