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What Does the Seahawks’ QB Situation Signal About Their Short- and Long-term Plans?

After the Russell Wilson trade this spring, many expected Seattle to look far and wide to find its next passer. Instead, the team heads into the summer planning a QB battle between Drew Lock and Geno Smith. Are they rebuilding? Or competing for a playoff spot? Or both?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the first time in a decade, the Seahawks will go into training camp unsure of who will be their starting quarterback this fall. The man who held that spot for 10 seasons, Russell Wilson, was traded away early in the offseason. And one of the players Seattle got back in that trade, Drew Lock, could never quite establish himself in Denver and was initially penciled in at the top of the depth chart almost by default.

The timing of that trade gave Pete Carroll and John Schneider, the two-pronged brain trust that’s run the team since 2010, ample time to find a suitable replacement—either via trade or the draft. But despite being linked with several quarterbacks during the predraft cycle, Seattle didn’t select a passer with any of its nine picks. And despite Baker Mayfield describing the Seahawks as his most likely destination in April, the team reportedly wasn’t interested. Instead, Seattle brought Geno Smith back into the fold on a one-year, $3.5 million deal, and Carroll said over the weekend that he didn’t see the team “making a trade for anybody at all.”

So it looks like Lock and Geno will battle it out for the starting gig this summer. For a fan base that has gotten damn good quarterback play for the better part of the past two decades—Matt Hasselbeck was a three-time Pro Bowler before Wilson and the Legion of Boom elevated the franchise—it might be hard to see this as anything but a tank job. There is, after all, a much deeper draft class of quarterbacks slated to hit the NFL next year, and if the team bottoms out, it could be in position to draft Ohio State’s CJ Stroud or Alabama’s Bryce Young.

But Carroll and Schneider haven’t been acting like two guys overseeing a complete rebuild. Sure, they traded away Wilson and let go of Bobby Wagner, moves that felt like the beginning stages of a teardown. But they followed that up by re-signing veteran safety Quandre Diggs to a long-term extension, retaining defensive tackle Al Woods, bringing back Quinton Jefferson and Justin Coleman, and giving free-agent edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu a two-year, $20 million deal. Plus, Carroll says the team is mulling over a reunion with linebacker K.J. Wright after he left the Pacific Northwest a year ago.

That fact that Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf both remain on the roster is another sign the Seahawks probably aren’t folding their hand just yet. In a true rebuild, at least one of those guys—probably Lockett, based on age and salary—would have been traded for draft capital to help accelerate the roster churn. But nope! Both are still there, and neither Carroll nor Schneider is making any effort to lower expectations.

Maybe the two are trying to maintain an optimistic face publicly—unrelenting optimism is Carroll’s brand, after all—but all of the evidence suggests that they truly believe this team can compete for a playoff spot with Smith and/or Lock manning the most important spot on the roster. And as naive as it may sound, I’m not sure it’s totally unrealistic.

Yes, the Seahawks got worse at quarterback this offseason. When healthy, Wilson is one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL, and I don’t see that changing in the next year. But Russ is also an outlier in that he’s been able to consistently produce like a top quarterback while using an approach that we typically associate with mediocre passers. He regularly abandons clean pockets; he drops his eyes and looks to scramble at the first sign of pressure; and he is pretty much incapable of executing dropback passing concepts because of that discomfort with bodies around him. But Wilson is also supremely accurate: He has an arm that can make any throw, and he’s one of the best playmakers we’ve ever seen. He’s so talented he can get away with breaking the rules in ways that even the best quarterbacks in the NFL can’t. And while that style of play brought Seattle a lot of wins in the past decade, it’s easy to see how calling plays for such a quarterback could be frustrating for an offensive coordinator.

Wilson is the antithesis of the “system quarterback.” He is his own system, to the point that it didn’t matter who Carroll brought in as a play-caller. Eventually everything morphed into the Russell Wilson Offense. That’s certainly how things developed in 2021 after the Seahawks hired Shane Waldron away from the Rams to install a version of Sean McVay’s offense. The thinking was that the schematic guardrails that had helped so many average quarterbacks play like stars—even Jared Goff—could elevate Wilson, while Wilson in turn could elevate the system.

