Monday, September 22, 2014

Russell Wilson does what is expected from him—and that’s all

After listening to the Monday morning quarterbacking session, in which Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson was being raved as “special,” tentatively placed in the “elite” category of quarterbacks, and held in thrall in the way he led the Seahawks on a game-winning drive in the overtime against the Denver Broncos, I had to ask myself “What game were they watching?” Save for Denver’s game tying touchdown drive in the final minute of regulation, the Seahawks 26-20 victory in over time left one feeling if either team deserved to win this game. 

Now, first let me say that despite having lived in the state of Washington longer than in any other location, I do not consider any of the sports teams here my “home” team. In football, that would be the Green Bay Packers and the Wisconsin Badgers. Thus I have a “dispassionate” view of the sports scene around here; while I’m happy that the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl last season, that is only because I wanted to see Peyton Manning get his fundament handed to him on a platter (which is exactly what happened), and I also have a natural affinity for the team that few expect to win, because they are far from the “centers” of media power.

Because it was my fervent desire to see Denver lose this particular game, I naturally began pulling my hair as I observed the seemingly “easy” victory—17-3 early in the fourth quarter, with Denver’s offense playing as if they wanted to get off the field as quickly as possible—being tossed away by one offensive blunder after another by Wilson, and finally by an exhausted defense. Yet afterwards, I could only cringe in stupefaction as the local sports media engaged once more in its gushing “man-crush” over Wilson  and his “masterful” performance. Huh?

The reality was that the Seahawks defense, while forcing Denver to kick eight consecutive punts and allowing just one drive of substance that ended in a field goal through three quarters, saw its efforts wasting away as Wilson and the offense went into hibernation in the third quarter before deciding to  just give the game away. Wilson took a sack that was nearly a safety instead of throwing the ball away, which was subsequently accomplished when Marshawn Lynch was forced to take a hand off five yards deep in the end zone. The defense again minimized the damage by forcing Denver to punt after the free kick, but then Wilson threw an interception on the very next play, leading a quick Denver score, and suddenly a seemingly “insurmountable” 17-3 lead was cut to 17-12. 

Seriously in need of a score, instead the Seahawks were again forced to punt after a brief possession. The failure of the offense to control the ball for any length of time in the second half had taken its toll, and Manning drove the Broncos relentlessly downfield until a poor decision—trying to lob a pass over Kam Chancellor—failed, and Chancellor returned the ball to the Denver 35. With a chance to burn clock and ice the game, Wilson and the offense again failed, and allowed Denver one last chance to complete a stunning comeback with no timeouts left. 41 seconds later, the game was incomprehensibly tied at 20, with overtime the result. Whether out of its own exhaustion or premature elation, the Denver defense did its own folding on the first possession of OT, allowing the Seahawks their first drive of more than 33 yards since the second quarter, scoring a game-ending touchdown.

Now it is true that Wilson currently leads the NFL in passer rating, at 108.9.  However, his 87 passes are the second fewest of any quarterback who has played three complete games, which suggests that he is allowed to pass only when necessary and in situations propitious to do so.  One must credit offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell with minimizing Wilson’s gaffe-making opportunities and keeping him closely hewed to an overall script; Colin Kaepernick has proven himself completely devoid of judgment once the two-series script that the offense practiced to death all week has run out of pages. Likewise, whenever the Seahawks’ offense find itself in a position of crisis and sound judgment required, bad things tend to happen, as they did against the Broncos. 

Time and time again, the Seahawks’ offense shows briefs spurts of life, only to be followed by long, frustrating periods of inaction, forcing the defense to contain the damage time after time. Last week against the San Diego Chargers, a 119.1 passer rating by Wilson did not disguise the fact that when both the offense and defense break down early, there is no expectation that he will be able to make up the difference with his arm. Too often Wilson’s presence on the field seems almost tasteless, odorless and practically invisible. Whenever he completes a pass in a necessary situation, people seem to go wild, as if in sweat-drenched relief. 

But as Tee Martin proved in leading the Tennessee Volunteers to a national championship in 1999, you don’t need to be an “elite” quarterback to lead a team to a championship—as his immediate predecessor, Peyton Manning—failed to do in four years of trying. Doug Williams and Jeff Hostetler were backups with only limited playing time, yet performed efficiently enough to allow their teams to win a Super Bowl. Jim Plunkett quarterbacked the Oakland Raiders to two Super Bowl victories, and he was regarded as merely “functional.” You just need to have some decent talent and experienced hands around, and a defense that minimizes the offenses’ limitations. 

I’m nowhere near convinced that Wilson is the kind of quarterback who can make the players around him “better”—he needs them to make him “better.” Brett Favre, on the other hand, was the kind of quarterback who could make the players around him look like Pro Bowlers (i.e. Sydney Rice). People quibble about whether Wilson is a “game manager” or not, but the truth of the matter is that he is in a perfect situation for himself; he is functional within a particular system that limits the potential for costly mistakes that turn flat performances into deficits, and functions as hoped on short fields when the defense forces the other team to make mistakes. That’s it. 

Nevertheless, I will grant that Wilson has enough of a head on his shoulders to avoid making dumb mistakes when minimal pressure is on him—unlike, say, Kaepernick and Geno Smith, who on Monday night against the Chicago Bears demonstrated that his inept play in the second half against the Packers was no “fluke.”

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