Recently I wrote a piece about the Seattle Seahawks offense moving forward and how Russell Wilson was already one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. One of the main arguments against Wilson being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL is how often he is asked to throw.
Wilson has 800 career attempts spread out over two regular seasons. For the sake of comparison, Andrew Luck has 1,197 over that time, Ryan Tannehill has 1,072 and Robert Griffin III has 849 despite missing four games. Matthew Stafford attempted 634 passes last season alone, with an incredible 727 the previous year.
It’s very easy to argue that Wilson is just a game manager who relied on Marshawn Lynch’s running game to carry the offense. However, Wilson didn’t attempt fewer passes simply because the offense ran threw Lynch. As explained in the piece linked above, it was rare that the Seahawks were playing from behind later in games, so the Seahawks were less inclined to throw the ball for four quarters.
More important than the number of passes attempted, is the kind of passes that were attempted.
While everyone is quick to point out Lynch’s presence and the defense on the other side, very few people highlight how bad Wilson’s offensive line was or point out how he lost both his projected starters at wide receiver for most of the season. While the losses at receiver weren’t major because Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse all proved to be reliable starters, the offensive line proved to be a major problem.
Wilson is known for being very athletic and elusive, but that wouldn’t be enough playing behind this offensive line. He needed to show his command of the pocket and his intelligence as a passer to quickly get rid of the football.
There were many, many plays that could be used to highlight Wilson’s play from the pocket, but one stood out more than any other.
Against the Arizona Cardinals, in the fourth quarter on 1st-and-10 with a 15 point lead, the Seahawks come out in a tight formation. The Cardinals respond with eight defenders in the box, while Jermaine Kearse motions across the formation after initially settling to the top of the screen. Golden Tate is in the slot to the left with Patrick Peterson in lined up in press coverage against him.
This is the kind of situation where Wilson only needs to be a game manager. His team has a big lead in the fourth quarter and Lynch has no problem running against eight man boxes.
However, the play he makes isn’t your simply, routine play that you’d see from a quarterback who is just a game manager.
The Seahawks run play action with Lynch and their blocking is initially set up well to create a pocket for Wilson to throw from.
When Wilson turns around, his center is in his face because the defensive tackle has driven him backwards. The defensive tackle is about to come free on the right shoulder of the center, while Lynch was unable to prevent John Abraham from sliding past his right shoulder on the outside. Wilson is facing the worst kind of pressure any quarterback can face, interior pressure.
He has two clear running lanes that he can look to escape through, one to the right and one to the left. Those running lanes could give him modest gains and he doesn’t need a big play because of the situation of the game.
If the interior pressure was bothering Wilson, it would still have been a smart move to scramble. However, the best option is the most difficult one.
Scrambling would have been a very decisive, simple move. Adjusting in the pocket by sliding left while staying in your throwing stance to avoid the pressure and get off a clean pass required a lot more subtlety.
For years, Peyton Manning has masked the inefficiencies of his offensive line by making these kinds of moves. Wilson is a lot more athletic than Manning, and Manning is much more proven with his pocket manipulation, but the idea that Wilson can’t simply play from the pocket is not an accurate one.
The other very notable aspect of this play is how Wilson finds his receiver. He doesn’t have the height to see over the line of scrimmage, but he is able to locate Golden Tate through a passing lane. Finding Tate this quickly can’t be easy when you’re that height. It’s much easier for someone like Manning, who can look over oncoming rushers, to see the whole of the field, so Wilson deserves a lot of credit for his ability to overcome this aspect of his game.
Locating the receiver with your eyes is one thing, getting the football to him is another.
Patrick Peterson isn’t one of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL, but he is one of the better starters in the league. He plays very impressive coverage against Tate on this route, completely taking away the underneath throw and forcing Wilson to push the ball past him down the sideline. Peterson can only be beaten here by a perfect throw, because the ball needs to arrive to a specific spot with enough velocity to go past Peterson before he can recognize the flight of the football.
Remember, this throw is being made by Wilson while he slides to the left to evade the interior pressure.
Wilson’s arm talent is phenomenal. He easily flights the ball over Peterson to the perfect spot for Tate to catch it before falling out of bounds. This is the kind of throw that not every quarterback in the NFL can make. Furthermore, even fewer quarterbacks would have made the subtle adjustment in the pocket to give him the opportunity to throw the ball.
One question remains: Did Wilson take too big of a risk with this play considering his team was up by 15 and only a turnover would really have allowed the Cardinals back into the game? The argument could be made that he did, but the execution was perfect so the defense never had a chance of getting to the football.
These kinds of plays are why number of attempts shouldn’t be used to determine workload. One of these throws is a lot more difficult to execute, and a lot more impressive, than 10 or 20 screen passes and passes to open slant routes/five yard curls against off coverage.