Russell Wilson under the microscope: Everything else

May 11th, 2012 | Written by Kip Earlywine

Pete Carroll said it's up to Wilson whether there will be a 3-way race for the starting job. In other words, there's going to be a 3-way race for the starting job this Summer.

There is so much to like about Russell Wilson.  He’s accurate.  He’s smart.  He’s a fast learner.  He’s very athletic and elusive.  He plays his best on crucial downs and in the 4th quarter.  His confidence, mental toughness, and leadership ability is within spitting distance of Tebow territory, but unlike Tim Tebow, Russell Wilson can actually throw the football, and throw it quite well.  Metaphorical character and interview meters were shattered when he sat down with NFL coaches and general managers.  Jon Gruden- infamous for being tough on young quarterbacks- stumped for Wilson with all the bias and passion of a proud father.  Gruden had only met with Wilson for one day.

To say that I personally am a fan of the Wilson selection would be an understatement.  I think that Drew Brees was more of a pioneer than an exception to the rule, and that Russell Wilson is latest of a very rare breed of quarterback to come down the pipeline.  However, unchecked optimism has a way of biting people in the ass, so I think it’s of crucial importance to analyze Wilson with the same degree of critical attention that I would give anyone else.  Then again, finding faults in Wilson’s game is no easy task.  Wilson grades out between good to great in just about every category other than height.  As such, digging into his flaws has taken more effort and closer attention to detail.

Last week, I looked into the claim that Wilson’s accuracy dips in the pocket.  My conclusion from studying three games downplayed that concern while raising another: that being his tendency to overthrow when going intermediate and deep.  Today I’ll cover a handful of other critical observations that I was able to come up with.

The Wisconsin effect.

At NC State, Russell Wilson had a career 135.5 passer rating, a 57.8% completion rate, 7.2 yards per attempt, and a 76/26 TD/INT ratio.  He also averaged 120 rushing attempts per season.  Those are Jake Locker type numbers almost across the board, if a bit better.  I guess that’s fitting, as both quarterbacks flashed talent but lacked much of a supporting cast.

Wilson went to Wisconsin in 2011 and all he did was have the best statistical season in Division I history:  a 191.8 passer rating, a 72.8% completion rate, 10.3 yards per attempt, and a 33/4 TD/INT ratio.  How much of that performance was Wilson taking a step forward, and how much of that performance was Wilson capitalizing on an environment that was conducive to putting up huge numbers?  Wisconsin has a recent history of statistically strong quarterbacks who did nothing in the NFL.  Scott Tolzien being the most recent example.  Tolzien posted a very similar stat line for Wisconsin in 2010:  a 165.9 passer rating, a 72.9% completion rate, 9.2 yards per attempt, and a 16/6 TD/INT ratio.

To be sure, Wilson is probably not as good a quarterback as his Wisconsin numbers would suggest, but the draft status of Wilson’s predecessors is ultimately irrelevant.  Quarterbacks are not drafted purely on their stats.  They are drafted for the qualities they possess.  I’ve scouted Tolzien.  He was a good quarterback.  He checks reads well, he makes smart decisions, he’s an accurate passer, and he can even hustle for a first down with his legs on occasion.  He didn’t go undrafted because Wisconsin elevated his statistics.  He went undrafted because he was an average athlete with a below average arm- a guy who stood 6’2″ and tipped the scales at just over 200 pounds.  But more importantly than any of those things, Tolzien had sloppy throwing mechanics and terrible footwork.  He was Robert Griffin without all the incredible natural gifts.  Players like that tend to go undrafted no matter how good their natural abilities may be.

Other than size, Wilson is vastly superior to Tolzien in every way, which I think says a lot since Tolzien really was a pretty good college quarterback.  Wisconsin is a great offense for a quarterback to play for, but what it isn’t is a gimmick based offense.  Tolzien and Wilson earned every bit of their 72% completion rates.  They took most of their snaps under center, they threw to all areas of the field, and they routinely progressed through multiple reads before finding and targeting an open receiver.   It wasn’t a case like Oregon or Baylor where their scheme was designed to exploit college level athletes.  It wasn’t an offense like TCU or Arizona that lives off of one-read plays or bubble screens.  It wasn’t an offense that spread defenses out with constant four or five receiver sets like Oklahoma.  Wisconsin’s is a legit offense that requires quality quarterback play to succeed.

