With one minute left in the first quarter, Russell Wilson took a first-and-10 snap from the Rams’ 13-yard line, faked a handoff, and then surveyed the field. He rolled left but threw the ball under pressure.
“Nowhere to go,” announcer Joe Buck said as the ball hung in the air.
Like everyone watching, Buck assumed Wilson was throwing the ball away. Like everyone, he was wrong. The pass found its way to the corner of the end zone and into the hands of receiver Tyler Lockett, who was stretched like Michael Jackson doing the “Thriller” dance. Touchdown, Seahawks.
Wilson throwing off balance while running to his left is impressive enough. Lockett’s catch made it an early candidate for the best play of the season. NFL Next Gen Stats calculated that the throw had only a 6.3 percent chance of being completed, the lowest since 2017.
Russell Wilson & Tyler Lockett's 13-yard TD in the back of the end zone is the MOST IMPROBABLE completion of the last two seasons (6.3%).@TDLockett12 was 0.2 yards from the sideline and 1.1 yards from the back of the end zone when the pass arrived.#TNFonPrime | @Seahawks pic.twitter.com/vgPRim3Q3h— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 4, 2019
Performing the improbable is nothing new for Wilson, who showed in Thursday’s 30-29 nail-biter win over the Rams that in his age-30 season he can take Seattle’s offense to new heights.
“I don’t remember [Wilson] being that on in a game,” head coach Pete Carroll later said in his postgame press conference.
Wilson finished with 17 completions on 23 attempts for 268 yards (11.7 yards per attempt), four passing touchdowns, no turnovers, and one sack while also tossing in 32 rushing yards on eight attempts. Throughout the game Russ did Russ things: extending plays while keeping his eyes downfield, avoiding pass rushers by moving in directions other quarterbacks would never consider, and finding receivers who are wide open solely because of how long he kept the play alive. All three of those things happened on this first-and-10 play early in the second quarter. Wilson runs past the entire Rams defensive line—twice—while holding the ball for nine seconds. He eventually finds Lockett for a first down.
Last year Wilson had a perfect passer rating on his 70 targets toward Lockett, an NFL record for a QB-WR combo. This year the two are still in sync, but this time more options are emerging behind Lockett in the passing game, led by breakout tight end Will Dissly. In the second quarter Wilson found Dissly for a first down on a ball so supernaturally located Dissly needed just one hand to pin it against his facemask.
That throw overshadowed Wilson finding Dissly on a quick flip in the third quarter…
Russ with the flip to Dissly lol pic.twitter.com/8yHKnjL7jj— #BusinessAintBoomin (@ftbeard_17) October 4, 2019
… and later Wilson pitched Dissly the ball on what was technically a rushing attempt. But Wilson made sure to spread the wealth. In the second quarter, he found rookie receiver D.K. Metcalf for a 40-yard touchdown, taking advantage of a broken Rams coverage where cornerback Marcus Peters was the nearest defender.
In the third quarter Wilson managed to drop a ball in between running back Rashaad Penny (not known for his pass catching) and Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib for a long gain on a play where Talib was caught napping. Wilson fooled Talib again late in the fourth quarter with Seattle down 29-24 and facing a fourth-and-goal at the 5-yard line. He stepped up in the pocket and baited Talib to abandon running back Chris Carson to defend a scramble, but then lofted the ball over Talib’s head for the (not-so-easy) score that Carson was thisclose to dropping.
Chris Carson was so relieved after he bobbled it pic.twitter.com/a1dQYVHaoI— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 4, 2019
Yet for all of Wilson’s heroics, Seattle’s victory was as precarious as Carson’s bobbled touchdown catch. The Seahawks dominated the first half but allowed the Rams to score on the last drive of the second quarter and the first drive of the third quarter to turn a 14-6 Seattle lead into a 20-14 Seattle deficit. Rams quarterback Jared Goff threw for 395 yards on 29-of-49 passing (8.1 yards per attempt) and those gaudy totals could have been worse if not for a late-game fingertip interception Seahawks safety Tedric Thompson caught off of the hands of Rams tight end Gerald Everett. Seattle couldn’t even seal the game with a first down, and Wilson nearly blew it with a dangerous pitch on third-and-2. The Seahawks punted the ball back to the Rams, who went 67 yards in less than 90 seconds to set up a 44-yard field goal for Greg the Leg Zuerlein, who missed.
If Zuerlein’s kick had been a couple feet to the right, we’d be focusing on how the Seahawks pulled defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead, it’s worth keeping in mind the various ways Seattle nearly blew the game: a defense that is situationally clutch but awful at tackling, a head coach who isn’t aggressive on fourth downs or at maximizing late-game possession, and an offensive staff that runs too often. But we can move those to the back of our minds while focusing on Wilson’s outstanding play.
This is the best start Wilson has had in his career. Through five games, Wilson has 1,410 passing yards and 12 passing touchdowns with 9.0 yards per attempt and no interceptions. All of those figures are career highs through his first five games. Wilson isn’t padding those numbers with easy passes, either—the pass attempts he makes are hard. How hard? Accounting for how far Wilson is throwing downfield and where defenders are when he passes, his expected completion percentage is just 62.5 percent, or the 32nd highest in the league. But Wilson’s actual completion percentage is a league-leading 73.1. That is 10 points higher than his expected completion percentage, more than double that of Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. That’s a lot of fancy math to tell us what our eyes already can—Wilson makes plays other quarterbacks cannot.
It may sound silly to lump Wilson in the MVP discussion, especially when Mahomes is on a historic pace. But like his pass to Lockett, he is at his best when we think he has no chance.