clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Russell Wilson Changed NFL Quarterbacking Once. Can He Do It Again?

In a decade in Seattle, Wilson made it cool to be a short quarterback. Now, as he starts the second act of his career with the Broncos, he’s hoping to add more Super Bowls to his NFL legacy.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Russell Wilson closed the press conference held last week to celebrate his new contract extension with the Denver Broncos—a deal that will pay him nearly a quarter of a billion dollars over the next seven years—by speaking directly to his children. This contract was proof, he said, that they could accomplish anything in life.

“I was a small kid from Richmond, Virginia, 5-foot-11,” Wilson said. “And they said I couldn’t do it.”

Then he thanked God by quoting DJ Khaled’s new single “God Did.” Wilson can only go so long before unsheathing his fatherlike corniness, which he’s had since long before he became a father. Yet the spirit of Wilson’s press conference channeled a different DJ Khaled song: “All I Do Is Win.”

Before arriving in Denver six months ago in a blockbuster trade, Wilson won 113 total games as a Seahawk, the most by an NFL quarterback in the first 10 years of his career. (Peyton Manning won more regular season games, but didn’t have Wilson’s early postseason success, and Wilson’s tally includes a win over Manning’s Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.) Wilson wants the winning to continue in Week 1, when his Broncos head to Seattle for a Monday Night Football (re)matchup gifted by the scheduling gods.

Plenty will be made this week about Wilson’s return to Seattle; about why he wanted out and why the Seahawks were willing to let him go. But even though Russ’s return reads like a referendum, this isn’t about one game. This is about Wilson’s legacy and how, even before this next chapter begins, he’s already altered the NFL’s quarterback landscape forever. At every stop over the past decade, Wilson has not only defied the doubters but also blazed a trail for the QBs behind him.

“I’ve always wanted to be generational,” Wilson told The Ringer in August. “I want to be iconic. It’s about your play and winning. Winning does that.”

With the exception of the ageless Tom Brady, no quarterback has changed the NFL over the past decade more than Russell Wilson. Wilson’s success in his 20s made NFL teams rethink the quarterback model, from what a franchise quarterback should look like, to when those young QBs are expected to play, and how to build a team around them. The Seahawks’ Super Bowl runs in the 2013 and 2014 seasons laid the blueprint for the Eagles, Rams, and Chiefs runs that followed. Wilson’s success as a sub-6-foot QB served as the step stool for Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, and next year’s potential no. 1 overall pick, Bryce Young, to even be considered as top picks. (And since we mentioned college football, Wilson’s graduate transfer from NC State to Wisconsin paved the way for Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts, too.)

But to be truly generational, as he aspires to be, Wilson needs more than just one Super Bowl win (especially when his only ring came from game managing for a legendary Seahawks defense). And as Wilson embarks on his second decade in the NFL with a new team in Denver, seemingly every aspect of his situation is the opposite of what he walked into in Seattle. Wilson is getting more money, more control, and more shine than he’s ever gotten in his career. He has spent his entire life fueled by people literally and figuratively looking down on him. Now, as Wilson enters this new era, he faces a different challenge: Can he deliver with everyone in Denver looking up to him?

Wilson wanted to be Deion Sanders. That was agent Mark Rodgers’s takeaway from their first conversation over a decade ago, when Wilson was a two-sport star playing baseball and football at NC State. Wilson had sought out Rodgers’s counsel, because Rodgers represented other multi-sport athletes like Jeff Samardzija, who played baseball and football at Notre Dame. Wilson and Rodgers’s first in-person meeting lasted four hours, and Wilson spoke for about three hours and 50 minutes. He laid out his entire life plan, including a vision for how he could play professional baseball and be an NFL quarterback. Rodgers couldn’t help but come away from that meeting impressed with Wilson’s immense self-confidence.

“I thought, this kid is 5-foot-11,” Rodgers said. “I don’t know if he’s going to play quarterback, but he’s such an interesting kid, I have to represent him.”

Indeed, Wilson was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB draft and opted for spring training in Arizona in 2011 instead of spring football practice in Raleigh. That decision ruffled some feathers among the football coaching staff. NC State football coach Tom O’Brien told Wilson he’d start Mike Glennon at quarterback that fall, a move that would tank Wilson’s NFL draft aspirations. Wilson figured he’d just go play pro baseball, but Rodgers devised a plan. Wilson, who had already earned his bachelor’s degree in communications, would transfer as a graduate student, which would allow him to bypass NCAA rules that required transfers to sit out a season.

