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Russell Wilson Is Justifying the MVP Hype—and All of Seattle’s Decisions

The Seahawks quarterback had one of the best games of his career against the Buccaneers on Sunday while further solidifying his connection with his supporting cast

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

“You fucking suck!”

In June 2014, Richard Sherman intercepted Russell Wilson in a minicamp practice, tossed him the ball back, and reportedly yelled that at Seattle’s franchise quarterback, according to ESPN’s Seth Wickersham. Seattle was the defending champion, and defense dictated team culture. That meant trash-talking. The players on that side of the ball especially enjoyed sniping at Wilson, the young quarterback whom many defenders felt was getting a lot of shine publicly and not enough criticism from Seattle head coach Pete Carroll internally. After Sherman screamed at Wilson that June, Carroll told Sherman and the rest of the defense to chill. Be nicer to Russ. Many defenders saw this as a double standard. Less than a year later, the Seahawks lost Super Bowl XLIX to the Patriots when Wilson threw an interception at the goal line. The defenders who thought they would be able to claim to be the best ever with victories over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back Super Bowls were apoplectic. After the season, Wilson signed a contract making him the second-highest-paid player in the league, signaling the Seahawks were prioritizing Russ as the future of the team over the defense. The team culture subsequently unraveled, and Sherman was released without a new contract in March 2018. One Seahawk defender told Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko and Greg Bishop in September 2018 that Pete Carroll “protected” Wilson. “And we hated that.”

It turns out that Russell Wilson is worth protecting. Five years after Sherman told Wilson he sucks, Wilson has emerged as the MVP favorite halfway through the season with his spectacular 40-34 overtime win against Tampa Bay as his latest gem in a stunning collection this season. Wilson completed 29-of-43 passes for 378 yards (8.8 yards per attempt), five touchdowns, no turnovers, and a 133.7 passer rating with just three sacks. Every week, it seems Wilson cannot top himself until he does. The highest-paid player in the league started the game by completing his first five passes, with the fifth being a picture-perfect 19-yard pass to Tyler Lockett in the corner of the end zone that traveled almost twice as far in the air considering Wilson was standing on the 27-yard line when he threw the pass.

Midway through the third quarter, Wilson found Lockett again in the opposite corner of the same end zone by floating the ball in inches above the outstretched hands of Buccaneers cornerback Jamel Dean and into Lockett’s breadbasket.

Lockett finished with a whopping 13 catches on 18 targets for 152 yards and two touchdowns, and his chemistry with Wilson is among the best of any pair in football. Many teams target the corners of the end zone in the red zone because it is low-risk. The back corner of the end zone is virtually impossible for a defender to cover on a well-executed fade route, so there is little risk of an interception. But the timing required for a QB to float the ball after a receiver has broken for the corner but before their sprint takes them out of bounds makes the play much more difficult than it seems. Wilson’s mindmeld with Lockett makes a conservative, low-risk play into a high-reward proposition. We’ve known this since his shocking touchdown to Lockett in the corner of the end zone against the Rams in Week 5 that Joe Buck initially thought was a throwaway and now we consider one of the plays of the year.

“Tyler has been special,” Wilson said in his postgame press conference Sunday. “He makes my job easy.”

Wilson’s connection with Lockett has been elite for two seasons. Last year, Wilson had a perfect passer rating when targeting Lockett on 70 targets, a feat no other QB had done with a receiver with more than 15 targets. What’s been surprising this season is how good Lockett is even as his role has increased. With receiver Doug Baldwin retiring in the offseason, Lockett is Seattle’s no. 1 receiver. Nine games into the season, he has 72 targets from Wilson, more than he had all of last year, but the connection is still potent.

Wilson and Lockett’s success is not new. What is new is the emergence of rookie receiver D.K. Metcalf. Metcalf finished Sunday with six catches for 123 yards (both career highs) and one touchdown. Of that stat line, 106 yards and a touchdown came in the fourth quarter and overtime. The touchdown happened with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, when Metcalf began on the left side of the Seahawks formation, got the ball on a crossing route, and then ran up the opposite sideline for a 53-yard touchdown to give Seattle a 34-27 lead.

Metcalf had an even better play in overtime when he reeled in a back-shoulder pass from Wilson on third-and-6 for 29 yards that put the Seahawks at the Buccaneers’ 6-yard line to set up the Seahawks’ game-winning touchdown. Metcalf caught the ball despite some facemask tugging from cornerback Jamel Dean (the same guy who was trying to guard Tyler Lockett on the touchdowns).

