clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Russell Wilson Can Make the Broncos Super Bowl Contenders—If He Evolves

Denver went all in on Wilson despite an up-and-down couple of seasons from the star passer. How this marriage works will depend on how both Wilson and the Broncos offense adapt to each other.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2022 NFL league year hasn’t even officially begun, and yet it’s already off to a running start. Just a few days after teams departed from Indianapolis, with uncertainty surrounding the potential movement of star quarterbacks, the biggest question of the offseason was answered: Longtime Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been traded to the Denver Broncos.

If you ask the Broncos, they’ve wanted to trade for Wilson all along. (Ignore the fact that Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers left the market about two hours before the Wilson trade was announced.) While Wilson isn’t the back-to-back league MVP, he’s still a darn good player in his own right—one with whom the Broncos hope to win a Super Bowl.

But exactly how good is Wilson at this point? That’s a tricky question.

The past two years of Wilson’s career have been all over the map. Entering 2020, the consensus on Russ was that he was a top-five quarterback who deserved an offense that let him pass the football more. From 2012 to 2019, the Seahawks were fifth in early-down run rate, yet second only to Tom Brady and the Patriots in expected points added (EPA) per dropback. They were one of the best passing teams in the league, but they wouldn’t stop running the football.

From this imbalance came the “Let Russ Cook” movement—a cry from beleaguered Seattle fans to let their elite quarterback play like an elite quarterback. Eventually, it was echoed by Wilson himself, who lobbied Pete Carroll and then–offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to give him a pass-happy offense entering the 2020 season.

Russ got what he wanted: Those Seahawks were fifth in the league in early-down pass rate, flipping Carroll’s script on its head. If the Millsap Doctrine were to hold true, Russ would be just as effective a passer on 35 passing attempts per game as he was on 30 passing attempts per game.

And he was! … At least, for a bit.

Through the first nine weeks of the season, Russ was the best version of himself. His completion percentage over expectation of 9.8 percent (per was head and shoulders above the rest of the league, speaking to Russ’s knack for the deep ball. He was throwing downfield on 13 percent of his passing attempts, with a resounding 62 percent on-target rate (per Sports Info Solutions) and .544 EPA per attempt.

This didn’t last for the entire 2020 season. Eventually, those moonballs came crashing down to earth.

Russell Wilson 2020 Deep Ball Splits

Stat Weeks 1-9 Weeks 10-17
Stat Weeks 1-9 Weeks 10-17
Deep Rate 12.8% 11.5%
EPA/play 0.544 -0.150
On-Target Rate 61.8% 40.0%

The deep-ball decline is most easily explained by saying, “Well, deep balls are really volatile.” And they are. Russ’s deep-ball accuracy also declined in 2019, well before the Let Russ Cook movement of 2020. But when Russ lost his deep accuracy in 2020, almost everything else went with it. As Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic wrote about at the time, Wilson began to struggle on unpressured dropbacks in the back half of the season, dithering in the pocket and waiting for something downfield to open up. Meanwhile, two-high defensive structures—against which Wilson was also dreadful in the back half of the season—were suffocating those deep passing lanes.

Russell Wilson 2020 Deep Ball EPA Per Play

Coverage/Pressure Weeks 1-9 Weeks 10-17
Coverage/Pressure Weeks 1-9 Weeks 10-17
Vs. one-high coverage 0.19 0.12
Vs. two-high coverage 0.25 -0.07
When pressured -0.26 -0.23
Without pressure 0.37 0.16

Most offenses would punish two-deep shells with intermediate throws between the windows of zone defenders. But Wilson wasn’t willing to make those throws, all but abandoning the intermediate ball. The routes were open, but Wilson was skittish, off-rhythm, untrusting of himself and his receivers. The offense fell to shambles.

