For two guys who seem nothing alike, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson sure do have a lot in common professionally. Both won a Super Bowl early last decade. And both instances felt like they would be the first of many. Rodgers, though, hasn’t been back to the NFL’s biggest stage since winning that first ring, and Wilson hasn’t gotten close since his goal-line pass was intercepted by Malcolm Butler in the waning moments of Super Bowl XLIX. As the years have gone by, the star QBs have grown more frustrated by those title-game droughts. And this offseason, they lodged public complaints with their respective teams, fueling speculation about their futures that dominated the NFL conversation for months.
Rodgers and Wilson shared the spotlight once again on Sunday in Green Bay, as both returned to the field after being sidelined. The Seahawks quarterback had missed three starts with a broken finger on his throwing hand. The unvaccinated Packers quarterback missed a game after a bout with COVID-19. Both guys looked rusty in the drab 17-0 Green Bay win—one that sent the Packers back to the top of the NFC standings and dropped the Seahawks’ chances of making the playoffs down to 16 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight. But while it’s clear where the two teams’ seasons are headed now that we’re 10 weeks in, we still haven’t gotten any more clarity on Rodgers’s and Wilson’s futures beyond 2021. In fact, we might have more questions than we did before the season started.
Back in the offseason, it seemed like Rodgers was truly headed for his final season in Green Bay. His joint “Last Dance” post with Davante Adams wasn’t exactly subtle, and his gripes with the Packers front office were personal as well as professional—he held a 31-minute press conference airing his grievances, which ranged from him being held out of “conversations that directly affected my job,” to the team-facilitated departures of “core players to our foundation, our locker room, high character guys,” and him “not necessarily wanting to be a lame duck quarterback.” There were reports that the relationship between Rodgers and GM Brian Gutekunst was irreparably damaged, and with the 2020 MVP flirting with the idea of a second career as a game show host, he at least had some measure of leverage over the team.
Wilson’s public complaints, meanwhile, felt more like an attempt to influence the Seahawks offseason. And the ploy—which included the denial of a trade request, but also a Russ-approved list of possible trade destinations—seemed to work for the veteran quarterback. After Wilson told Dan Patrick he was tired of taking hits back in February, Seattle traded for guard Gabe Jackson and signed him to an extension. After Wilson asked to be included in the team’s offensive coordinator search, Pete Carroll passed on Anthony Lynn and instead hired Rams assistant Shane Waldron, who got a seal of approval from Wilson’s personal QB coach, Jake Heaps.
For the most part, Wilson got his way. It just hasn’t played out like Seattle, or its quarterback, had hoped. Even before Wilson’s finger injury, the Seahawks’ season was headed in the wrong direction. The team had lost three of four, and the offense was sputtering after an impressive Week 1 performance, which now feels like an eternity ago. Many criticized Seattle’s play-calling, including Heaps. And more recently, Heaps cited the team’s lack of an “offensive identity” as a reason the Seahawks couldn’t sign Odell Beckham Jr. and called the failure to land Beckham “revealing.” It’s unclear what that revealed, but it’s probably nothing good!
While those complaints aren’t coming directly from Wilson, they are coming from his inner circle. And I can’t imagine Wilson woke up happy on Monday morning after being shut out for the first time in his career. That showing—he averaged just 4.0 yards per attempt and produced a QBR of 13.0—felt like rock bottom, and we may now be at a point that Wilson, who has two years left on his contract, has become more disgruntled than Rodgers.
Since the offseason drama, Rodgers has walked back some of the “Last Dance” talk. After the Packers’ Week 6 win in Chicago, the 37-year-old said that it didn’t feel like his “last one” at Soldier Field. He’s mentioned how this current Packers team feels a lot like the 2010 team that won the Super Bowl; so if winning more titles is his main concern, leaving a team he clearly believes is capable of winning it all wouldn’t make a lot of sense. And while the Packers didn’t go out and get any big-name players in the offseason, the veteran acquisitions they did make—including the trade for Randall Cobb that Rodgers personally requested—have paid off, so the front office seems to be doing its job. This is exactly the type of season Green Bay needed to have in order to convince Rodgers to stay—well, outside of the recent COVID drama, which earned fines for Rodgers ($14,650) and the team ($300,000) for skirting protocols.
