With poise beyond his years, Wilson leads Seahawks into playoffs
RENTON, Wash. -- Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson was among the league's most productive quarterbacks over the final nine weeks of the season, throwing for 18 touchdowns, rushing for four others, posting a passer rating in excess of 104.0 on seven occasions, with just four turnovers overall.
During the stretch there was an overtime win at Chicago that required a 97-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter; a 33-point win at Buffalo that included four Wilson touchdowns, three of them rushing; and a nationally televised 29-point spanking of San Francisco that included four touchdown passes, the most against the 49ers in five years and 89 games.
To the uninitiated, the San Francisco victory was like an epiphany. They viewed Wilson, who threw for 3,118 yards, 26 scores and only 10 interceptions, as if he were an overnight success. But the former Wisconsin star had been building for that moment all season, if not all of his life. To understand his successes entering Sunday's playoff opener against the Redskins at FedEx Field, you must know his failures and how he handled them.
Wilson had told Carroll about his plans to win the starting job shortly after being drafted, and now he had an opportunity to make a statement with all the players gathered for a spring minicamp. But the offense struggled during an 11-on-11 session against the No. 1 defense. Had there been a mercy rule, Carroll could've used it.
Wilson, so poised and composed on the outside, seethed internally. He is the ultimate competitor, and the offense's performance -- HIS performance -- was unacceptable. So after everyone was gone he requested that Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin, two of the team's top three receivers, join him at the indoor training facility so they could go over their goal-line pass routes. Again. And again.
Carroll wasn't invited, but he watched and listened from the sideline. It would be a stretch to say he was awed by what he witnessed, but he definitely was impressed that a youngster who was still asking directions for how to get around the building would feel comfortable enough to take charge of his veteran teammates.
Wilson would line up the receivers and tell them exactly what he expected on a particular route. He would tell them not only where he planned to throw the ball, but also why. Then he would run the play until everyone was on the same page.
"He was a pup, he was a babe, but it didn't matter to him," says Carroll. "He was trying to learn and get the job done and communicate. He had no agenda other than to get the job right. I walked away from that thinking, 'He's so comfortable with himself. He ain't worried about what they're thinking about him. He ain't got time for that.' He's just like, 'We've just got to figure this out. Here's my input, let me hear yours.' That was before he ever should have thought he could do that."
Just when Carroll thought he had a real quarterback competition, Wilson hit a rough patch to end the week. Carroll talked with his coaches and general manager John Schneider, and the conversation ultimately went something like this: "Russell's a great kid and a great story, but he might not be ready because of his youth and inexperience." The concern was that there was too much to learn, and not enough time to learn it. Why rush it? After all, they had Flynn and incumbent Tarvaris Jackson on the roster.
"I had one or two days where I was just missing throws, which I never do," Wilson says. "I wasn't sure what was going on. I was like, Man!"
Being his harshest critic, Wilson went home and studied the tape. He figured out that his footwork was out of sorts, giving him an uneven foundation from which to throw. He studied it, studied it, studied it, then told himself to forget about it.
When he returned to the field the next week, he was the old Russell -- calm, cool, accurate. That was the moment that Carroll and Schneider were convinced they had a legitimate quarterback competition, because Wilson showed he was a quick study.
For the first time since being drafted in the third round, Wilson gives his critics a reason to publicly chirp that the Seahawks made a mistake selecting him. They had thought it over the first three weeks, but couldn't say so because the team was 2-1 and Wilson, while far from spectacular, did nothing to prevent them from winning. On this Sunday, however, he throws three interceptions and fails to lead a touchdown drive on his final nine possessions. The week before he had just 10 completions for 130 yards against the Packers, who would surrender 446 through the air the next week against the Saints; but fans spent more time talking about whether the replacement officials had blown the call than they did about Wilson's struggles.
The Rams loss left the spotlight completely on Wilson. People outside the organization wondered if coach Pete Carroll had erred by naming him the starter ahead of Matt Flynn, the former Packers free agent whom Seattle had signed in the offseason to a potential $26 million, three-year deal.
Wilson didn't have to be told what people were saying. He had heard it numerous times before, whether in college or high school. He responded in the only way he knew how, by being proactive. Before the team plane arrived back in Seattle that night, he had made up his mind to focus on what they needed to get things right, rather than dwell on what they had done wrong. So he began putting together a detailed scouting report on the defensive backs and linebackers of the Carolina Panthers, who were next on the schedule. Then he left it in the lockers of his wide receivers.
The next weekend Wilson set season-highs in completions (19), passing yards (221) and completion percentage (76.0). He also showed resilience by tossing the go-ahead score in the 16-12 victory after being intercepted on back-to-back possessions.
"As a quarterback you have to have amnesia," Wilson says. "I have to be able to forget about a situation, no matter how good I'm doing, no matter how bad I'm doing. That's one thing I learned from playing baseball (in which he was a fourth-round pick of the Rockies) -- one pitch at a time. In football it's one throw at a time. Just execute and let it loose. Trust what you see and just play."
Trust is the word Carroll uses to explain how Wilson was able to go from ordinary to extraordinary. The coaching staff didn't want to overload him early, so they decided to take things slowly. He threw nearly as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns (eight) and surpassed 160 yards passing just twice in the season's first seven weeks.
After a 13-6 loss at San Francisco, the mounting frustration was apparent. Carroll spent an unusual amount of time sitting in the corner of the locker room with Wilson, who completed only nine passes for 122 yards and an interception. It was time to take off the training wheels and play to win instead of playing not to lose.
"I'm not sure how Russell felt about it, but I know as receivers we were a little upset about the training wheels because we'd seen Russell throw," says Rice. "We'd been with him throughout camp, and we knew what he was capable of doing."