Wisconsin has had some solid weapons the last couple years, but nothing great.  Lance Kendricks was a 2nd round tight end (who left for the NFL before Wilson arrived).  Nick Toon was a 4th round receiver.  Jared Abbrederis will probably be a mid round receiver in a future draft.  Both Toon and Abbrederis saw their production shoot through the roof when Wilson replaced Tolzien in 2011.

What Wisconsin does have is a pretty good offensive line and a phenomenal running game.  That helps sell the play action and keeps the quarterback’s pass attempt totals low and increasingly opportunistic.  Part of the reason Keith Price was so productive in 2011 for the Washington Huskies was because he completely bought into the philosophy of using the pass to set up the run.  It’s essentially the same idea at Wisconsin, but with a stronger foundation in place.  Did a good offensive line and strong running game boost Russell Wilson?  Absolutely.  But the exact same thing could be said for Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley.  Put Wilson on USC or Stanford last year and you would probably see similar production.

The bottom line is that Wilson will not produce in the NFL like he did at Wisconsin, just like Andrew Luck won’t produce for the Colts quite like he did for the Cardinal.  The real Russell Wilson is probably somewhere between his NC State and Wisconsin performances.  Where he fits on that spectrum is anyone’s guess, but I tend to lean towards the Wisconsin side, if only because the Seahawks philosophy of building around the run and the offensive line is very similar to what the Badgers did, even if the literal playbook verbage more closely resembles NC State.

Pocket paranoia?

Overall I would grade Wilson’s pocket presence and elusiveness as well above average, though there are moments when he seems to react to pressure a bit earlier than he needs to.  Wilson has no love for the pocket and almost seems to be forcing himself to stay between the tackles against his personal wishes at times.  Wilson also has a habit of escaping out of the back door instead of stepping into the pocket.  Wilson usually makes it work, but it’s the kind of habit that will backfire into drive killing 20 yard sacks in the NFL on occasion.

Forget about snap throws and three step drops.

Russell Wilson requires two things to overcome his height disadvantage:  time and distance.  He needs time because linemen begin every play clustered together but spread apart as the play develops.  This is where throwing windows come from, and they don’t really exist in the first second or two of a play.  Wilson needs distance because distance helps him see over the line and gives him more options for navigating through his throwing windows.  A quick pass or short dropback affords Wilson neither of those things, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Wilson took about as many quick passes last season as Darron Thomas had snaps under center.

Thankfully, the Seahawks run an offense that utilizes developing routes, play action, and bootlegs- much like Wisconsin’s offense did.  As such, I don’t see this as being much of a sacrifice, so long as Seattle’s pass protection can avoid embarrassing themselves.  And if the second half of last season is any indication, things will probably hold up just fine.

Final thoughts:

We all know what Wilson does well at.  It’s finding out what he doesn’t do well that has required all the work.  Height is a flaw, but it is just one flaw among many that a quarterback could have.  Then again, maybe a word like “flaw” is the wrong word to use.  Perhaps “quirk” might work better.  I say that because Wilson is not a flawed quarterback but a unique one.

People tend to fear things they don’t understand, and that goes double for NFL general managers.  Fear and lack of understanding was the real reason that Drew Brees was not a first round pick, and it’s the same reason why Russell Wilson was not selected in the first two rounds.  A handful of teams had the insight to see past Wilson’s faux height problem, and the Seahawks won the lottery for his services by committing on him the earliest.  Wilson’s name was called at the 75th pick, and in a couple of war rooms somewhere two other general managers snapped the pencil they were holding in half when they heard it.  There is a reason why Pete Carroll and John Schneider reacted the way they did when making that pick.  They knew.  After the draft they talked about how it would have hurt to walk out of this draft without Irvin and Wilson.  From what we’ve learned since the draft, it sounds like a few other teams felt that way too.