Metcalf’s emergence this season has opened up Seattle’s passing game. That was anything but a given, especially in his rookie year. The Ole Miss receiver became famous for his shredded abs last winter. Then he shredded the combine in February with his mix of size (6-foot-3, 228 pounds), length (his arms are nearly 35 inches long, the 98th percentile of receivers at the combine), and speed (4.33 second 40-yard dash, also 99th percentile). But then he got shredded by critics who felt his lack of agility (fourth percentile agility score at the combine) would be an issue in the NFL, and that he had run so few types of routes in college he would have trouble adjusting to the pros. Some in the NFL must have agreed. He fell to the last pick in the second round, where Seattle scooped him. Metcalf had knee surgery in mid-August, so even playing in September was up in the air. But he has yet to miss a game in his NFL career, and he’s started fast, literally and metaphorically.

The Seahawks’ rejuvenated passing game has not come at the expense of their rushing identity. Running back Chris Carson carried the ball 16 times for 105 yards on Sunday, and while he did not score a touchdown, his 6.6 yards per rush attempt were the highest of his season and second highest of his career. Much of that yardage came on a 59-yard run in the middle of the third quarter when Carson showed his mix of balance and power to brush off four would-be tacklers while barely noticing a fifth nipping at his heels before hitting the nitrous and outrunning everyone except rookie linebacker Devin White.

That Carson, who has had ball-security issues this season, fumbled again on the play is concerning. But Seattle recovered, scored on the drive, and scored on the two-point conversion to tie the game at 21, and because of Carson’s run they needed only five plays to get to the end zone. That his massive day came in a game without center Justin Britt, who was put on injured reserve last week, and against a Tampa Bay defense that was the most efficient run defense entering Week 9 according to Football Outsiders, speaks to how the Seahawks have improved the offensive line issues that plagued them for the past few years. It also showed they did not need to use a first-round pick to draft San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny last year (Penny finished with 12 yards on four carries).

Lockett, Metcalf, and Carson have all stepped up to form a new triumvirate of Seattle playmakers. That they have continued to thrive without tight end Will Dissly, who went on injured reserve earlier this season, is only a further testament to their success. But Wilson is still the sun in Seattle’s galaxy. He put the exclamation point on his day in overtime on second-and-g0al from the Buccaneers’ 10-yard line when he easily found tight end Jacob Hollister across the middle for the game-winning touchdown.

The score ended the game without the Buccaneers getting the chance to score (yes, that is still a flawed system). The win bumps Seattle to 7-2 with their lone losses to the Saints and Ravens, who are both likely to win their divisions. The Seahawks, meanwhile, are second in the NFC West, though that could change soon. Next week, the Seahawks will take on the undefeated San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football. Wilson shredding Tampa Bay’s defense is one thing, but if he is able to do his recess-escape-artist act against Nick Bosa and the 49ers defensive line, shred the 49ers secondary, and give San Francisco their first loss, the Seahawks would be in better position to steal the NFC West title and will be taken seriously as Super Bowl contenders.

Wilson will also be the leading candidate for MVP with a win next week—if he isn’t already. Wilson has thrown the most touchdown passes (22) and tied for the fewest interceptions (one) among qualified passers this season. Even on a per-throw basis, the percentage of his throws going for touchdowns (7.5 percent) leads the NFL and the percentage of throws for interceptions (0.3) is the lowest. His yards per attempt, yards per game, and passer rating are all career highs this season. Most importantly, he has made all of that look easy, which is the simplest way to identify someone who has mastered their craft.

The Seahawks decided to rebuild their entire team around Russell Wilson rather than re-investing in their aging defenders in 2015. This offseason, they doubled down and made Wilson the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL with a contract extension paying him $35 million per year on average. Halfway through the season, Wilson is showing how right Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider were to do so. That the same duo identified offensive talent like Lockett, Metcalf, and Carson to surround Wilson with completed Seattle’s transformation from the league’s dominant defense to an elite offense in the same decade. Nothing will embody Seattle’s identity shift quite like Monday night when Wilson once again faces off with Richard Sherman, who’ll be lining up at cornerback for the 49ers. Sherman will be trying to pick off Wilson in this game just like he did at practice five years ago, but we do know one thing for sure: Russ doesn’t suck.