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Russell Wilson Is the Story of This NFL Season—and the MVP Favorite

Throughout Wilson’s career, Seattle has been defined by the Legion of Boom, a dominant running game, and otherwise uninspiring offensive systems. But this year the Seahawks bet big on their QB, and he’s proving them right.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Russell Wilson has been called many things during his eight seasons with the Seahawks. Early in his career, as the Legion of Boom suffocated offenses and Marshawn Lynch punished defenses, Wilson was considered an effective cog in a Super Bowl–contending machine. In 2015, when Seattle’s defensive dominance had faded slightly and Lynch began to break down, Wilson emerged as an elite passer, someone capable of carrying an offense. Over the next few seasons, though, as Wilson fought through shaky pass protection and an uninspired offensive system, he became known as a gifted quarterback who was hindered by bad circumstances. He still performed disappearing acts in the pocket and dropped picturesque throws all over the field, but as part of an otherwise stale, run-heavy offense, it began to feel like we’d never see what he could really do. Until now. Because no matter what Wilson has been called in the past, there’s been only one way to describe him this season: the MVP favorite and best player in the NFL.

Wilson completed 23 of his 33 attempts for 295 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score in Sunday’s 32-28 win over the Browns. That performance was similar to the five other nearly flawless outings that Wilson’s had so far in 2019. He’s been more than comfortable getting the ball out of his hands accurately and on time when plays come together, and even when they don’t, he’s found success improvising both inside and outside of the pocket. To watch Wilson right now is to see a quarterback completely in control—which is a feat for someone who moves around as much as he does. Unlike other scrambling quarterbacks (and unlike Wilson’s play earlier in his career), his movements always have purpose. Even as he evades defenders, this version of Russell Wilson is in total command, and that was evident in both of his touchdown passes on Sunday.

On his 17-yard touchdown pass to Jaron Brown in the final minute of the first half, Wilson checked the call pre-snap and then delivered a beautiful throw on a corner route to the right side of the end zone. Every aspect of the play showcased just how locked in Wilson has been this season. Suspecting extra pressure, he tweaked Seattle’s protection at the line of scrimmage. He also flashed a quick hand gesture at Brown, telling the receiver to tighten his split so the slot cornerback would have a tougher time determining whether the route would break inside or outside. To cap it all off, Wilson beat the Cleveland blitz by uncorking a perfect throw almost immediately after the snap.

The following quarter, Wilson orchestrated a touchdown drive without a working headset in his helmet, meaning he was forced to call plays all the way down the field. Seattle marched 53 yards on seven plays before Wilson found Brown at the front of the end zone to give Seattle a 25-20 lead.

The blend of high-level quarterbacking and borderline magical powers that Wilson displayed against the Browns is the same elixir he’s been brewing all season. In Seattle’s matchup with the Steelers in Week 2, Wilson—who typically ranks near the top of the league in time to throw—had an average release time of 1.82 seconds, by far the lowest mark in the league that week. He finished that game 29-of-35 with three touchdowns on passes that came in 2.5 seconds or less. Against the Rams in Week 5, Wilson’s average release time was 3.41 seconds—by far the highest mark in the league. On throws that came in 2.5 seconds or more in that game, he finished seven-of-10 with three touchdowns. Wilson’s brilliance this season has come from his adaptability. He can be whatever type of quarterback the situation calls for, and perform each role better than he ever has before.

Throughout the Seahawks’ 5-1 start, Wilson has recorded 14 touchdown passes, zero interceptions, a 72.5 percent completion rate, a career-high 9.0 yards per attempt, and a league-leading 10.5 adjusted yards per attempt. Since QBs don’t often inexplicably improve at age 30, it’d be reasonable to guess that Seattle has altered its scheme to make things easier for Wilson. But neither the tape nor the numbers bear that out.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Wilson’s expected completion percentage—which is calculated by looking at receiver route depths and separation—is only 62.5 percent. The 10-percentage-point gap between Wilson’s actual completion rate and his expected one is comfortably the largest in the NFL, which indicates that he’s outperformed his offensive scheme more than any other passer. And that’s not the only factor holding him back. Wilson has been fantastic using play-action this season. His 12.1 yards per attempt when using a play fake is the second-highest mark in the league, and his 77.5 percent completion rate ranks third. But the Seahawks are using play-action on only 23.7 percent of Wilson’s dropbacks, which ranks 23rd out of 36 qualified quarterbacks and is actually about seven percentage points lower than his play-action rate from last season.