Wilson will never post a 33/4 TD/INT ratio in the NFL or complete 72% of his passes.  He might find it harder to run from trouble.  He’ll have limitations on his game and will require a coach that is willing to work around them.  Luckily for Wilson, he’s going to exactly the right kind of team, the kind of team that doesn’t need him to post MVP numbers to win championships.  He’s going to the kind of team that can protect him and support him with the running game like Wisconsin did.  He’s going to the kind of team that doesn’t live off of quick plays.  But most importantly, he’s going to a team coached by Pete Carroll, who more than just about any coach lives by the philosophy of putting unique talents in position to succeed and building an offense with the idea of making life as easy as possible for the quarterback instead of asking for a messianic franchise quarterback to lean on.

Russell Wilson is in a really good situation, which means we are too as Seahawks fans.  Mel Kiper is right.  If Wilson can’t make this work, then maybe no quarterback under six feet can.

39 Responses to “Russell Wilson under the microscope: Everything else”

  1. Steve in Spain says:

    Good stuff, Kip. I’m just as high on Wilson as you are. But the most troubling concern was what Greg Cosell said. Cosell’s tape review showed that it wasn’t “paranoia” that is flushing Wilson out of the pocket but rather his shortness; i.e., Wilson simply can’t see downfield when the pocket gets tight and the “tall timber” closes round. If it were pure antsiness in the pocket, then that would be correctable. But if he can’t see his receivers, then that’s a problem that will severly limit his ceiling.

    • mister bunny says:

      Cosell scores again — that’s a great insight from him. One that I’ve never heard anyone else articulate regarding how his height has impacted his play.

    • Kip Earlywine says:

      What I saw was a QB who ran away before that could ever happen. On the rare occasions the pocket does close on him, I’m sure that Cosell’s observation is correct, but it never really happened in my sample to be honest. It probably does explain why Wilson is so paranoid (or “pro-active” if you want to be kind about it) though.

      • Josh says:

        Thanks kip for the great article. Im pretty sure cosell really doesnt like wilson simply because we did not draft according to how the drsft pundits wanted us to draft. In this regard cossell and others can eat my shorts.

        • Mitchell says:

          You must not know who Greg Cosell is or you wouldn’t make comments like that. Do yourself a favor and read some of his stuff, offers good insights.

        • splintrdmind says:

          Cosell has actually been fairly complimentary towards the Seahawks’ draft. He’s particularly stood up for the Bruce Irvin pick. It is possible that he likes the Wilson pick but has noticed that weakness, especially if his sample size of games is larger than the one Kip looked at.

        • Steen says:

          Cosell has no dog in this fight. His word is as close to golden as it gets in this business.

        • Steve in Spain says:

          Here’s the link to the Cosell podcast where he talks about Wilson: http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nfl-shutdown-corner/shutdown-corner-podcast-wrapping-draft-greg-cosell-123859443.html

          In case anyone hasn’t heard it already, it’s a fun conversation with Doug Farrar about the entire Seahawks draft class, along with other topics. Cosell tries to make sense of each of the picks from the Hawks’ perspective.

      • Steen says:

        Pro-active, is right. Wilson probably knows the outcome and doesn’t want to have to resort to scrambling out the back door at the last moment and prefers to do before it’s required. Either way it’s a distinct negative to his game. We are going to need our own Carl Nicks w/ Wilson under center.

  2. woofu says:

    What might be a problem is the quick drop game. If he has to drop deep the D’s will simply say beat us doing that.

    These unique picks P&J are doing are fun but without a winning record to go along with them they may well doom themselves to the “hot seat” after this year.

  3. Doug says:

    Nice work Kip.
    A dose of reality was needed about now. His college numbers are sick though, and the one that jumps of the paper to me is the TD/int. ratio. That to me, shows a dope level of critical accuracy, in other words, when the kill shot is available, he takes it. Instinctually like a predator. You can almost see that in his eyes. There is a calm, assasin state of mind that cold blooded killing machines have, and you can see that look in his eyes. Taking that kill shot when available is how you post numbers like that. The kill shot consists of three things, recognition, fast twitch reflex, and ability.

    His brain can see the TD, his body can instantly react to the brains recognition, and his muscle group coordinates to deliver the precise strike.

