As I watched Wilson’s masterful performance against the Chiefs, I was reminded of how Wilson finds success by doing all the little things. On a protection breakdown, Wilson was flushed up the middle of the pocket. Leon Washington realized things were getting ugly and hustled into the flat on the right to serve as a safety valve. Wilson made the decision to run. Eric Berry stood in Wilson’s way, probably serving the Chiefs “spy” role on that play. Berry was there to stop Wilson from running. Wilson made a subtle move in Washington’s direction, then made a quick and deceptive fake shovel pass. Berry bit on it so hard that it turned him around completely, only to find out seconds later what had really happened. Wilson ran untouched for over 30 yards before gracefully jogging out of bounds.
It was that little “flick” that Wilson did. That little in the moment thing he did was the difference between five yards and thirty plus. When I scouted Wilson before the draft, what really blew me away was how well he did all those little things. His pump fakes were hard, fast, slingy and deceptive- the kind a DB almost has to bite on. I haven’t been watching football terribly long, but they were the nicest pump fakes I’ve seen. His play action could often fool not just linebackers, but cameramen as well. Brett Favre had that patented ability to make weird, ugly plays on the fly that worked. Wilson has that same ability, but even his “sandlot” plays look polished and oddly professional.
When Ichiro was just beginning his pro career in Japan, he discovered an unconventional swing. In Japan there is a saying: “the nail that stands out gets hammered down.” Ichiro faced intense pressure from hitting coaches and management to alter his swing to a more conventional one. Ichiro was 18 years old, and his then manager, Shozo Doi, was adamant that Ichiro reform his swing and even mockingly called it “the pendulum.” Ichiro didn’t relent, and in his professional debut, hit a home run off of (legendary over there) pitcher Hideo Nomo. Doi didn’t care, and demoted Ichiro back to the minors that same night. Eventually though, Ichiro’s results became hard to ignore, and he would go on to earn three straight MVP awards in Japan while essentially performing like his nation’s equivalent of Ted Williams.
Ichiro would later face further skepticism when he opted to hop the pond for the Majors. At the time, there was a major stigma in the States against Japanese position players. Some pitchers had found success in the majors but no hitter had ever made the leap and played at an all-star level. This perception was exacerbated by washed up or failed major leaguers signing in Japan and posting monster seasons. Thus, when Ichiro hit the posting system, there was a collective yawn across the major leagues. Seattle ended up posting the highest bid, a measly $13 million sum for one of the best pure hitters in Japan’s history.
Russell Wilson was told that he was too short pretty much from the very beginning. Despite being a star high school QB, he was only a two star recruit. The team that did sign Wilson, NC State, was holding a five man open competition at QB. Wilson, a true freshman, would beat out some heavily favored candidates and win the starting job outright. He’d have a very strong college career, culminating with the best statistical season in Division I history in 2011 for Wisconsin. It was a season in which his Badgers might have made the championship game if not for just a couple of freak plays.
Then the NFL draft rolled around, and almost everybody said he was too short. Amongst a sea of doubters, Jon Gruden stood as the voice of reason. He had only briefly known Wilson from his FFCA taping, but you could tell an impression had been forged. He stumped for Wilson with all the bias and passion of a proud father. Wilson’s talent deserved a top pick, but his height was a different story. Wilson would fall to the mid-third round pick. Shortly before his selection, the topic of Wilson came up, prompting Gruden to make his now legendary rant against Mel Kiper Jr. The frustration was evident on Gruden’s face. He knew as well right then as we know now that Wilson had been hosed out of millions of dollars, and a degree of opportunity, all for a form of discrimination that was both unfair and undeserved.
Thankfully, John Schneider was part of John Gruden’s Russell Wilson fanclub. He knew how good Wilson was, but also knew that something is only worth what people will pay or it. The Mariners won Ichiro because they knew something was there, but didn’t need to bet the farm to get him. The Seahawks did the same, by riding the line and grabbing Wilson at the latest possible spot they realistically could have in the third round.
Ichiro is a likely, if not slam dunk Hall of Famer. His unconventional swing worked just as well in the Majors as it did everywhere else. Clearly, if MLB GMs had anticipated this, there is no way that a team would have won his services for a meager $13 million bid. With the cat out of the bag, Japanese stars that followed Ichiro would earn two or even three times the posting fees for their Japanese teams, even though none of them would have the impact Ichiro did. In the same way, NFL GMs will soon look at Russell Wilson with that same air of draft day regret- wondering how they allowed themselves to pass on the Tom Brady they could have seen coming.
When Ichiro joined the Mariners in 2001, the team was coming off a surprise playoff run, but had just lost one of the most talented free agents in team, if not league history, when superstar Alex Rodriguez bolted to Texas for a record quarter billion dollar contract. The Mariners were a balanced team, with few stars but quality throughout. It was the blueprint of Pat Gillick, who subscribed to a “Honda Civics” style of roster construction, opting for cheap, quality veterans at every spot instead of just a few superstars on the same budget. There were some in the media who believed that the Mariners could be a good team, maybe even a wildcard. What none could anticipate was the historic 116 win season the Mariners were on the verge of.