But as the season progressed, the product looked more and more like the offense the Seahawks had been running for the past decade. All the hallmarks of a McVay offense—the condensed formations, the passing concepts attacking the middle of the field, the runs from under center—were slowly phased out to the point that, if you look back at some key metrics, you’d never guess that the Rams and Seahawks shared a similar philosophy last season.

Data via Next Gen Stats, Sharp Football Stats, and Sports Info Solutions

The biggest departure for the Wilson-inspired remix can be found in his passing map. While McVay’s passing game typically attacks opponents with in-breaking routes over the middle—a counter to the Rams’ horizontal run schemes—Seattle pretty much ignored that part of the field.

Via Pro Football Focus

Now compare that to Matthew Stafford’s heat map last season:

Via Pro Football Focus

The McVay offense doesn’t work if defenses aren’t forced to pack the intermediate areas of the field. No NFL passing game does, really. Deeper passes offer a higher reward but hit less often. Shorter passes have a higher rate of success but don’t offer as much bang for your buck. It’s that midrange area where you find the perfect middle ground.

Data via Sports Info Solutions

But that area is mostly closed off when Wilson is at quarterback. That hasn’t prevented him from playing at a high level throughout his career. But what happens when age starts to take a toll on his physical ability? When those moon balls he’s known for start missing the mark? When outrunning pass rushers become a bit more difficult on scramble plays, or those throws on the move don’t turn into completions as frequently? Wilson is still young enough to adapt his game, but his success rate on deeper passes, scrambles, and out-of-pocket throws is already trending down, suggesting we might be witnessing the beginning of the end of this stage of Wilson’s career.

Data via Sports Info Solutions

If the Russell Wilson Offense is growing less viable by the year, and last season proved that he’s incapable of playing in another system, then Carroll’s and Schneider’s decision to try something new makes a little more sense. Of course, adherence to the system doesn’t really matter if the quarterback isn’t any good, and there’s little evidence to suggest that either Smith or Lock are anything but bad.

Smith hasn’t really gotten a fair shake since his second year in New York back in 2014—he started only two games between then and 2021. But his Jets stint, during which he went 11-18 as a starter while throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, was ugly enough for us to assume he’s mediocre at best. Lock, meanwhile, ranks 33rd in EPA per play and 40th in success rate since entering the league in 2019, according to RBSDM.com. But both were early second-round picks for a reason: They’re talented throwers. They’re just incomplete quarterbacks.

Smith has plenty of arm talent and isn’t afraid of the pocket or a tight window:

But his accuracy is inconsistent at best, and he’s often a beat or two late on throws:

Lock, like Wilson, throws a beautiful deep ball and can create with his legs:

But he also struggles to anticipate receivers coming open, and, about two to three times per game, he’ll just turn his brain off and throw the ball into coverage.

In terms of overall talent, there isn’t a whole lot separating Smith and Lock. Stylistically, though, they aren’t similar at all. So the outcome of this battle will likely come down to which method Carroll and Co. prefer: Smith’s steadier decision-making, or Lock’s more cavalier approach. The direction Seattle chooses will be telling. Opting for Smith would be a bigger departure from the Wilson-centric offense, while going with Lock would be a smoother transition given his ability to create outside of the system.

Carroll has already put Geno in the early lead in this race, citing his experience in the system. But he’s also raved about Lock’s potential and physical ability. The Seahawks coach even claimed Lock would have been the first passer taken if he was in this year’s draft class—which is really more of an indictment of the class than an endorsement of Lock, but Carroll clearly thinks there’s something there to work with. He also pointed out that both quarterbacks will have more support in Seattle than they got elsewhere. Lock learned under two different offensive coordinators in three seasons in Denver. And Smith played in a more demanding system with far less talent than he’ll have in Seattle.

If Waldron gets this offense running like it did during his time in Los Angeles, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Smith or Lock have career years in 2022 (not that that’s an especially high bar to clear). But whether that would be enough to keep Seattle in playoff contention is another question—and the answer could decide the fate of the Carroll-Schneider partnership.

Those two need to regain the trust of a fan base that has grown disillusioned by the past few seasons of discontent. And in that way, 2022 represents a “proof of concept” season for the Seahawks’ team-building approach. If Carroll and Schneider can win games with Lock or Smith under center, then letting them oversee this next era of Seattle football would make sense. If this thing implodes, that should signal that a complete reset, starting at the top of the organization, is in order.