During the first half of Super Bowl LV, CBS cameras found Russell Wilson seated in Raymond James Stadium’s club section next to his wife, superstar R&B singer Ciara, who was chatting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Wilson was at the game to receive the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award, granted to a player for their impact on their community. Wilson was grateful for the honor, but the Seattle Seahawks quarterback looked like he would have much rather been on the field competing for his second Lombardi.
The Seahawks haven’t been to the Super Bowl since the 2014 season. They haven’t even been to a conference championship game since then, despite playoff appearances in five of the past six seasons. That seems to be weighing on Wilson this offseason, with reports that the Seattle QB is frustrated and that teams have reached out about his availability in a trade. The Seahawks aren’t making Wilson available, of course, but this recent news cycle—buoyed by comments Wilson made this week about being frustrated about how many hits he takes—reignites dialogue about what went wrong for the Seahawks this season and how they can remedy their shortcomings this offseason. How Seattle fixes its offense—and what input Wilson has in that—will be one of the most interesting stories to watch this offseason.
On Tuesday, Wilson reflected on the Super Bowl during an appearance on The Dan Patrick Show. He saw what everyone else saw. The Buccaneers defensive line dominated the Chiefs’ patchwork offensive line, and Patrick Mahomes was forced to constantly scramble to conjure something out of nothing while Tom Brady comfortably picked apart Kansas City’s secondary.
“The reality is [Kansas City] couldn’t block those guys on the other end,” Wilson told Patrick. “They struggled. Patrick [Mahomes] was running for life the whole game.”
Wilson knows that feeling all too well. Pressure played an undeniable role in the Seahawks’ playoff loss to the Rams, who sacked Wilson five times, hit him 10 times, and pressured him on a season-high 43.8 percent of his dropbacks. That’s been the story of Wilson’s career. In nine seasons, he’s been sacked 394 times, an average of 43.8 sacks per season—more than any other QB since the 1970 merger. He’s on track to become the most-sacked QB in league history in three years, surpassing Brett Favre’s total of 525.
When Patrick mentioned that statistic, Wilson couldn’t help but smirk. He admitted that sometimes he holds onto the ball too long, hoping to find explosive plays downfield. That mentality proved successful through the first half of the year and had him looking like an MVP candidate. But as defenses got a handle on guarding the Seahawks’ downfield threats, Wilson’s play deteriorated. His sack percentage rose only slightly—he was sacked on 7.5 percent of his attempts in the first eight games and 8.1 percent across the last eight. But his touchdown-to-interception ratio dipped from 28-to-8 across the first eight to 12-to-5 through the next. Wilson said the high sack total is something that needs to be remedied because, as he’s said before, he wants to play until he’s 45. Watching Brady operate without facing pressure reinforced the idea of what it takes to reach that point.
“When you think about longevity and legacy and all that,” Wilson said, “and when you watched the game the other night, the difference in that game was Tom was taking shots downfield and getting the ball to his guys and stuff like that. But he wasn’t touched, really.”
Wilson was also asked about how much input he feels he should have in how the team builds. Recently, that’s become a significant discussion surrounding the NFL. The Texans’ mishandling of their relationship with Deshaun Watson and his desire to move on is an apt example of a team unable to communicate a clear direction with its QB after several failed moves. The Eagles’ decision to fire Doug Pederson at the end of the season centered on a disgruntled QB in Carson Wentz, though it’s now looking like Wentz may leave Philadelphia this offseason anyway. Matthew Stafford asked Detroit for a chance to part ways, though the feeling there was mutual. Unlike those three players, Wilson has led his team to a Super Bowl victory. Considering he’s spent nearly a decade with Seattle and has three years remaining on a four-year, $140 million extension he signed in 2019, perhaps it would make sense for him to have more sway within the organization.
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Wilson was “heavily involved” in the “Russell Wilson–friendly hire” of offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, who was hired last month to replace Brian Schottenheimer. Waldron was previously the Rams passing game coordinator, serving on Sean McVay’s Los Angeles staff, which has produced some of the league’s most efficient offenses. Rapoport said that Seattle chose Waldron instead of other options that Wilson liked less. But Wilson sounds determined to have further authority in the team’s direction. He told Patrick he wants to be involved and that dialogue between him and the front office should be more frequent.
We know which position group Wilson would address first, if he had any say: the offensive line. “I think that we’ve gotta get better up front,” Wilson said. “And it’s not just [useful in the passing game]. It controls the game, as you watched the other night.” Wilson doubled down on these comments later in the afternoon when he spoke with local Seattle reporters. “Like any player, you never want to get hit,” he said. “That’s the reality of playing this position—ask any quarterback who wants to play this game. … I’ve been sacked almost 400 times, so we’ve got to get better. I’ve got to find ways to get better, too.”