The opposite is true in Seattle, but it’s hard to pin that all on the organization. The team has gone to great lengths to give Wilson what he wants over the past two seasons. Last year, in what felt like a reaction to the pleas to “Let Russ Cook,” Seattle adjusted its run-heavy approach and ranked fifth in early-down pass rate, according to RBSDM.com. Letting Russ cook worked for a month or two, but teams eventually adjusted and neither former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer nor Wilson was able to find a counter. Carroll’s conclusion was that the Seahawks weren’t running the ball well enough to get defenses out of the two-high-safety looks that had given the offense so many problems. So the Waldron hire was seen as a compromise. Coming from the McVay tree, the first-time coordinator was expected to install a fresh offensive system that would give Wilson the tools to succeed—pre-snap motion and tempo were the buzzwords all offseason—and allow a zone-based run game to remain the foundation on which the passing game is built. Wilson was happy, Carroll was happy, and the fans were excited to see the new offense in action.
Two months into the season, that new offense is starting to look a whole lot like the old offenses Seattle ran under Schottenheimer and Wilson’s first offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell. That’s not necessarily an unexpected development given the quarterback’s skill set. One feature of Wilson’s play style that has really impacted Waldron’s play-calling is his apparent refusal to target the middle of the field at the intermediate levels. It could be a height thing—at 5-foot-11, seeing deep into the middle of the field could be hard for the passer—or maybe Wilson just isn’t comfortable making anticipatory throws into tighter windows. But there is no denying it’s a problem at this point. Here’s a heat map comparing the routes Seattle is running and where Wilson is throwing the ball this season, via Pro Football Focus. Look at all that blue in the middle of the field.
Some of these non-throws are just inexplicable. Take this example from Seattle’s Week 3 game in Minnesota. Freddie Swain is running wide open down the middle and Wilson is even looking in his direction. He just doesn’t make the throw.
Wilson not targeting the middle of the field isn’t a new issue, and Waldron has adjusted to call fewer plays that attack that area. But that’s a problem for an offensive coach who cut his teeth in a system built on those exact concepts. In-breaking routes over the middle helped Jared Goff look like a real-life quarterback in Los Angeles and have turned Matthew Stafford into an MVP candidate—yet they’re nowhere to be found in this version of the McVay offense. Seattle ranks dead last in pass plays that include at least one in-breaking route over the middle of the field this season, according to TruMedia. Wilson has attempted only 28 passes with an in-breaking route, and almost all of those that were aimed at the intermediate area (10 to 25 yards downfield) have gone to the big-bodied DK Metcalf, who isn’t the best at running those routes due to change-of-direction issues.
Waldron’s run game has also had to change to suit his quarterback. This offense is based around outside zone running plays, which are typically most effective when run from under center. But Wilson is at his best in the shotgun, which has forced another departure from the McVay philosophy. In 2020, the Rams ranked 30th in shotgun usage, according to Sports Info Solutions. Through Wilson’s first five starts before the finger injury this season, the Seahawks ranked 16th and had already called more shotgun runs than Los Angeles had in all of last year.
Sunday’s game was a microcosm of Seattle’s disjointed offense. Due to the finger injury, Wilson was unable to take a snap from under center, so Waldon had to use pistol formations to call the concepts he’d typically run from under center. That limited what he could call—especially in the run game—which might explain why Seattle was forced to abandon the ground attack early on.
The offense we saw in Green Bay was not the offense Waldron was brought in to run. And I’m not sure there’s an easy fix to this problem. This scheme, as designed, is a terrible fit for Wilson’s game, so it might require another change at coordinator to get the talented quarterback back to playing at an elite level. A coaching change certainly helped for Rodgers, who had regressed as a passer during the last years of the Mike McCarthy era but was revived by Matt LaFleur’s hiring in 2019. After one season in LaFleur’s quarterback-friendly offense, which is also an offshoot of the McVay system, the Packers star got back to an MVP. In return, the Packers coach made his own adjustments and allowed Rodgers to take more ownership before the snap than he may have for a less experienced quarterback.
But Rodgers’s game was a better fit for this specific type of offense. In order to find a similar middle ground, Wilson would have to dramatically alter the way he plays the position. That seems unlikely at this point in his career. And it would be awfully foolish to ask Wilson, who has been one of the very best quarterbacks since entering the league in 2012, to change for a rookie offensive coordinator with no track record of success. Finding a new play-caller is a lot easier than finding a new quarterback, after all.
In the end, talent will always get its way. The Packers have given Rodgers everything he’s asked for since he first made his issues with the organization public. The Seahawks have tried to do the same for Wilson. Whether either effort will be enough remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Last offseason’s drama is getting a sequel.