I’m about to give Pete Carroll credit for how good Russell Wilson is. I do not know if I fully believe that Pete Carroll deserves all of this credit, but I think this week was illustrative in terms of how fortunate Wilson was to have landed in the Seahawks’ program. This is not speaking to play calls or personnel decisions making his life easier, lord knows none of that has been happening for years, but speaks instead to an intentional and directed process that has turned Wilson into one of the best decision-makers in the history of football. And that’s what Wilson is right now: one of the best decision-makers in the history of football (and he also has some pretty good physical tools too!)
How did we get here? And do we credit Brian Schottenheimer and Darrell Bevell with this? Methodically, and lord no. We credit the systematic stability of the process that Wilson has embarked upon over the course of his career to Peter Clay Carroll has. Carroll has often referred to Wilson’s development as part of an academic program of learning how to be an NFL quarterback. Of late, he has referred to us as fans as having seen Russell Wilson progress from being an incoming freshman to being in graduate school. Setting aside that this is a bit patronizing to Russ, the evidence bears out that something like this is happening.
Wilson used to really have the reins on him tight. Bevell (who did nothing wrong) gave him simple concepts that he could use his physical skillset to dominate. Russ can process the game quickly, and has always been able to, but the types of reads he was being asked to make early in his career were stuff like “where are the linebackers” and “if that’s where the linebackers are, then is the guy who should be open actually open?” This is when he got called a system quarterback and also won a goddamn Super Bowl. Things were good. But he did not peak there.
As the years went by, things got more complicated, especially as line deficiencies and injuries limited what Russ could realistically be expected to do via simple concepts. He started to dominate from the pocket, and in 2015 showed himself to be a truly great quarterback. But even then, it was a bit situational; Wilson was crushing everything on offer at the buffet, but the buffet itself was really good. Which is to say, he was gorging on the NFL, but was not yet peaking.
Now? Russ doesn’t get anything easy, the buffet is kind of shmedium (Tyler Lockett excepted), and it doesn’t matter even a little bit. He is processing everything at a ridiculous level, and his sync with Lockett is to the point where they are both going to impossible places to make impossible connections. The reads he is being asked to make now involve 11×11 matrices that he is processing while sprinting full speed to elude the league’s best pass rushers. Over the past season or so, despite the difficulty of throws he’s now being asked to make, they have been placed perfectly and consistently. This is where the differential between Wilson’s expected completion percentage (mid-60’s) and actual completion percentage (mid-70’s) highlights how insanely well he is playing. And, now fully healthy, he’s reintroduced an effective dose of running into the repertoire. Russ has reached an absolute different level of play, putting together his awesome skillset with a fully developed sense and understanding for the game in front of him week to week.
Gaze upon Russell Wilson in 2019, but squint, mortal, as he shines more brightly than a diamond: this is what peak performance looks like.
Compare this to Baker Mayfield. Watching Mayfield play for the Browns this season, you can kind of see glimpses of the incredible talent that was drafted first overall and set a bunch of rookie passing records. But those glimpses have been overshadowed by not just a series of brutal mistakes, but more crucially balls that have been just fractionally off of where they need to be delivered. Those were what led to the drops and picks in Sunday’s game.
My theory (and to be fair this is also kind of Doug Farrar’s theory… and probably other people too… but I’m riffing on something Farrar said on Bill Barnwell’s podcast)? Mayfield has been thrown into the deepest of deep ends after not even a full season of being eased into the NFL game. The decisions he’s being asked to make are scrambling his circuits, and he’s making game-changing mistakes both big and small. Freddie Kitchens saw what Mayfield is going to maybe one day be capable of, and decided to try to download it all into his brain at once, like Neo learning Kung Fu in The Matrix. This was stupid and has not worked at all. What Mayfield is accomplishing is in spite of the coaching around him, despite their scheme and personnel perhaps being better than that Wilson gets to avail himself of in Seattle. There was no plan to turn Mayfield into a great player, a process that would take years, and as such it’s not happening.
People drool over the idea of Russ playing in Andy Reid’s system or Kyle Shanahan’s system for the obvious reasons: he’s really good, and they draw up sick plays. But at this point, he is so good that he doesn’t need those systems to thrive. And had he been placed in their hands to begin with, he would probably be great at running those systems. Those systems would suit his skillset beautifully. But Wilson, after nine years playing for Reid, would have been at his core a system quarterback.
Russell Wilson, as he exists now — having gone to Carroll’s quarterback school or whatever the coach wants to call it — is beholden to no system. Russ has transcended the game in a way that very few players have, and absolutely none of his forebears at this obscene level (Manning, Marino, Brady) were blessed with the breadth of skills that Russ has at his disposal.
Beyond that, look around the NFL: how many dudes in their early 30’s are crushing it? Very few. Which is wild, because that’s when quarterbacks should be in their absolute prime. Right now? It’s just Russ. No one else in his generation has had the combination of coaching stability (and, yes, to be fair, health) that he has, and it shows up on the field week in and week out.
So yeah, Pete has been doing a lot of dumb stuff this year, and his quarterback is the primary (exclusive?) reason that Seattle is 5-1. But Pete is also the reason that Russ can be the reason that this bedraggled crew of Seahawks is capable of being 5-1.
Or at least that’s what I think right now.