Russell Wilson 2020 Pass Distribution Splits

Depth Weeks 1-9 Weeks 10-17
Depth Weeks 1-9 Weeks 10-17
Behind LOS 13.5% 14.9%
Short 45.8% 54.0%
Intermediate 21.5% 13.8%
Deep 12.8% 11.5%

It’s tough to figure out what’s the chicken and what are the eggs here. Did injuries to Tyler Lockett and much of the offensive line derail the entire offense? Did the tense Week 11 meeting between Wilson, Schottenheimer, and Carroll prompt the Seahawks’ late-season offense to become a comedy of self-inflicted errors? Or was it just a few unlucky picks that knocked Wilson off his rhythm, decreasing deep-ball accuracy and inviting more hapless shenanigans in the pocket?

However the snowball began, it rolled through the Seahawks’ early playoff exit and into the offseason. Wilson claimed he was “frustrated with getting hit too much,” and that the offensive line needed fixing; the Seahawks traded for veteran guard Gabe Jackson. Wilson told Dan Patrick he wanted to be more involved in the organization; the Seahawks hired Shane Waldron with his input.

And for the first few weeks of the 2021 season, things looked good in Seattle again. Wilson ranked 12th in EPA per dropback, but second in completion percentage over expectation. The Seahawks were 10th in early-down pass rate. They were 2-2 in games that Wilson finished, during which time he had thrown nine touchdowns with no picks and delivered 11.2 adjusted yards per attempt.

And then he smashed his finger on Aaron Donald’s forearm. And once again, one loose thread in a potentially glorious Russell Wilson season unraveled the entire tapestry.

This time, the chicken and egg aren’t tough to figure out. Wilson sped through rehab by working out “19 or 20 hours a day,” but he was dreadful after the finger injury. He was inaccurate and appeared to lose trust in his arm, only earning it back late in the season when the Seahawks’ playoff hopes were already dashed. Wilson’s last few games rightfully give the Broncos faith that, with the finger injury behind him, he’ll return to his old form.

And if he’s back to that old form, he’s a top-five quarterback. He’s one of the league’s best deep-ball passers. He’s extremely skilled outside of the pocket. The Broncos can plug Wilson into their talented offense and spit out a championship contender.

That seems neat, doesn’t it? But even if Russ bounces back from the finger injury and escapes the drama in Seattle, we learned a lot about how Russ’s play style affects his offense—both from the last two seasons, and the years before. Those lessons don’t vanish. Russ may be a top-five quarterback at his peak, but even at that ranking, he carries worrisome warts.

Yes, Wilson is one of the league’s preeminent deep-ball magicians. But he’s also one of the league’s most frequently sacked quarterbacks. Since entering the league, Wilson’s been sacked on 8.3 percent of his dropbacks, which is the sixth-highest rate over that span. In order to throw the ball downfield, a quarterback has to spend time in the pocket. For a shorter quarterback like Russ, that means more time deeper in the pocket, too. This play style inherently invites pressure.

The Broncos may feel like they have an easy answer here: their offensive line. While Seattle generally neglected the position during Wilson’s tenure, the Broncos have invested in it. They have second-contract players in Garett Bolles and Graham Glasgow playing beside strong Day 2 picks in Lloyd Cushenberry III, Quinn Meinerz, and Dalton Risner. Coached up by now-departed offensive line coach Mike Munchak, this is a legitimately good group in pass protection.

But with Wilson, pass protection matters less than play style. Adam Harstad of Dynasty, In Theory wrote in 2019 that Wilson’s sack rate actually increases when his offensive line is better. The perceived security of playing behind that quality offensive line leads Wilson to attempt deeper and longer dropbacks as he hunts for aggressive downfield plays. Downfield shots are good! They’re how Russ has made his hay in the league for the last decade. But they come at a cost, and no matter the quality of the offensive line Russ is given, he seems determined to pay that cost. And while he’s always had a knack for breaking tackles and timely scrambles, his efficacy on scampers is dropping as he gets older and loses a little quickness. As the scrambles get worse, so does the pocket management. The intermediate throws are lost. Russ’s game becomes increasingly reliant on his deep ball.

