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Russell Wilson Is (Almost) His Same Old Self

Russell Wilson Is (Almost) His Same Old Self

I think that more than any other player in the NFL, Russell Wilson is a living Rorschach test. Two people can go to the same game, watch Wilson play, and come away with wildly different conclusions about whether he’s any good.

Hell, one person can watch Wilson and decide he is both awesome and awful. I covered Wilson during his career with the Seattle Seahawks, and it was always tough to shake a nagging lack of congruence between Wilson’s unassailable Hall of Fame-worthy numbers and his inconsistencies from down to down, which seemed to make every Seahawks win a miserable slog. I could never really reconcile how great Wilson’s stats were with how bad the drive-killing sacks, botched third downs, and time-management blunders felt. I landed on “Wilson is elite” more often than not, though, because his big plays usually far outweighed his bad ones—and his ability to conjure up late-game magic would frequently wash away everything else that had happened up to that point.

But now Wilson’s on a new team with a new coach, and none of the institutional memory from a long run of sustained success has come to Denver. Wilson is coming off his worst season as a pro. His magic doesn’t show up as often. And when it does—like when he threw a twice-tipped Hail Mary touchdown pass on Sunday, a play that gave Denver a chance to tie the game with the Commanders with no time on the clock—it isn’t quite powerful enough to make up for all the mistakes. Wilson missed on the two-point try that would’ve sent the game to overtime, and the Broncos fell to 0-2. Panic has seemingly started to set in in Denver, and based on what I’ve seen, everyone—maybe including Sean Payton—seems to think Wilson is officially washed.

I’m not there quite yet. In fact, my impression after watching Wilson’s first two games this season is that he doesn’t look all that different from the guy who helped make the Seahawks one of the best teams of the 2010s. A cursory glance at the numbers backs that theory up: Wilson’s put together an oh-so-very Russ-esque stat line to start the year, completing 68 percent of his passes for 485 yards (243 per game) and five touchdowns with just one pick. He’s averaged 0.11 expected points added per dropback (13th among all quarterbacks) and 8.2 adjusted yards per attempt (sixth) and has tallied a 108.5 passer rating (fourth). He’s on pace to throw 42 touchdowns and nine picks—and if you wanted to be a stickler and count his Hail Mary touchdown pass from last weekend as only a stroke of luck, he’d still be on a 34-to-9 touchdown-to-interception pace.

Those numbers are eerily similar to what Wilson produced in his last nine seasons with Seattle. From 2013 to 2021 (i.e., excluding his rookie year), Wilson completed 65 percent of his passes and averaged 239 passing yards per game. He averaged 8.2 adjusted yards per attempt while notching a 6.1 percent touchdown rate and 1.8 percent interception rate. He averaged 0.11 expected points added per dropback and tallied a 101.9 passer rating. His average 17-game stat line was 32 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Here are those same numbers in an easier-to-digest table:

Add in the running stats and it starts to get a little weird. This year, Wilson is averaging 28.5 rushing yards per game. From 2013 to 2021, he averaged 29.6 rushing yards per game. Wilson’s even producing vintage fantasy numbers, with a 20.5-point average thus far (QB4). He averaged 19.6 fantasy points from 2013 to 2021.

It’s not just the stats—the film also shows that Wilson is pretty much the same player he’s always been. When it comes to passing, Wilson can still lean on a few of the staples that made him so good for so long with the Seahawks, including his signature downfield moon-shot passes.

These are the types of plays that Payton will surely look to focus on going forward. Wilson has shown that he’s still dangerous outside the pocket, too. He passed for a pair of touchdowns on rollouts in Week 1 against the Raiders, keeping the play alive by moving outside the pocket before finding the open man in the back of the end zone.

And while he’s no longer an elite runner, a slimmed-down Wilson can still be, at the very least, useful in the designed ground game.

If you made a list of some of the major issues Wilson has had in Denver, I’d argue that few of them would be new. Wilson has always run approximately the same offense—there’s a reason that, despite repeated attempts to change the scheme around Wilson (i.e., by Letting Russ Cook), the Seahawks offense always seemed to look like the same basic thing: one that excelled at throwing outside the numbers and deep and struggled with the quick game and middle-of-field concepts. Wilson has always been erratic on third downs. He’s always been frustratingly slow while getting to the line of scrimmage and getting everyone set, which seems to be the complaint du jour from Payton, who may force Wilson to wear an armband going forward.

So why does it feel so different in Denver than it did in Seattle? For starters, winning cures all—and Wilson won a hell of a lot of games with the Seahawks. That hasn’t translated to his new team, and it will take a lot for Wilson to get the stink from last year off of him. It also doesn’t help that the team has lost two close games to start this season, in part due to Wilson’s inconsistent play (he played markedly better in the first halves of the team’s two games before trailing off in the second halves) and untimely turnovers. That’s a departure from what we saw in Seattle, where Wilson was typically at his best in high-leverage situations late in the game. Then again, that could just be variance.

For me, the most obvious and critical difference between Prime Wilson and the Wilson we see today is that he’s no longer physically capable of the Houdini-like magic that got him out of so many sticky situations earlier in his career. Wilson’s no longer the explosive, extraordinarily elusive athlete who would regularly leave defensive linemen twirling and stumbling and bumbling as they grasped for clouds of dust. Now, he’s a guy who jukes and spins and accelerates like he is, well, 34 years old and had arthroscopic surgery on his knee this offseason.

Go look at that table of stats again. There is one that has changed quite noticeably: Wilson’s sack rate. This year it’s nearly 4 percentage points higher (12 percent) than it was from 2013 to 2021, and it ranks fifth worst among quarterbacks. This has also led to a big uptick in layup-type throws, especially dump-offs and swing passes to running backs. Wilson’s pass rate to running backs from 2013 to 2021 was about 18 percent. This year, it’s 32 percent. His air yards per attempt are down from 9 during that span to 6.6 this season.

For the Broncos to turn things around, Wilson probably must accept that he’s no longer the out-of-structure dynamo he once was. The good news for Wilson is that Payton has plenty of experience building an offense around a player with declining athletic traits. Drew Brees was always a better quick-game passer than Wilson, but he excelled at using his running backs as an outlet in the passing game. If Payton can scheme up some ways to mitigate Wilson’s decline in sandlot playmaking prowess, it could help Wilson cut down on drive-killing sacks and get back to doing what he’s still capable of at a high level: attacking deep, making throws from outside the pocket, distributing the football to his playmakers, and keeping defenses honest with a handful of designed runs and timely scrambles.

With two close losses to start the year, Denver faces an incredibly tough test this week in Miami. But Wilson’s vintage stat line—and the fact that the offense ranks seventh in DVOA through two weeks while the defense ranks 30th—supports the notion that the veteran quarterback isn’t holding Denver back. Payton is a real wild card here, and he may already be thinking about replacing Wilson sooner rather than later. But based on what I’ve seen from Wilson through two weeks, Payton’s closer to rejuvenating Wilson’s career than anyone seems to believe.

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