So...who's NOT happy to have the competition over at last? Put your hand down, you in the back. You weren't enjoying this either.
The mantle has just been handed to Russell Wilson. Pete Carroll has named QB Russell Wilson, a third-round rookie out of Wisconsin, as the Seahawks' starting quarterback for 2012. He will open Seattle's 2012 campaign against Arizona, a team in such disarray that they might as well be Week 5 of the preseason.
This is interesting...it's being said in some corners that Pete Carroll had "no choice" but to start Wilson after his impressive preseason start against Kansas City. That's a cynical view of the situation and feels like an extension of the popular doubt that's followed the whole competition. Allow me to phrase this another way: Russell Wilson forced the issue like a true starter should. He made a statement, made himself stand out. As Mike Sando put it (in one of the strongest opinions I've ever seen from him), picking Wilson was the only logical way to end a true competition, because he went with the guy who won the competition. Did you want it any other way?
Get it through your head, America: When Pete Carroll says "earn everything", it's not rah-rah.
Of course, most weren't expecting it to be Wilson. While he always had the look of a competitor, his rise in competence over the offseason has been almost meteoric, certainly unexpected. Against Kansas City, Wilson put on a show that was not only dynamic and exciting to watch, but technically sound and promising at the next level. This isn't the primitive scrambling QB that some made him out to be following the draft. In four months, I have yet to see any reason, other than his height, that he was never projected as the #2 pick in the draft. All the little things he does, the veteran moves he displays, are there for the educated eye to spot.
Now, to actually project him.
There is going to be concern about starting a rookie quarterback. These concerns aren't entirely unmerited. Hawkblogger has been purveying them a lot lately, recently pointing out that history generally doesn't favor QB's who start as rookies.
This is probably for a variety of reasons. Since many rookie quarterbacks are drafted high and thrown into the fire by desperate, talent-starved teams, it's often assumed that they're destroyed by the lack of surrounding support. Another theory is that some rookies suffer from offensive coordinators who can't or won't adapt their offense to suit their new toy. We've seen this with Sam Bradford, and it's not for no reason that Jack Del Rio has his reputation as a "QB killer". Another, often underlooked theory is that some of these guys might have just bombed anyway. David Carr, often held up as a prime example of the tragic rookie QB, had talent of his issues of his own in Houston, who saw rapid improvement at the position once they jettisoned Carr even though the O-line hadn't improved much.
Wilson deserves to be projected as a human being on a football field. That's hard to do at this point, and I'm certainly not the one to do it definitively. But trying to project him under some statistical category, or as "The Next So-and-so", is the kind of futile generalization that got Wilson overlooked in the first place. Russell Wilson may simply be the next Russell Wilson.
Forecasting a Rookie
To the worries over starting a rookie, my response is three-fold. First is the practical one: Seattle needs to start the more productive quarterback. It's as simple as that. This league just doesn't have patience for slow-burners. If you don't want your starting QB to be a rookie, then you need to have a stopgap who can outproduce said rookie while he learns, as Green Bay and Tennessee have. Pete made a quite satisfactory attempt to find one. Did Matt Flynn meet the challenge? Pete has evidently decided not. But for his troubles, we now have one of the league's best backups and a great safety net if Wilson does struggle. You feel bad for Flynn still not having broken into the starters' ranks, but judging by Flynn's talent and the rarity of competent QB's in this league, I have no doubt that he'll eventually make it somewhere. He could find a better system fit than Seattle anyway.
My second response is that while history generally doesn't favor rookie QB's, history also doesn't have much to say on rookie QB's who are actually drafted by good teams, because they usually aren't. The Seahawks are a good team in many areas. They've got a defense that should lift this team to 7 or 8 wins and leave Wilson with less work to do. They've got a running game in a similar vein to what Wilson played behind at Wisconsin, the two-back power zone. We also have a special-teams with a knack for producing unexpected momentum shifts.
Now, it's true that Seattle's offense is not entirely settled. There are questions in our WR corps and half our offensive line. I say questions, not grim proclamations of doom, because we do have some possible answers. Should Sidney Rice and Braylon Edwards stay healthy, they could be a dangerous pair of vertical threats, with Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate making noise underneath. Keeping Anthony McCoy, a crisp blocker at tight end, will help justify deploying Kellen Winslow and Zach Miller as receivers once in a while. And while the guard spots remain as murky as they have since Steve Hutchinson left (I'm convinced he cursed the position), Tom Cable is known for keeping the machine churning with second-string talent.
