The Seahawks always knew Russell Wilson was a little weird.
They also knew he was just plain little.
So did opposing defenses. When they schemed to minimize Wilson’s majestic moonballs, he became increasingly reluctant to throw to nearby receivers, or out of bounds, or run on his own.
So the idea that coach Pete Carroll should follow the social media meme and “Let Russ Cook” — a phrase Wilson apparently trademarked and had installed on cardboard cutouts throughout regional grocery stores — was a non-starter. As well as a career-ender for Wilson in Seattle after 10 mostly glorious seasons.
The reasons for giving up a likely Hall of Fame quarterback still near his peak were more numerous, but the Seahawks clearly decided their offense potentially could be better without him, particularly if they could find a trade partner both desperate and naive.
Enter the Denver Broncos.
After six consecutive losing seasons and convinced that adding a top-tier veteran QB was the lone missing piece that would usher in a grid utopia under a new ownership, a new coach, and new assistants, the Broncos offered an offensive scheme that catered to Wilson’s desires for ooh-and-aah. Plus a contract extension worth up to $245 million before he threw a ball in earnest.
Which brings us to this week, about mid-season, with the Seahawks at 5-3 (including a 17-16 win over Denver in the opener) and leading the NFC West, led by Wilson’s backup, the wondrously resolute and 6-foot-3 Geno Smith. They are arguably the NFL’s best football story. The Broncos are 3-5 and arguably the NFL’s worst football story.
Those of us who have watched the NFL for more than a minute know that things can change quickly. What can’t change is the fact that the Seahawks have eight games of proof that their offense is better without Wilson.
Not only does Smith lead the NFL in completion percentage and is third in passer rating, he has opened up the playbook because he is tall enough to see the middle of the field, able to throw to receivers that Wilson either didn’t see, or seek.
A couple of stats are revealing.
The Seahawks in 2021 with Wilson (and three games with Smith as an injury replacement) were 31st in pass attempts and 23rd in yards. In Smith’s eight games this year, the Seahawks are 21st in attempts and 14th in yards. More intriguing is the use of the tight end, the receiving position likeliest to be found over the middle. The trio of Noah Fant (acquired in the Wilson trade), Will Dissly and Colby Parkinson have a combined 53 receptions in 61 targets (86.9 percent). For all of 2021, the trio of Dissly, Parkinson and the departed Gerald Everett had 74 catches in 97 targets (76.3 percent).
This season’s improved offense is due to more than frequent and better use of tight ends. But the numbers help illustrate Carroll’s long-held, often-criticized belief that a balanced team can succeed with a “point guard” at quarterback who can exploit the whole playbook while minimizing errors.
Following the 27-13 home win Sunday over the New York Giants, who entered the game 6-1, Carroll couldn’t help himself. Earlier, as seasonal progress became evident and the forecasts of Seahawks futility began to look bad, he had been confining himself mostly to smirks. Post-game, he got it off his chest.
“All the people that doubt — we run the ball too much, (I) don’t understand football, and (I) can’t stay up with the new game, and all that kind of stuff, that’s a bunch of crap, I’m telling you,” Carroll said. “Look, we’re doing fine. We’re all right. We’re improving day in and day out.”
Well, then. Crap received, crap returned. Keep receipts handy in case of another exchange.
The other notable development following the most significant trade in recent NFL history was a loss for Wilson of another kind: His cover was blown.
Nine seasons of playoffs speckled with a Super Bowl triumph and some truly astounding play created a tolerance in Seattle for his often corny, scripted public persona, as well as his quirky social media, particularly the 2018 tweet in which he self-identifies his alter ego as “Mr. Unlimited.”
Harmless stuff, really. It’s not as if he pulled a Tom Brady and bailed on his wife and kids to keep playing ball when there was nothing left to prove.
Still, Wilson did use his leverage to force his way out of Seattle. In sports, that’s behavior rarely tolerated. Mariners fans told Alex Rodriguez about it for the rest of his career. There are still fans in Seattle who haven’t forgiven Ken Griffey Jr. And when you force an entire team out of town . . . hoo boy, Howard Schultz. You’ll be forgiven for plundering the Sonics the day after the sun goes supernova.
Wilson not only has been derided by fans, former Seahawks teammates such as Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch, have joined the pile-on. The morning hosts of the Seahawks’ flagship radio station turned on him too, when they compiled a list of 21 gaffes or missteps he has made as a Bronco.
After the Broncos’ long flight last week to play a game in London, Wilson told reporters there that while his teammates slept, he was doing for several hours “high knees” stretching in the aisles. So that made him a target-rich environment for the rest of the NFL’s players.
Perhaps most galling of all, Wilson has helped invite Smith, a QB who started once in seven years until last season, into the early conversation for Most Valuable Player, the award for which Wilson has long lusted.
I don’t think these things are what Mr. Unlimited meant.
I celebrate what Wilson accomplished and what Smith is accomplishing. It’s football ; nothing more nothing less. We all have our schict in life. Russ had his and maybe in time Gino will have one. Until then go Seahawks!
I bow in your general direction.
I don’t usually read sports stories, unless there’s an Art Thiel byline. Never ever disappoints.
Mine is an all-inclusive tent.