While this type of grad student transfer is more commonplace now, at the time it was revelatory. Wilson was effectively college football’s first free agent. Wilson received 50 calls in the first three days after announcing his intent to transfer—considerably more interest than when he was a three-star recruit in the class of 2007 (he committed to NC State as a dual-threat quarterback, but Wolfpack coaches initially considered switching him to free safety). With the help of his older brother Harry, Wilson ended up narrowing his choices to two spots: Auburn, where he’d replace Heisman winner Cam Newton, or Wisconsin. Shrewdly, Wilson opted for the pro-style offense at Wisconsin to prove he could play in the NFL—as well as choosing to play behind the tallest offensive line in college football to help answer questions about whether he could see over an NFL line.

The rate of football players using graduate transfers tripled in the five years after Wilson enrolled at Wisconsin. It is possible that had Wilson not forged this path, we wouldn’t have gotten Burrow’s legendary season at LSU after transferring from Ohio State, or his ascent to becoming the no. 1 pick; or Hurts’s chance to rehab his college career under Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma after transferring from Alabama, which enabled Hurts to become the Eagles starting QB.

Despite Wilson’s immediate success at Wisconsin—he set an FBS record for passer rating, led the Badgers to an 11-3 record, and won the Big Ten title game—he slipped all the way to the third round of the draft. Five quarterbacks were picked ahead of him, including Brandon Weeden, a 28-year-old former minor league pitcher, and 6-foot-7 Brock Osweiler. The Jaguars (a team that certainly could have used a quarterback who wasn’t Blaine Gabbert) took a punter ahead of Wilson.

Wilson’s plummet was simple. He is 5-foot-11, slightly above average in height for men in America, but way below average for an NFL signal caller. If quarterbacking is a roller coaster, most NFL teams believe you need to be over 6 feet to ride. When Wilson entered the NFL, 29 of the league’s 32 starting QBs at the time were 6-foot-2 or taller. If Wilson were 6-foot-2, he probably would have been a top-10 pick.

So many teams have rued not selecting Wilson that former GMs saying they wanted to take Wilson in the 2012 draft has become a subgenre. Broncos GM George Paton, then in the Vikings front office, says Minnesota whiffed—especially because the Vikings staff coached Wilson in the Senior Bowl. (The Vikings, quarterbacked at the time by Christian Ponder, picked three players while Wilson was on the board.)

“Looking back, I think we all missed,” Paton says now. “Quarterbacks [of Wilson’s height] weren’t the norm.”

In Seattle, Wilson started every possible game for the first nine years of his career, and his 292 passing touchdowns through his first decade were the second-most to begin a career behind only Peyton Manning. Perhaps it helped Wilson’s development that while the Seahawks almost immediately trusted him to be their starting quarterback—after beating out Matt Flynn during training camp in 2012—they didn’t count on him to be their entire offense right away. Seattle’s offense ran through running back Marshawn Lynch during Wilson’s first few seasons, and Wilson didn’t attempt more than 450 passes or surpass 3,500 yards in a season until 2015. But he showed right away that he could lead, he was accurate (he completed more than 63 percent of his passes in each of his first five seasons) and he was unafraid to take deep shots.

Wilson’s success opened the minds of NFL decision-makers and changed how NFL teams approach height. In 2018, Mayfield went no. 1 in the draft despite measuring at 6 feet, 5/8 inches at the NFL combine (now he’s generously listed at 6-foot-1). The next year, fellow Oklahoma Heisman winner Murray went no. 1 despite being 5-foot-10—which would have been unfathomable for a no. 1 pick a decade ago. Bryce Young, last season’s Heisman winner, might be the no. 1 pick in the 2023 draft despite being listed at 6 feet tall on Alabama’s roster.

“All of these quarterbacks should go and thank him,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. told me recently of Wilson. “He should get residuals based on what he made for them. Russell Wilson made them a lot of money.”

Wilson did all of this despite making a third-rounder’s salary—under $800,000 annually for the first four years of his contract. He played in two Super Bowls while on his rookie deal and didn’t get his first massive contract from the Seahawks until 2015. Seattle’s discount on Wilson allowed them to splurge at other positions to fill out their roster. Soon, other teams copied Seattle’s model—treating rookie QBs as subsidies.

We still see this happening today, even within Wilson’s new division. The Chargers are allotting just $7 million this season for third-year QB Justin Herbert. When he signs an extension with the team, that number will probably pay Herbert closer to a cap hit of at least $30 million. The savings from Herbert’s deal are essentially subsidizing the Chargers’ defensive acquisitions this offseason. The team added veterans like Khalil Mack ($9 million), J.C. Jackson ($8 million), and Sebastian Joseph-Day ($5 million) with those savings. Together, those players are making about $22 million this year, which is still probably less than the raise the Chargers will need to give Herbert when he signs an extension.