For a good portion of Tuesday afternoon, my Twitter feed resembled a virtual courtroom, with parties presenting evidence both supporting and questioning Wilson; some argued Wilson needs better protection, while others said he needs to adopt a less sack-prone play style. The case against Wilson is that stylistically, he invites pressure and has a tendency to needlessly attempt to buy time by leaving the pocket—sometimes moving directly into the path of a pursuing defender. Even while inside the pocket, he’s prone to waiting too long for a play to develop. These traits have been evident in Wilson’s game for years.
According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson was responsible for 14 of his 47 sacks taken this season, tied for the second most among passers. He was also pressured on 38 percent of his dropbacks during the regular season, fourth most among passers. He finished third among passers in throwaways with 25, which accounted for nearly 10 percent of his dropbacks on which he faced pressure, and he scrambled 54 times (second most). In 2020, he set a career high in touchdown passes (40), but also in picks (13). His 2.3 percent interception rate was the highest of his career since his rookie year.
Wilson’s play from clean pockets noticeably suffered in the second half of the 2020 season. The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia explained that from weeks 1 to 9, Wilson posted an expected added points per play of 0.37 when operating from a clean pocket. From weeks 10 to 17, that fell to 0.16 EPA per play. Wilson’s efficiency fell off, and he definitely looked out of sorts. However, he wasn’t the lone culprit for Seattle’s regression. The Seahawks offensive line, which had to do some tinkering because of injuries throughout the year, appeared to struggle more frequently in protection as the season progressed. The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin pointed this out by charting PFF’s pass blocking grades for the Seahawks throughout the season. Seattle’s offensive line registered a grade of 65 or worse in nine of the last 12 games.
I wonder why Russell Wilson struggled against the Rams!!! pic.twitter.com/5Bk3WheFIK— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 14, 2021
Wilson struggles under pressure. But as Kapadia wrote last month, Wilson’s EPA per play when pressured through Seattle’s first eight games (minus-0.26) wasn’t too different from his output when pressured through the next eight (minus-0.23). Wilson’s play regressed when he was given adequate time in the pocket. Additionally, an argument backing Seattle’s offensive line can be based on the fact that it finished ninth among teams in ESPN’s pass-block win rate metric at 62 percent. That increase didn’t matter in any of the matchups against the Rams, who boasted defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Defensive Player of Year, along the front of their defensive line. In three meetings, Donald was responsible for three sacks and seven QB hits on Wilson. (It rarely ever matters who’s guarding Donald up front, to be fair.)
So, what’s the verdict? Everyone is guilty of something here—I didn’t even mention how Seattle’s receivers struggled to consistently get open later in the year as they faced some of the NFL’s top secondaries. When coach Pete Carroll fired Schottenheimer after the season, he stated publicly that he desires to achieve more balance and run the football more effectively. (For what it’s worth, the Seahawks ranked sixth in passing DVOA and ninth in rushing in 2020.)
Wilson’s words on Tuesday were surprisingly pointed, but they weren’t presumptuous. While he did praise Seattle’s acquisition of former All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown three years ago, who could blame Wilson for expressing his frustrations? According to PFF, Wilson has been pressured on 2,357 dropbacks since entering the league—215 more times than any other QB. Per Over the Cap, the Seahawks have been in the bottom fourth of the league in offensive line expenditures in six of the past seven seasons. Since 2012, the Seahawks have drafted one offensive lineman in the first round (Germain Ifedi, who’s currently on the Bears).
Wilson took ownership of his own role in Seattle’s high pressure rates, maybe to a lesser degree than we’d expect, but he didn’t go on Dan Patrick and point fingers only at his offensive line. After watching Tom Brady win a Super Bowl at 43 years old, with arguably the most complete team in the NFL built upon a foundation of homegrown stars that was fortified by offseason and midseason acquisitions, it’s not really that surprising to hear Wilson express frustration—not with the Seahawks, but “with getting hit too much.”
Wilson watched the Super Bowl, saw a quarterback win thanks to perfect organizational supports, and wants to have that same opportunity. But he knows things need to change. Seattle allowing Wilson to have more input on how the team operates, he believes, could be a key to seeing the franchise achieve that goal.
“I’m not sure how long I’ll play in Seattle,” Wilson told Patrick. “I think, hopefully, it’ll be forever, but things change obviously along the way. And I think that you focus on what you can control every day and try to be the best version of yourself and ultimately try to win championships. Ultimately, that’s why I play this game.”