Boom or bust, feast or famine. Wilson’s play style mirrors the debate surrounding him, as he leaves for Denver. Either his play is tenable, and he’s still one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, or this approach cannot work, and he needs to lean on a run-first offense, the type for which Carroll and the Seahawks have received so much ire over the years.

The chance for evolution is small—but it is there. We’ve never seen Wilson outside of Seattle before, so we don’t know exactly what will happen. But Wilson is legacy-obsessed and sees himself as a limitless competitor. He cares what the history books will say about the winners and losers, the justified and unjustified, of the Wilson-Seahawks split. That is motivation, and motivation can ignite change.

From the outside looking in, Wilson is in a similar situation as Matthew Stafford was when he left a decade-long stint in Detroit for the Los Angeles Rams. For Stafford, the offensive genius of Sean McVay led to a season of tinkering, experimentation, mistakes, and adjustments that eventually produced one of the league’s best passing offenses and a Super Bowl win. In Denver, the Broncos have tagged Nathaniel Hackett to be that man.

Hackett isn’t McVay, but he may be up to the job. Hackett was the offensive coordinator in Green Bay over the last few seasons, where he inherited a quarterback with a polarizing play style and got him to buy into an offensive system that worked for him. Aaron Rodgers was a high-sack, high-depth-of-target quarterback just like Wilson was. At the end of his tenure with Mike McCarthy, he didn’t trust the system he was playing in, and often freelanced outside of it in search of explosive plays. Sound familiar?

The Packers maximized Rodgers by using him as a coach on the field pre-snap, and by utilizing his quick footwork and lightning release on packaged plays and quick-hitting routes. Rodgers became a devastating rhythm thrower who could work all three levels of the field.

The Packers’ solution for Rodgers won’t be the Broncos’ solution for Wilson. Footwork, timing, and rhythm—Wilson simply doesn’t rely on these traits the way Rodgers does. When Rodgers is at his best, he manages the pocket with brisk footwork, working through his entire progression at the speed of light, and he’s deadly accurate in the face of pressure. When Stafford was at his best in Los Angeles, the Rams spread the field out to create throwing lanes; Stafford was hammering tight-window throws at high velocity, and could throw his talented receivers open with his trust and accuracy. When Russ is at his best, he doesn’t look like either of those players.

Russ’s peak is Steph Curry’s peak: Distance is not an issue, even in the face of suffocating defense. Russ is at his best when he’s attacking deep with reckless abandon, and he gets to do that only when other facets of the offense can support his weaknesses. Stafford also needed offensive support with the Rams, especially when poor pass protection nearly lampooned their season. Similarly, Rodgers and the Packers offense went through a spell when poor depth at the skill positions made their passing game one-dimensional.

What does that mean for Russ in Denver, where Hackett will be tasked with unlocking another veteran quarterback? It means some early-down runs, with an intention to control game pace and clock, and keep Russ’s flamethrower approach from burning out too quickly. It means some RPOs, which Russ has rarely used, to get free yardage and stay ahead of the sticks. It means new receivers: Tim Patrick and Courtland Sutton, both strong contested-catch receivers who must earn Russ’s trust as deep targets and who can make the circus catches that Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf often made.

This offense won’t look like Rodgers’s offense in Green Bay, even if that offense is the credit Hackett traded on to get this job. This offense will look like the Russ offense, as all of Russ’s offenses have eventually become over his career. There will be new wrinkles, but they won’t reinvent Russ as a player. Still, if Russ buys in—if he takes the layups offered to him by the system; if he accepts that every play is not destined to be an 80-yard bomb—then the Broncos will have exactly what they paid for: a near-elite quarterback and a championship contender.

The book isn’t written on Russ. The book isn’t written on Seattle’s run, either. There’s plenty of ink on the pages, yes, but the conclusion of a triumphant, fraught, roller coaster of a partnership remains unfinished. This season, we’ll get a look at a Seattle-less Russ and a Russ-less Seattle. These games will tell us a lot about how quarterbacks play and what that means for their destiny, their legacy, and for the quarterbacks and offenses to come after them.