Wilson entered the NFL in 2012, in the second year of a collective bargaining agreement that included a rookie wage scale. So while the Seahawks didn’t necessarily invent this sort of salary structure, his career was proof that this model could work. Teams just needed a QB who was reliable enough early in their career. The Eagles won a Super Bowl when Carson Wentz was on his rookie deal, the Rams reached one with Jared Goff, and the Chiefs, most notably, won a championship with Patrick Mahomes in his third season. The incentives involved have led to teams playing QBs younger and younger—and giving them less time to watch and learn from a veteran. Whereas QBs used to be expected to sit on the bench early in their careers, now the expectation is for them to play early, if not immediately.

“With the contract structure now, I think you see more teams taking a shot at guys because it’s almost like a three-year tryout,” former NFL head coach Norv Turner told me last year. Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson agreed in a 2021 interview. “That’s the thing about it in today’s game,” Pederson told me. “You don’t have three years. You’ve got to coach them up to play right now.”

Indeed, there is urgency to win when that star quarterback is still relatively affordable. The crumbling of Seattle’s budding dynasty should be a cautionary tale for any team trying to keep their championship window open. Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense disintegrated so completely that ESPN made a custom graphic where they were killed by Thanos.

Perhaps they never truly recovered from Wilson’s backbreaking interception at the goal line to Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl after the 2014 season. Seattle made the playoffs five of the next six years after losing that Super Bowl to the Patriots, but never again advanced past the divisional round. The Seahawks were in the ridiculous position of paying their quarterback near the top of the league in salary after Wilson signed an extension in the summer of 2015, but having one of the most run-heavy offenses in the NFL. Seahawks fans demanded Wilson pass more, but head coach Pete Carroll is notoriously conservative, and the immense value he places on winning the turnover battle didn’t always align with Wilson’s desire to go off-script.

There was other drama, of course, and the perception that the Seahawks prioritized Wilson over the defense and that Carroll sheltered Wilson from criticism. But with another contract decision looming for Wilson in the near future, Seattle quietly started working out a deal with the Broncos to trade the winningest quarterback in franchise history. Paton and Seattle GM John Schneider outlined the deal across a series of days and over beers in a hole-in-the-wall bar in Indianapolis during the NFL combine in early March, Wilson flew to Denver for a visit, agreed to waive his no-trade clause, and the teams agreed on the deal on March 8.

Wilson’s divorce from the Seahawks was complicated, as most uncouplings are, but there seemed to be one fundamental football issue at its core: Wilson wanting more control. Were the limitations in Seattle’s offense because of Carroll’s inherent conservative football tendencies? Or were they guardrails set in place to help protect an unorthodox quarterback like Wilson?

We’re about to find out, beginning with Denver’s trip to Seattle on Monday. The answer will shape how Wilson’s legacy grows from here.

“Ten, 12, 13 years from now, when I hang up my cleats, I want to say I impacted the game,” Wilson said. “Hopefully I inspired more people than I could ever have imagined.”

A decade is a long time—and a presumptuous assumption for anyone to make in a sport as violent as football. But Wilson is chasing Tom Brady in every way—Super Bowls, professional freedom, business empires, and global celebrity. (Russ and Ciara are perhaps the second-most-famous NFL power couple after Tom and Gisele.)

But Wilson can chase Brady only by winning rings, and Wilson’s situation in Denver is essentially the opposite of when he succeeded in Seattle. If Seattle led to the rookie-contract quarterback model, Wilson is now trying to be the next in the new line of how NFL teams build contenders: savior quarterbacks. Rather than drafting a young QB as the first piece of a rebuild, teams are now trying to get an excellent core in place and adding a veteran passer into the mix. Brady won his seventh Super Bowl after joining the Buccaneers in free agency, and then Matthew Stafford won his first by walking onto a Rams team originally built for Goff. Wilson is trying to be the next one to prove he’s a superstar QB capable of taking a talented group to the promised land. There’s one obvious question: Is Wilson a good enough quarterback to make it happen?

The Broncos invested heavily in him—trading two first-rounders, two-second rounders (along with three players and a swap of late-round picks) to acquire Wilson—and the new contract he signed last week will pay him $124 million over the next three years, making him one of the most expensive QBs in the NFL. (The Broncos actually have a bunch of young players, like receiver Jerry Jeudy and cornerback Patrick Surtain II, who are subsidizing him.) Instead of being a rookie trying to win a job, he’s a star QB co-designing an offense. In Seattle with the Legion of Boom and Marshawn Lynch, Wilson’s job was to get out of the way. In Denver, Wilson’s job is to lead the way.

Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett said in March that the team’s offense is going to be based on what Wilson likes, and Wilson was unofficially installing the Broncos offense when he gathered teammates at his home near San Diego just weeks after he was traded. Running back Javonte Williams described the offense the same way. “Coach Hackett brought what he had from Green Bay, Russ brought what he had from Seattle,” Williams said. “It’s jammed together.”