Seattle is also foolishly sticking to the run-heavy first-down plan it deployed in 2018. The Seahawks have run the ball on 57 percent of their first-and-10s this season, and their running backs are averaging a combined 3.5 yards per attempt on those carries. The addition of downfield threat D.K. Metcalf and Wilson’s familiarity with second-year offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s system have probably helped matters, but for the most part, any changes in Seattle’s offense have been marginal. Wilson’s emergence as a defense-destroying efficiency monster has been his own doing.

Wilson’s MVP-level start is even more ironic when you consider the discourse that surrounded him during his contract negotiations with the Seahawks last offseason. At the time, some suggested Seattle would be better off dealing its star QB for a war chest of first-round picks rather than paying him upward of $35 million per season. The argument was that with Wilson occupying up to 15 percent of the Seahawks’ salary cap in future seasons, the franchise wouldn’t be able to build a contending roster around him. Over the past month, though, Wilson has shown just how misguided that line of thinking was.

In anticipation of Wilson’s mega-extension (and a huge new deal for linebacker Bobby Wagner), the Seahawks stripped most of the roster to the studs this offseason. Players like Earl Thomas and Justin Coleman left in free agency. Seattle traded down multiple times in the draft to accrue extra picks. In terms of financial allocation, the plan seemed to be “Wilson, Tyler Lockett, Wagner, and a whole lot of youth.” And so far, Wilson’s abilities have made that plan a rousing success. The Seahawks are poised for a trip to the playoffs, and they’re projected to have nearly $66 million in cap space in 2020. Wilson has demonstrated that paying top dollar for the right quarterback is worth it every time.

The initial skepticism over paying Wilson seems difficult to comprehend now that he’s lighting up the league, but the early narrative around him has made some slow to recognize his ascension. During Wilson’s first few seasons, Seattle fielded a dominant, historic roster headlined by some of the biggest, brashest names in the NFL. With Richard Sherman talking shit, Earl Thomas patrolling the secondary, Kam Chancellor dropping the hammer, and Lynch beasting on defenses, Wilson faded into the background. Even as the pecking order on Seattle’s roster shifted, it was still defensive players—Michael Bennett, Bobby Wagner, and K.J. Wright—who defined the Seahawks’ identity.

Wilson finally got his chance to lead the offense when Lynch went down during the second half of the 2015 season. In place of the team’s ground-and-pound approach from years past, Seattle transitioned to a spread-out, shotgun-based passing attack that allowed Wilson to operate as the point guard of the offense. Over the final seven games of that season, Wilson completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,906 yards, 24 touchdowns, and one interception while averaging an absurd 8.8 yards per attempt. It felt like both the Seahawks and the football-watching world were finally ready to acknowledge Wilson’s place among the league’s best quarterbacks. But that period was short-lived. Before the 2017 season, Mike Sando’s QB Tier rankings—which polls 50 coaches and NFL executives each year—rated Wilson as the 10th-best quarterback in the NFL. Forty people characterized Wilson as a Tier 2 quarterback, which is defined as a player who can carry his team “sometimes,” and seven placed him in Tier 3 as a “legitimate starter” but one that “needs a heavier run game or defense to win.”

Even as Wilson continued to show that he belonged at the table with the league’s best quarterbacks, his early-career reputation followed him. But now, with the final piece of the Legion of Boom gone and a lackluster running game that can take this team only so far, Seattle’s fortunes don’t hinge on its past identities. The Seahawks are now unmistakably Russell Wilson’s team, and for the first time, people are understanding how great that team can be.