Unlike football, baseball is not a game that can easily turn it’s fortunes on just one player. Value is spread throughout a starting roster pretty equally. An all glove shortstop could help you just as much as a no defense slugging outfielder. Even the best players in the league are only worth about 8 to 10 wins on their own. Statistically, Ichiro was “only” worth 7.6 wins that first season. But he, along with a surprise year from Brett Boone, created an atmosphere that infected the clubhouse and allowed that team to play way above their talent level, leading to a historic season. Ichiro didn’t just win Rookie of the Year, he won MVP. There were better performers that season, most especially Jason Giambi (worth 9.3 wins while playing for the 2nd best team in the Majors). But what Giambi lacked was that igniting factor that Ichiro brought. The energy and excitement Ichiro brought to the city of Seattle and the national storyline he created was what made that season truly special. Everything about Ichiro and that team, it was one of the most stunning developments in recent baseball memory.
Russell Wilson walked onto Wisconsin’s campus last year an outsider with some fanfare but undefined expectations. A few months later, he left as the unquestioned greatest quarterback in Wisconsin Badger’s history. He didn’t just play well, he elevated the team around him. John Schneider might say he “tilted the field.”
Wilson is not yet a superstar in the NFL. Yet I say the following with the certainty of Yoda: He will be. Give it a month or two. But even if Wilson flops horribly for some reason, he’ll still have fans falling over each other for his autograph in Madison, Wisconsin; Raleigh, North Carolina; and even in Richmond, Virginia, Wilson’s hometown. Everywhere Wilson goes, he turns doubters into believers, and he doesn’t take long to forge converts.
Before Wilson made his presence known, the Seahawks were by no means a bad football team. Many a savvy pundit had the Seahawks pegged as a darkhorse candidate in the NFC West, if not a strong candidate for a wildcard berth. But now that Wilson has proven his game can translate, it’s a whole new ballgame. The slingshot effect of going from Tarvaris Jackson and his struggles in the same areas where Wilson is strongest could be enormous and should not be taken lightly. Similar to Gillick’s “Honda Civics” type franchise model, this is a team with good to great talent at almost every position on the field, with a quarterback who has a chance to shock the world while energizing and elevating all those quality players around him. If I was a fan of any other NFL team with championship aspirations and I was paying attention, I’d be very worried about these Seattle Seahawks.
The little things
Ichiro wasn’t just a savvy hitter. He was also a savvy base runner and a polished, effortless defender. He could lay a clutch bunt with the best of them, and sometimes he’d even avoid the out. He played with a complete lack of nerves. Everthing was just a routine to Ichiro. Every day, he just followed that same process, almost like he was running off an internally programmed algorithm. Ichiro might as well have been a robot. Despite that robotic demeanor and taciturn tendencies, Ichiro knew how to charm. He gave legendary profanity laced pregame speeches in the All-star games he attended, every single one of which was won by his American League team. He once said that if he wanted to play a game in Cleveland he’d have to punch himself in the face because he’d be lying. And he just knew how to be cool in pretty much every corny Mariners commercial he was cast in.
Wilson is that same kind of cool cat. Wilson’s focus and consistency brings a new meaning to the phrase “living in the now.” He is never thinking about what might be happening if he misses this next pass, or thinking about the previous pass that wasn’t his best. He has that single minded focus of just making the play he has in the moment the best play he can make, and allows for nothing else.
Wilson is not a conventional charmer. You’d have to search long and far to find a press conference with more canned cliches. In improvisational situations, he lacks the quick wit of a Matt Hasselbeck or the Andre Benjamin styled cool weirdness of RG3. Yet he does have his moments. Like saying “Go Hawks” at the end of an interview, or at that cold killer look in his eyes when in the moment. I think he loves Jesus too much for the profanity laced pep talks though.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to realize this connection. I’m pretty sure I saw someone else make the “icon” comparison a few days ago. It wasn’t until just before I wrote this that the full weight of the comparison really sank in for me. Ichiro was so much more than an icon. He was a hero to his fanbase. There is an emotional connection to Ichiro that just doesn’t really exist even with any of the Mariners other superstars. Fans loved Edgar, Junior, and Randy, but Ichiro took star fandom to a different level.
With Wilson, I’m seeing the same thing. Everywhere he goes, he forges and immediate and unmistakable emotional connection to everyone he comes in contact with. A connection that goes beyond respect. It reminds me of how at Gettysburg the confederate soldiers begged Robert E. Lee to rescind his retreat order. Their cause may have been misguided, but their devotion and belief in their general was unshakable, to the point of laying down their lives without hesitation. That same kind of aura follows Wilson everywhere he goes.
There was a classic moment on Seinfeld where Jerry talks about how we don’t root for the players- we root for the laundry they are wearing. It’s so true. I mean, just look at the fan reaction to Braylon Edwards before and after he signed here. Or to Mike Williams before and after he was cut. We like our players, but we like winning more.
But some players, they transcend that and actually establish that rare sense of emotional endearment to the fanbase. A good example of this was Matt Hasselbeck, who still had many passionate supporters even after struggling for three seasons. Even those who wanted to move on from Hasselbeck still remember the good times and will miss the man off the field.
Ichiro was one of those rare players that was much more than an icon. The word “fan” is rooted from the word “fanatic,” and everywhere Wilson has gone, he’s transformed skeptics into fans and fans into fanatics. You can already see it. He’s doing it again. Soon, Wilson will be an icon. And soon after that, he’ll be more than an icon. For a long time to come.