    It’s a beautiful thing in action at full speed. When his brain digests NFL speed it’s on! How long it takes to get up to speed is the only thing holding him back. TJack has slightly slower recognition and reaction times, and not quite the precision.
    Another thing that bugged me about TJack last year was the way he often led his receivers into a violent hit, and he almost killed them a few times with that…

    • Kip Earlywine says:

      Wilson does not play scared, but also minimizes mistakes despite going out on a limb so often. This was even true at NC State, so I expect it will continue in the NFL.

    • Eli Neal says:

      Is this Doug Baldwin?

  4. Ben says:

    Kip, Thanks for the insights.

    Have you noticed in your analysis whether Brees also avoids the quick 3-step drop passes, or is forced to run out of the pocket to see over the pressure? I understand Brees is 1.5″ taller, but it would be interesting to compare and see whether those are limitations that Brees has had to deal with but has been able to thrive without.

  5. TK says:

    I’m curious what Cosell says about Brees having the same issue?

  6. James says:

    Excellent analysis as always, Kip. It was no secret that, going into the off-season, the Seahawks needed a pass rusher and a QB. All of us spent a lot of time looking at the highlight tapes at these two positions. Just a mention about Bruce Irvin… when we compared the top pass rushers: Jones, Ingram, Perry, Mercilus, Branch, Upshaw, etc, all these guys had speed but every one of them would be run out of the play by good OTs. They had special speed, but the OT steered them in the same direction they were heading, while the QB just stepped up in the pocket. Only Bruce had extreme, Usain-Bolt-type speed, and only he could turn the corner into the QB, while the OT labored to keep up. That’s why Pete & John selected him….funny how obvious it is in hindsight.

    Since Luck and RGIII were long gone, we spent a lot of time reviewing Weeden, Osweiler, Tannehill, Cousins, Foles and Wilson. Wilson was clearly the superior college QB. Tannehill projects with rare athleticism but frankly marginal production in big games. All of the other guys had clear flaws. Wilson’s only flaw is that he is 5-11; otherwise, he had perhaps the greatest season a college QB ever had, without even taking into account the near miraculous feat of arriving at Wisconsin two weeks before training camp began. About the height, Russell knows how to overcome it. Breaking from the pocket will actually a good thing in the future of the NFL, as the best way to scatter the defenses; and Russell had far fewer passes knocked down than Luck or any of the other guys. The height issue is nothing more than conventional wisdom behind the times.

    The John/Green Bay connection made Matt Flynn a natural target, but I believe that once the Dolphins went with Philbin, the Seahawks had little hope that they could sign him. Most of us expected the Dolphins to pay crazy-Kolb money to Flynn. Only the Dolphins ineptness (John tricked them into low-balling Flynn when they let him leave Seattle without a contract offer) and their desire to buy time by going with the rookie QB in Tannehill, made Flynn drop into Seattle’s lap. I do believe Pete likes Flynn, but I don’t believe he sees the same potential in Matt as he does in Russell Wilson. After all, Matt has only played one season of football in the last 8 years. When he plays, he plays really well, but only 1 out of 8, yikes! Simply, Russell is the ideal Pete QB: off-the-charts charismatic leadership, play-action and deep-strike mentality, uncanny movement in the pocket, no turnovers, and late-game charges into the end zone. In short, the anti-Tarvaris.

    It is difficult to imagine Russell Wilson being able to win the job in training camp, but he will be #2 to Flynn, and Portis will be kept over Tarvaris. Wilson will somehow get into games this season, and he will be positioned to take over soon and lead the Seahawks on a run through the playoffs over the years come come.

    • Smeghead says:

      i couldn’t agree with that last paragraph more James… can’t wait to see it unfold…

    • Kip Earlywine says:

      That’s a good point about Flynn. He wasn’t just a backup for his entire pro-career, he was a backup for most of college career too.

      • DavidInBellingham says:

        Flynn wasn’t a back-up to a couple of nobodies. Jamarcus Russell had a fantastic college career, despite his poor showing in the NFL. How many quarterbacks are going to unseat Aaron Rodgers? In fact if spending time as a back-up is such a negative, should we not downgrade Aaron Rodgers and Hass for warming the bench behind Brett Favre?

        • Kip Earlywine says:

          Completely agree, but I think James still has a valid point. A lot of people assume that Flynn will win the job because of the experience factor, but he’s started about as many games as Brock Osweiler has. Now granted, Flynn sure as hell didn’t look inexperienced against the Patriots or Lions, but it’s still a small enough sample size that we should be cautious about Flynn’s experience level.