Although the platform for Wilson is a little shaky, it's there. Wilson made plenty out of it against heavy blitzing from the Chiefs, and his mobility is an extra asset in overcoming pass pressure and blanketed receivers.
That leads into my third response: Wilson himself. This is all quite intangible, but the guy certainly does not carry himself like someone who's about to crumble under pressure. His offseason trip from third-string "project" to starter has been underlined by quickness and determination to learn. He's been compared to Peyton Manning (I know, I know) in his preparedness and attention to detail. He's won over the locker room. And when Pete handed him an obvious no-scrambling mandate against Kansas City, Wilson was teachable and adaptable. And successful. In my judgment, he's shown what it takes to handle the viciousness of the league. He's exemplified John Schneider's cliches of "staring down the gun" and "tilting the field".
All in preseason, yes, I know. There's still much for him to prove. But Kansas City's defense should not be entirely dismissed as a valid test, nor does it invalidate things like Wilson's hard count (the one that tripped up KC's coverage on his wide-open touchdown to Winslow), his ball placement to Edwards and Charly Martin alike, or his constant habit of looking off safeties. These things aren't diminished by the competition Wilson was playing against. They'll project to the next level. And Wilson did what he did without Marshawn Lynch or Doug Baldwin on the field. What happens when they come back? Giggle.
There's also concern over Russell Wilson's perceived identity as a "running QB" like Michael Vick. The thinking is that running is a much safer and more profitable tactic for college QB's than for pro QB's due to the greater talent and bigger hits in the NFL, and this is true. Well-respected football analyst Greg Cosell has said many times that running plays don't happen consistently enough to carry an offense, and that every quarterback's game, no matter the scheme or mobility, must happen primarily in the pocket. This is also true.
Fortunately, there's a difference between a "running back who sometimes passes" and a "quarterback who sometimes runs". Vick would be a good example of the former, and early in his career, he had nowhere near the passing ability that Wilson does. Once again, Seattle's new signal-caller knows the passing game and has repeatedly displayed the "little things" with first-round savvy. And while running can be treacherous to the QB, especially if made a habit, the risk can be managed if he's an intelligent scrambler. Wilson is this. Throughout his college career, he showed excellent sense of when to run and yet the presence of mind to slide or step out of bounds at the end, minimizing contact and thus injury, even at the expense of a few yards. That's good. And against Kansas City, he showed the self-awareness to stay home and sustain drives from the pocket. He knows exactly what will be expected, and needed, of him.
In none of this do I see another "Mr. August" waiting to happen. Russell Wilson's story is unprecedented in so many ways; it's a clinic in our responsibility to examine each and every player closely, not just judge him by surface circumstances like height, rookieness, or draft position. Pete and John Schneider have built a team with this style of careful scrutiny. We should take a cue.
Wilson may struggle. He probably won't be perfect. He's got plenty to learn. In two weeks, he'll be facing upgraded receiver packages and blitzing concepts that only Matt Flynn has any experience with. Eventually, other teams will know how to game-plan for him, requiring him to adapt and evolve further. But his work ethic, temperament, and his bevy of little quarterbacking skills, well, that's why I think he's up to the task. He's got a safety net in Flynn, the Beast, and the Legion of Boom (our defense's popular nickname). He won't face any strong pass defenses until Week 7. This isn't the usual story of your rushed-into-service, please-be-our-savior rookie QB. Despite the portentous pronouncements of national writers, Pete and John have actually handled the quarterback competition very well. Much better than if they'd listened to me and drafted Ryan Mallett.
The real question is whether we fans can handle Russell Wilson's inevitable growing pains. Pete certainly seems to think that the tradeoff is worth it. I'm willing to wrench on my own helmet and grit it through. Pete's accomplishments in Seattle thus far have earned him the benefit of a doubt from us, as have Wilson's drive and professionalism.
For today, I'm just relieved that Seattle's trippy, nerve-wracking, twist-filled quarterback competition is finally over. Wilson will start getting reps, the offense will start coming into focus, and the team might finally have the long-term direction at quarterback that it's lacked for five years. Might. There's no certainty. But despite whatever you hoped for, there was never going to be uncertainty this year. Eventually, Pete had to take a risk. And we had to jump in with him into the unknown.
The time to jump has come.