SEATTLE – It’s remarkable how little Russell Wilson has changed. Spend five years away from a person, and you expect to notice differences, even subtle ones. I’m not sure Wilson even has gained a pound.
He is a better quarterback, for sure. This season, only Lamar Jackson played the position more brilliantly than Wilson, and for half the year, Jackson was the one chasing Wilson’s standard. But over the final month of an MVP-caliber campaign, Wilson and the injury-ravaged Seattle Seahawks succumbed to misfortune, lost three of their final four games and fell back into a familiar position: needing Wilson, who is built and operates on consistency and resolve, to return to being the savior that the franchise doesn’t intend him to be.
That is the most peculiar thing about Wilson’s steady journey to stardom. He has performed like a franchise quarterback since early in his career, and he also has been treated and respected as such. But the Seahawks’ general approach remains the same: They don’t ask too much of Wilson.
Even as his annual salary rises to $35 million next season, the Seahawks follow Coach Pete Carroll’s inveterate belief about the position: Don’t add an extra burden to a position that has inevitably high demands. Do everything possible to make it a complementary role, despite acknowledging it is the most important and luxurious job on the team.
The philosophical conflict is inevitable. At 31, Wilson is more capable than he ever has been, more capable than he ever will be. He is no longer the third-round pick who needs only to play mistake-free football and add a little spice to a ready-made championship contender. The Seahawks are no longer built around an all-time defense and one of the league’s deepest rosters. Yet for as much as their situation has changed, they decline conventional NFL wisdom that the competitive equalizer is to let the franchise quarterback carry a heavier burden.
But here’s the really wacky part: In his own style, Wilson does that anyway. When the offensive line is shaky, he extends plays with his legs and improvises. When the offense disappears, he finds a new way. And when the game is still within reach despite the Seahawks’ erratic play, he wills them to victory. Wilson always has been more impressive than his statistical efficiency because of his highlight-reel athleticism, his ability to throw deep and his charisma in reserving his biggest moments for high-pressure situations.
“With Russell back there, it don’t matter,” Carroll said earlier in the season. “You have a chance. You have a chance no matter what’s going on.”
The Seahawks (11-5) limp into the postseason with major holes at nearly every offensive and defensive position group because of injury. Quarterback is the exception. Wilson is healthy, and he threw for 4,110 yards and 31 touchdowns this season with just five interceptions. Wilson finished sixth in the NFL in passing yards despite attempting just 516 passes, which ranked 12th.
In Seattle’s current state, it’s natural to assume the team will go only as far as he takes it.
Well, sort of.
“Nothing magical,” Wilson said of his postseason mentality. “You have to make your plays when they’re there.”
It would be a laughable notion if the Seahawks weren’t playing Philadelphia (9-7) – the team that has overcome the most calamity this season – in the wild-card round Sunday. This game will have its gnarly moments. The winner will credit their toughness, not excellence. But the winner of the quarterback matchup between Wilson and Carson Wentz means everything to the outcome because both teams are lacking several playmakers.
Over the past week, Wentz has been credited for his put-it-all-on-me grit. He became the first NFL player to throw for 4,000 yards without the help of a 500-yard wide receiver, an incredible testament to his ability to find a way. While the Seahawks are limited, they have an offense that finished eighth in total yards, and they have two healthy, dynamic receivers in Tyler Lockett (82 receptions, 1,057 yards, eight touchdowns) and rookie DK Metcalf (58 receptions, 900 yards, seven touchdowns).
The problem is the run game, Seattle’s most reliable offensive weapon over Carroll’s 10 seasons, which lost 1,230-yard rusher Chris Carson and two others to season-ending injuries. That is why Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin are back as an emergency signings. Rookie Travis Homer is the starter. Even if the current running back corps can exceed expectations, it’s hard to imagine the Seahawks rushing for their usual 137.5 yards per game (fourth in the NFL) during the postseason.
It seems there is a great need for Wilson and the passing game to be more prolific. We’ll see. Carroll prefers more of a wrestling match. Despite having a top-10 offense and a bottom-10 defense, he wants to slow down the game, win the field-position battle, minimize turnovers and turn it into a competition of who wants it more.
During the regular season, it helped the Seahawks become just the second team in NFL history to win 10 one-score games. In 10 years in Seattle, Carroll has a 100-59-1 record while opting to play tight, dramatic football. He has a 9-6 playoff record, two Super Bowl appearances and one championship, too. And all of his best work has come with Wilson under center. So the Seahawks aren’t changing.
“I love close games,” Carroll said. “I think they help you. They make you stronger. They keep you in the game longer. They make you have to focus farther, and it prepares you for more kinds of things that can happen that you need background and experience in.”
The hard salary cap controls so much of what’s possible in the NFL, and the best teams are often shape-shifters that adjust to what their situations demand. With Wilson about to be on his third contract – and his second big one – the Seahawks’ cap tilts inescapably toward the quarterback and the offense in many respects. So there’s something a little awkward about trying to rely on the league’s No. 26 defense in the league and a makeshift run game that had been dependent on Carson, a former seventh-round draft pick who makes just $645,000, before he got hurt.
Then again, there was something a little awkward about choosing Wilson, fresh out of the third round, eight years ago to lead a win-now team. Their fight. Their way. The most important constant is that Wilson, who has 21 career fourth-quarter comebacks, thrives in the toughest situations.
If there is one thing different about him, it’s that he relishes those victories now more than ever. His emotions have been on display in several games this season, including his stomping and dancing celebration after an overtime victory against San Francisco.
“I think for me, I’ve always believed that you should try to play with great emotion, but not be emotional,” Wilson said. “There’s a difference. I think you can be passionate. You can be passionate in the moments. I get passionate when moments happen, but try not to be too high or too low throughout the whole game. I think that just naturally has grown and become. I love the game. I love winning. That goes way back. That goes way back since I was a little kid playing little league. I think our team feeds off a little bit of that, too.”
With the Seahawks grinding, stuck between good and great, Wilson appreciates the difficulty of this climb. Does he need to take over more often for the Seahawks to go higher? It’s a legitimate question, one that ultimately may determine whether he wins another Super Bowl. But in the Seahawks’ never-changing world, he’ll have to continue stretching the definition of carrying a franchise.
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