  7. A. Simmons says:

    All the speculation makes for fun, competitive discussion concerning Russell. The debate won’t be decided until the guy plays. I doubt I have looked this forward to the preseason in a long time. Not to downgrade Cosell, but he gets a little oversold as an expert. He has some keen insights, but he’s a talking head for NFL films like most of the others that has access to better film. He usually watches far less tape than scouts on players and doesn’t attend actual games or interview the player like Schneider, PC, and our scouts do. Our guys have done a heavy amount of work scouting Wilson. I’m pretty sure they can see him in our offense.

    Even I have a slight glimpse of Wilson in our offense. He’s really good at operating in the type of offense with the moving pocket and rollouts we want to run. They tried this offense with Hasselbeck who isn’t particularly great at that type of offense. They thought Tarvaris would upgrade the mobility in the pocket and ability to sell the play action pass, but his decision making is too poor. Wilson doesn’t have either weakness.

    That’s what really sells me on Wilson. Our offense isn’t a stand in the pocket offense. We’ve been watching many of those types of players get owned in the NFL in recent years by extreme pass rushes. The WCO operates best with a QB like Russell Wilson. That’s why undersized, mobile QBs like Montana and Young thrived in the WCO with its emphasis on short routes and QB creativity and mobility. I expect Russell to do well in our type of offense. His game is pretty much tailor made for a WCO. It’s hard to find a QB with all the traits to make one operate at a high level.

    • DaveB says:

      I couldn’t agree more with you here. The WCO suits Wilson perfectly; not to mention he already played, and thrived, in a WCO at NC State.

      I am doing my best to without my outrageous, lofty expectations for Wilson, but I find I can’t help myself. I too cannot wait for the preseason — which I literally don’t think I have ever said before not pertaining simply to fantasy football.

      • Nolan Thomas says:

        Are we sure west coast offense is best for Wilson? I thought the west coast offense was based on quick timming throws that kip says are not a strength for Wilson.

        • A. Simmons says:

          All you need to do is watch guys like Montana and Young play in San Francisco to get a feel for what Russell might be able to do in a WCO. Montana and Young were both mobile. That was part of the WCO. When things broke down, you wanted a guy that could get things done on the ground as well as through the air. One of the principles of the WCO is doing with short passes what the run game used to do. But what makes a WCO really shine is when you have a QB that is mobile and creative working with hard working receivers that also make something happen when the play breaks down. Once all those pieces start working together, then you have defenses on their heels. They don’t know whether to defend the short pass, the long pass, the medium routes, the RB, the QB running the ball, the TE, you’re basically overloading the defense by how many options you can bring to the table and distributing the ball all over the field. That’s why someone like Wilson is effective in a WCO because he is a real threat to run and can keep plays alive. Every offensive system strives for something similar, but Walsh put a premium on a mobile QB that could throw and create on the run. Both Young and Montana could do it. Montana and Marino were as different as night and day and Montana still made his offense function at a high level with different tools whereas Marino was a more traditional pocket passer. That’s where a guy like Wilson comes in. He’s that mobile, creative type of QB whose sum is greater than his parts.

          • Steen says:

            The WCO is predicated off of the 3 step drop, quick slant. I highly doubt wilson will throw many of those.

            • A. Simmons says:

              I spent time watching Montana. He and Russell play a lot alike. Watch Montana highlights and you will see a strong similarity with Russell. I don’t think you much understand the WCO offense. It is not predicated off 3 step drops and quick slants. It has a variety of routes. Your attempting to simplify a very complex offensive system.

              You go watch Montana play who is as far as I know the prototype WCO offense QB. And show me all the three step drops he did. As far as I can tell he dropped back farther than three steps quite often and moved around the pocket a lot. Rolling out of the pocket as Wilson does, was quite commone. As was throwing on the run.

              So you want to provide some evidence that what you say about the WCO is true? As in video evidence that WCO QBs use the quick slant and 3 step drop that often. Not what I’m seeing. It’s part of the repertoire, but certainly not the primary or only option. That would be a pretty ineffective, simple to beat offense if it were the case.

