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Russell Wilson Is the Captain Now

With Marshawn Lynch gone, Seattle’s offense finally belongs to its quarterback

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the majority of Russell Wilson’s first four seasons, the Seahawks had an efficient offense, but not necessarily a prolific one. And then the second half of 2015 happened.

Around the midway point of last season, something clicked for Wilson, and Seattle went on a tear: He threw 25 touchdowns over his final eight regular-season games — the most in the NFL — and surrendered just two picks, while the offense scored 256 points in that stretch, second only to the Panthers. The most shocking part of the record-setting offensive explosion, though, was that Wilson did almost all of it without Marshawn Lynch, the group’s unflappable leader and the heavy-torque diesel engine that had powered the Seahawks’ ground game for the previous five seasons.

With Beast Mode on the sidelines nursing an abdominal injury for the final seven games of the regular season, Wilson ascended to Seattle’s offensive throne, and he won’t be vacating the position any time soon. Lynch has retired, and there is no longer an uneasy duumvirate in the Pacific Northwest. This is Wilson’s offense now, and that’s bad news for the rest of the league.

After Marshawn

The newly straightforward power structure in Seattle is important. The Seahawks have had a lot of success despite an up-and-down relationship between the offense’s two most pivotal players. It was difficult from not only a chemistry point of view (there have been reports of locker room struggles involving Lynch and Wilson for years), but also from a ball-distribution point of view. Lynch once flipped off offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell from the field for not giving him the rock at the goal line, and then a member of the organization insinuated that the team did not want him to have the glory when the Seahawks decided to throw from the 1-yard line in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XLIX. But the pressure to feed the Beast is no longer an issue. As Doug Baldwin said of Wilson recently, “It’s been a long process, but now he’s the key to the offense. Before, it was Marshawn.”

Wilson has rallied his bannermen: Doug Baldwin just got paid after tying for the league lead in touchdown catches in 2015, and Jermaine Kearse just got himself a new deal, too. Wilson and Jimmy Graham are basically best friends, while the the rest of Seattle’s offensive weapons are young bucks like Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson. The run game will now flow through a combination of Thomas Rawls, Christine Michael, and C.J. Prosise.

The constant pressure to make sure everyone is getting their allotment of targets or touches should now be in Bevell’s rearview. The offense he ran through Wilson in the second half of 2015 was a juggernaut.

What’s New?

One catalyst for Wilson’s offensive eruption was an emphasis on getting the ball out of his hands more quickly. The reason is simple: Seattle’s offensive line sucks. They were Football Outsiders’ 30th-ranked group in pass protection in 2015, as they surrendered 46 sacks and finished with an adjusted sack rate better than only the 49ers and Titans.

Wilson’s uptick in pace helped mitigate that issue in the second half: “We called a lot more calls that dictated the rhythm and the timing, as opposed to kind of mixing things,” Pete Carroll said this offseason. “So we just emphasized it, and [Wilson] was ready and willing.”

Getting the ball out quicker might seem like an easy fix, but there’s a lot that goes into it. Part of it is schematic: Bevell added more plays with quicker drops, shotgun looks, and shorter routes. He used receiver stacks, trips and diamond formations, screens, and rub routes to get guys open quicker and more consistently. And he put in more one-read throws and packaged plays, while taking out the longer-developing plays like deep drops, bootlegs, and play-action throws, where he asked Wilson to go through progressions starting deep and coming back to shorter options.

The other part comes down to the quarterback. The scheme changes meant that it was up to Wilson to quickly determine, based on coverage, who’d be open. Bevell gave him the formations and motion options he needed to make that determination, but it was up to him to find the best option and then quickly deliver the football.

In the same way a commanding short game is often the difference between good golfers and great golfers, the mastery of the pre-snap phase is what sets Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and all the elite quarterbacks apart. Wilson’s sudden grasp of the pre-snap phase was his own little “Happy learned how to putt, uh oh!” moment.

This play from Seattle’s Week 17 win over the Cardinals shows how Wilson’s pre-snap recognition of coverage helps him identify his primary target. On third and 5, running back Fred Jackson heads from the huddle to the wing on the left. Arizona safety Rashad Johnson comes down toward the line of scrimmage and follows Jackson outside, betraying his coverage responsibilities. When Jackson motions back into the backfield, Johnson follows him, and Wilson knows immediately that Baldwin, with no help on the outside, is his best option. Baldwin runs a quick out against off-man coverage, and Wilson floats a perfectly timed pass right as Baldwin turns his head.