T’was only a year or two ago that a couple guys (moi) were advocating on SPNW for Russ to be traded. Everybody else said that was blasphemy. Well that trade looks awfully good right now. There are stories out there calling Pete “Coach of the year”, John “GM of the year”, Geno “Comeback player of the year”, “Best draft class ever”. Pete certainly shows that he is the reason for the past success of the Hawks, and not Russell. Pete knows how to get the most out of players.
Every year, things are different, Yogi. For cap reasons, a trade earlier was prohibitive, and even the March trade cost the Seahawks $26M in cap space. Wilson’s premature return from injury confirmed for all his me-first agenda. And Carroll and Schneider had blown enough draft picks and free-agent signings for fans to be wary of their talent acumen. Wilson opened the door for a trade; I give credit to C&S for the guts to walk through it.
IMHO, after Wilson got the huge salary (which of course leaves less for the supporting cast, a big mistake) instead of home discount deal, the hawks made him a pocket passer so he wouldn’t get hurt. Now, his offensive line was poor, so he got sacked and beat up over and over. You rarely again saw his way to overcome his height, which was to roll out, run option plays. So far, they are letting Smith roll out and be unpredictable, just like the old Russ was. They trade him and got great great value. To have an extreme high salary player was to doom the hawks for years. Love Russ, but good move to trade him, and he likely thought it was as well since hawks were unlikely to content during re-build. But, isn’t Smith on a one year contract? Whoops
Au contraire, Tom. Wilson was unpredictable to the point of reckless turnovers; Smith is following a crafty script that features motion and deception out of similar formations, and runs well enough to burn defenses who don’t spy him. Wilson was never a pocket passer because he couldn’t see midfield receivers. But credit Wilson and the coaches, they worked together long and well, until they didn’t. Time was up.
There’s no way Wilson was going to have an MVP caliber season. He was going to a new conference with a rookie head coach, new teammates, new plays, new city. And the trade took away players the Broncos need. They didn’t invest in Wilson and bring in players to help him. They should have brought in Duane Brown, Gerald Everett and/or David Moore. Players he is familiar with and were available. This wasn’t going to be Tom Brady revisited. His going to Tampa was completely different. Give Russ another year or two and he’ll return to his Pro Bowl form.
That being said, Geno is creating problems for the Seahawks. With Brady and Rodgers showing their age, Prescott hobbled with injuries and Murray having a slow start Geno is arguably the best QB in the NFC. If the Hawks end up with a high first round draft pick do they take a QB? Or a player for the defense? Problems lesser teams wish they had and the 12s never imagined would be on the team.
Wilson didn’t need in Denver former players the Seahawks shed; he needed better help, period. And they do have a desirable, yet tough decision to make about Geno’s future at 32. But I think he’ll get three years and the Seahawks can take two premier defenders plus a center in next year’s draft and be more than fine.
If they can take CJ Stroud or Bryce Young they’ll think long and hard. I think they passed on taking a QB in the last draft because they’re targeting the next draft but Geno is changing the landscape.
Great to read words from my favorite sports writer, again.
You’re welcome, kind sir.
Great work as always, Art.
For me, Russell Wilson football’s version of a Stepford Wife. For all of his social ineptness, he gave us some unforgettable thrills.
The idea of a “balanced” football team should include a balanced payroll. John and Pete are going to have fun for a few years now without a $50 million annual overhang on their budget.
Every club has hard decisions annually on the cap. It’s why we like the NFL — bad teams can get good quickly because good teams can’t stay that way.
Another gem Arthur. And consider me in the “Never Griffey” camp. He trashed us on his way out of town and we give him a statue?? Please.
In terms of Russ & Pete … while I was initially not impressed when Pete came to town I have since come to appreciate him as one of the greats.
And here’s a thought … did Carroll optimize Wilson’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses so well that we thought Wilson better than he actually was? Was Carroll the key to Wilson’s greatness? Did Carroll coach Wilson to heights beyond his raw abilities? Was Wilson too self centered and unaware to recognize it? Sure seems like it now.
Thanks for the kind words, David. Carroll always looks to maximize a player’s strengths and minimize weaknesses. That’s why I referenced the tight ends. Carroll accepted Wilson’s vision problem and maxed out the rollout options. Now Carroll can use three tight ends on a single playcall, and really screw with the minds of defensive coordinators. And yes, Wilson’s self-absorption leads to a messiah complex.
Glad to see Mr. Thiel back at it. It was a bummer when SPNW closed shop, so I’m more than happy to see his byline again. Wilson is a competitor and nothing irks a competitor more than a chorus of “he’s finished.” I think his story is not done yet, although his missteps are beginning to pile up. I’m glad Coach Carroll can put to bed the debate on whether the game’s passed him by. He’s surrounded by young players (Geno and Irvin the rare exceptions) with something to prove and who are willing to buy in to his philosophy lock stock and barrel. If one thinks about it, that’s similar to the group the ‘Hawks had post-Hasselbeck and pre-Super Bowl.
I agree that Wilson will rebound, but the Broncos likely will miss the playoffs, which counts as another lost year in Denver. And yes, others have seen the same parallel with the 2012 team. Carroll loves the build-up period. He’s in coach heaven right now.
Great piece, Art. But, what’s the altitude in Denver doing to Russ. I’ve noticed it has bigger Impacts on old guys.