Carroll made a decision after the San Francisco loss to open the offense and emphasize wideouts Rice and Golden Tate in the passing game, with Baldwin coming in on third down. Seattle had been rotating its receivers, which Carroll felt limited its ability to capitalize on the unique qualities of each player. By having a narrower focus, Wilson would know that specific routes were meant for a specific player, and vice versa.
"It helped the coaches, it helped the game plans, it helped the call-ins, and it helped Russell be on the same page with those guys," Carroll says. "He's seeing so much repetition in terms of the style of things that we do with those guys that it accelerated things for all of us. You could see a chemistry begin and we took a step in the right direction. Then it was just a matter of taking a step back and saying, 'He's going. Russell is going.' "
He hit full stride on Dec. 2 in Chicago when he threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Tate to cap a 97-yard drive at the end of regulation, then round Rice for a 13-yard score to finish off an 80-yard drive to start overtime. Before Wilson took the field late in the fourth quarter, linebacker Leroy Hill expressed angst to safety Kam Chancellor on the sideline. It wasn't so much that he didn't believe; he just didn't know if the kid could go the length of the field. Chancellor told him not to worry. The kid had it.
The performance was followed by a three-game run in which the offense scored 15 touchdowns, with Russell accounting for six through the air and three on the ground.
"It really came back to trust," says Carroll. "He didn't have any problem with it; he was ready to go. But it was us developing trust in him. It's like wanting to take care of your kid. You don't want to give him too much too soon. You want to let him grow. We did that, then finally we said, 'Let's go.' Now we can call anything in the book."
Wilson prides himself on being prepared. He rises each morning at 5:30 so he can be at the facility by 6. On Wednesdays and Thursdays he gathers the receivers for 20 minutes at lunch to study tape. Instead of being spoon fed a game plan, he meets with the coaches to have direct input into what they'll call in a given week. By the time he leaves the facility, it's usually 14 hours after he arrived.
"I know as a (play-caller) I was motivated by fear; I just hoped to get a first down," says Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst, who was Wilson's coordinator last season at Wisconsin. "But that's not Russell. He was fun to coach because he challenged you in a good way. He loves learning football. Watching film and walking through stuff was never a chore. He trusted himself to play the game well, and he'd do a great job of preparing. You could have some pretty high-level discussions with him. I know I learned from him, and hopefully I taught him some stuff as well. But you just felt like you were working with a pro already."
Wilson has spent much of his life preparing for this moment. His father, Harrison III, a former football and baseball player at Dartmouth, began grooming Russell and his older brother when they were in grade school. He would wake them each morning at 6 so they could practice before school started. Russell would throw the football and his dad and brother, Harrison IV, would run routes.
Wilson's father died of complications from diabetes in June 2010, but when his sons were young he would put them through mock interviews, including one in which he told Russell that Russell had just won the Super Bowl. "What are you going to do next?" he asked.
Harrison III would critique each answer and offer suggestions on how to improve their responses. He'd also tell the boys that preparation was the key to success and give them tips on how to get ahead. "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have," he'd say, which is the reason Wilson wears a collared shirt when doing most interviews. He's as meticulous about his note-taking as he is about his natty post-game attire, all because of the lessons his father taught him.
"I consider failure to be when you have an opportunity and you don't take advantage of it and you don't study enough, you don't watch film enough, you don't give it 100 percent every day," he says. "That's the biggest fear for me, not preparing. That's why I arrive so early and leave so late."
It's late 2011 and Chiefs safety Eric Berry is laid up at home after tearing knee ligaments in the season opener. A huge college football fan, Berry passes the time by watching as many games as possible. Some of them feature Wisconsin and Russell Wilson. "The biggest thing I was impressed with was how poised he was," says Berry. "I could see why he was named captain after being there only a short time. It was the way he kind of took command of the team."
Less than a year later, Berry gets a chance to face off against Wilson in the third preseason game. He discovers that everything he saw on TV is true on the field. "He put his club in good situations," Berry says afterward. "He never seemed like he got rattled, even though he got Tamba Hali coming at him off the edge and he was making his first start. What a lot of people don't really appreciate is his accuracy. He was putting some of those passes On ... The ... Money. That's real."
What's also real is that some people still have their doubts about Wilson. He was 3-5 on the road with nearly as many interceptions (8) as touchdown passes (10). And Sunday he's facing off against fellow rookie QB Robert Griffin III, the second pick in the draft whom believe should be an MVP candidate in addition to a Rookie of the Year finalist.
If there's anyone who believes that Wilson will be intimidated by the moment or back down from the challenge awaiting him, well, just consider his comments coming into the season, when so many people questioned whether Carroll chose the right starting quarterback.
"Everybody tells me, 'No, no no,' and the only answer I have is, 'Yes,' " Wilson says. "My attitude is always that I'm going to do this. It's not a matter of how am I going to do this; it's more of, when am I going to do this? Because I know I'm going to work harder than anybody else. I know I'm going to have great attention to detail. I know I'm going to take copious notes. So it's a matter of, When is it going to be accomplished? How long is going to be before people say, 'He's the real deal?'
"I don't think I'm there yet, but that's the awesome part about playing sports and my whole process," he continues. "I'm a rookie and I still have so many more years left. At the same time I'm never patient with myself. I'm my harshest critic. I want everything to be perfect. Thats going to elevate me that much more every day."
It's lifted him into the first round of the playoffs, which should be thin-air territory for a rookie who was passed on until the third round and who was selected five spots after a punter. But to Wilson it's not only where he should be. It's where he expected to be, even if few others believed it was possible.