In this play against the Rams from Week 16, tight end Cooper Helfet goes into motion to the wing and is shadowed by safety Mo Alexander. Alexander following Helfet all the way out to the sideline suggests that cornerback Marcus Roberson, across from Kevin Smith in the slot, is in a true man-coverage; in a zone, he’d typically follow Helfet out to the wing and let Alexander replace him inside. This is Wilson’s tell, and he knows where he’s going with the ball. The rub route by Smith (a classic man-beater combination) works perfectly as Helfet runs the slant, and the two Rams defenders run into each other.

In this third-down situation against the Browns in Week 15, Wilson again knows where he’s going with the football before the ball is snapped. The Seahawks spread Cleveland’s defense out with a diamond formation on the right and with Kearse alone on the left. The Browns have no option but to tilt their strength, including their deep safety, toward Seattle’s overloaded side, leaving Kearse’s defender with a huge amount of ground to defend with little help over the top. That’s exactly what the Seahawks want. Kearse runs the quick slant, and Wilson guns it to him.

The quick game doesn’t just work for the short stuff, either. The Seahawks love to take deep shots — about 1 in 8 of all their completions went for 20 or more yards in 2015 — and they have the speed outside to do it without making Wilson hold onto the ball for too long. Against the Ravens in Week 14, when Wilson saw Baltimore safety Kendrick Lewis creeping down into the box on his left, he knew Seattle had three vertical routes on vs. three deep defenders. Wilson didn’t hesitate to throw it deep down the right sideline, where Lockett’s speed helped him get past his defender and under the ball for a touchdown.

Why They Could Be Even Better in 2016

Graham finished the season’s final five games on the injured reserve, and his exact return date remains clouded as he rehabs a torn patellar tendon. When he gets back on the field for the Seahawks, they’ll look to immediately integrate him into their quick-rhythm passing game. Many of the routes he’ll see in Seattle’s new-look, tempo-focused offense will likely resemble the things he did in New Orleans, particularly on third downs and in the red zone.

In Seattle’s Week 11 matchup with the 49ers, we saw Seattle split Graham out to the wing like a receiver in order to get him matched up against a defender in man-to-man coverage. The Seahawks spread things out with a no-back set on third and 7, and, when Wilson sees linebacker NaVorro Bowman trailing Lockett as he motions from left to right, he knows Graham will be open out wide on the quick slant.

Seattle used this strategy frequently on third downs because of Graham’s skill on those slant routes, where he used his size to box out defenders. Graham still makes for a big, trustworthy target over the middle, too. While it may be wishful thinking that he’ll ever be effective as a blocker, he’s still useful on play-action, where the threat of the run, along with a fake handoff, can be enough to suck the linebackers up to the line of scrimmage, allowing Graham to get in behind them.

In addition to Graham, Seattle returns its top-three starting wideouts in Baldwin, Kearse, and Lockett. The chemistry this continuity creates is especially important to Seattle’s offense due to how heavily it emphasizes Wilson’s scrambling talent.

Carroll has the stated goal of being the “best scrambling team” in the NFL, an adaptation to Wilson’s Houdini-like escapability from a collapsing pocket. With Wilson’s mobility and accuracy on the move, the Seahawks have implemented “scramble rules” into all their routes. Meaning: When Wilson leaves the pocket and the play is broken, a new one begins, and each pass catcher has an option in their route based on that contingency.

This play, against the Panthers in Week 6, is not an accident, and it’s not just Wilson “going out there in the sandlot and making plays.” Graham’s adjustment to Wilson’s scramble is choreographed and rehearsed in practice. He knows that as Wilson moves to his right, he needs to provide his quarterback a target. Graham goes toward the middle of the field, creating some room for himself, before looping back toward the sideline to give Wilson a target.

Later in the same game, when the timing of Graham’s original route was thrown off due to Wilson’s decision to scramble, he cut his route up the sideline to give Wilson a new target downfield.

With a healthy Graham returning to a new-look, Wilson-centric offense and with their best wideouts back for another year, there’s no reason the Seahawks can’t improve on last season’s second-half explosion.

Of course, it’s never a good thing to lose a Hall of Fame–caliber talent like Marshawn Lynch, but Wilson’s performance in 2015 left no doubt that Seattle’s offense is most dynamic when he’s in the driver’s seat. His incredible jump in efficiency in Bevell’s quick-rhythm passing game opens up everything for the rest the offense: It takes stress off of the offensive line and extends drives — Seattle’s third-down conversion rate in 2015 jumped from 37.6 percent in the first eight games to 55.8 percent in the second half — and it keeps defenses guessing on every play. With that as the foundation, Bevell and Wilson can mix in their full complement of options — quick throws, deep shots, play-action, and bootlegs. While the ground game used to power Seattle’s offense, now Wilson’s arm does.