              On top of that, Wilson does make quite a few quick throws and drops while playing. Just spent last night watching his Rose Bowl game, he was doing 3 step drops and quick slants about as often as I see WCO QBs doing it.

  8. Smeghead says:

    lovin’ it Kip…

    a stat i remember hearing during the first half of the rose bowl was that wisconsin scored td’s on 44 out of 44 attempts when they had the ball 1st and goal… i know that isn’t all Wilson but that is sickeningly good…

    Wilson’s overall good to greatness in almost every category is what intrigues me. I also can not get over how is able to feel and elude pressure then keep his eyes downfield and deliver passes both short and deep fairly accurately. It seems like Tjack would just take the sack or have to throw it away much of the time since he couldn’t find a receiver.

    And just for the record i am really stoked to see flynn in action also…

    • Kip Earlywine says:

      44/44? Whoa.

      • Hawksince77 says:

        While that is impressive, it truly reflects more on Wisconsin’s running power. I don’t know the breakdown, but I would imagine the majority of those TDs go to Monte Ball.

        • A. Simmons says:

          Montee Ball is good. But Russell threw for 33 TDs. The entire team was elevated when Russell played. Montee Ball had his best year. The offense was operating at an unusually high level. Wilson threw twice as many TDs as Tolzien the prior year. Much better production.

  9. ben-jammin (formerly Ben 2.5) says:

    After hearing about and watching some of his 1st day on the field for the Hawks, he seems to be meeting lofty expectations for 1st day. Says something to show up and take all the snaps all day long and Pete says there was no missed assignments. A couple deep balls had problems but everything else sounded really good. By all accounts (though Pete hasn’t said it, he also said it was up to Russell) sounds like the competition might really be with all 3. Something’s telling me that Pete would LOVE if Russell beat out the two veterans as a rookie. Wouldn’t count it out at all.

  10. Rugby Lock says:

    I’m sure PC, and all of us fans, would love it if the Hawks had to consider all three as the starter…

    • The Ancient Mariner says:

      I would tend to think that would mean that Flynn and Wilson were no better than Jackson was last year, not that Jackson had improved . . .

  11. OZ says:

    Jame’s is right on, I believe the Hawks will trade Jackson as the preseason concludes. Or release him. I think RW will work himself into the backup slot behind Flynn.

  12. A. Simmons says:

    Spent last night watching the Rose Bowl. Russell Wilson is the reason they even had a chance to win the Rose Bowl versus Oregon. He accounted for 18 of their points. Montee Ball 6 points. Defense 6 points. Kicker 8 points. I see what John Schneider meant by Russell “tilting the field”. He does seem to elevate his team and “tilt the field” in their favor. They Oregon defense was keying hard on Montee Ball and Russell stepped up to make the game competitive. Unfortunately that Oregon offense had some big plays that shredded the Wisconsin defense. Record scoring for a Rose Bowl. Both sides came to play. Overall an impressive performance.

  13. A. Simmons says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Coast_offense

    Here is a description of the WCO. It is not a simple offense. It has changed over the years as all offensive systems do incorporating more options into it. Wilson ran this offense at NC State. It looks like they used some WCO principles at Wisconsin. Wilson has no problem with short drops from what I’ve seen. The more you watch, the more you see he can pretty much do it all.

    I spent a great deal of time watching Montana since we drafted Wilson. They play very similarly. Montana was also a quick dropper. He dropped back like a jackrabbit often taking more steps than he needed to. He was not a compact dropper as some seem to be indicating on here. Mobility, focus, poise, and creativity were Montana’s hallmarks and why he was so great. Not mastering a 3 step drop or what not.

    To play this game you have to a quick twitch mind ready to elevate as the events on the field unfold. Any QB drafted can usually learn and run an offense as far as the mechanics goes. It’s the QBs that can step it up when it all goes out the window that take your team to the next level. And that’s why such QBs like Brady and Peyton want receivers that also elevate their game when the system breaks down and it’s time to make a play. This is where Tarvaris is awful. I believe both Wilson and Flynn will improve this aspect of our game. After watching tons of Wilson tape, he thrived when the play broke down and it was time to make something happen out of nothing. That’s something you can’t teach.