“You find out what he does great and you find out all the things he’s done in his past and you try and take as much of those as you can within the spectrum of what I’ve done,” Hackett told The Ringer in August.

Wilson’s bread and butter are things other quarterbacks save for dessert: taking shots downfield, attacking outside the numbers, and scrambling to extend plays. Last season, Wilson led all quarterbacks in average pass length, with Wilson’s pass attempts traveling an average of 9.9 yards in the air. He’s graded as a top-five deep passer per Pro Football Focus in 2018, 2019, and 2020 before injuring his finger in the middle of 2021. Russ might have the best and prettiest deep ball in the entire NFL with his parabolic moonshots.

Wilson is also one of the best in the league at scrambling to extend plays.

Wilson generally scrambles to set up a pass, but when nobody is open—or he doesn’t like what he sees—he can also run. In both 2019 and 2020, Wilson was second in the NFL in the number of rushes that were originally designed as pass plays, per Pro Football Reference.

We should not be surprised to see all of these elements featured in the Broncos’ new offense. The lingering question is how Denver and Hackett will address the glaring weakness in Wilson’s résumé from Seattle. In an era when targeting the middle of the field is the easiest it’s been in NFL history, Wilson just doesn’t do it very often. In the first five weeks of last season (before Wilson missed time with the injury) he ranked 30th among all QBs in passes thrown to the middle of the field, per Sports Info Solutions.

We can see this visualized. Pro Football Focus makes heat maps for quarterbacks showing where they throw the football. Look at Russell Wilson’s heat map from last season.

Blue represents less frequent than league average. Red is more frequent than league average. The middle of the field on Wilson’s chart is completely blue. At almost every single spot beyond the line of scrimmage, Wilson is targeting the middle of the field less than the average NFL quarterback.

The easiest explanation for why Wilson avoids the middle of his field is his height. Wilson has proven beyond a doubt he can be an above-average quarterback despite being under 6 feet tall. But that isn’t to be confused with the idea that being under 6 feet has zero limitations. It’s about how a QB works around those limitations.

Being under 6 feet hurts a QB’s ability to see the field over their hulking offensive linemen. This is much more of a problem under center than in shotgun. Shorter quarterbacks like Wilson and Murray rarely line up under center unless they’re going to hand the ball off or run play-action—which allows them to run backward or out of the pocket and make it easier to see downfield. We can’t definitively say Wilson avoids the middle of the field because he is shorter, but common sense says they are related. That makes Wilson not just an outlier for succeeding despite his height, but his play style is an outlier, too.

Here’s one example from Seattle’s 20-15 win over Washington in December 2020. On second-and-7, Wilson has a wide-open Tyler Lockett over the middle of the field for an easy first down. Instead, Wilson tucks and scrambles to the other side.

It’s odd that Wilson didn’t throw this ball to Lockett, considering how open he was in the middle of the field on second down.

But Russ scrambles for 38 yards on this play, which is the Russ experience in a nutshell: He didn’t do the normal thing, but it worked out. But can Wilson lead a championship team while avoiding “easy” plays like the above and dining on deep throws? His head coach and new play caller, Hackett, said that he doesn’t think Wilson’s height limits him attacking anywhere on the field.

“I’ve seen tall guys miss guys,” Hackett said. “He’s got such a great awareness of where guys are going to be. He can anticipate. He knows how to move and find them because of his athleticism.”

Wilson turns 34 in November. The athleticism that allowed him to flummox defensive ends for years may be waning. If Wilson doesn’t target the middle of the field more in Denver than he did in Seattle, he’ll likely need to add other adjustments to his game to make up for his inevitable decline in mobility, especially considering that Russ is targeting Brady-like longevity (or perhaps he’ll just get faster in his 40s than he was in his 20s, like Brady did).

Wilson’s pursuit of Brady sounds hollow considering he is a whopping six Super Bowls short of the GOAT. But Wilson believes he can do it with the same boundless confidence that made him think that a 5-foot-11 kid at NC State could be the next Deion Sanders. And while he came up short of achieving two-sport professional stardom, he did end up being a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. So if Wilson is aiming to win a half-dozen more Super Bowls, even coming up short could put him in the all-time quarterback pantheon—both for what he’s already accomplished, and what he still plans to do.

So, about those plans. Wilson is a big visualizer. He manifests the things he wants to happen. Knowing this, on a hot training camp day in the Denver suburbs last month, I asked Russ why he chose to waive his no-trade clause to join the Broncos—and what he visualized when he contemplated coming to Denver. Wilson answered by holding out his hands, palms toward the ground, gazing at his own knuckles.

“Filling up my fingers,” Wilson said. He was admiring the Super Bowl rings that only he could see. I asked him which hand the rings would go on.

“Hopefully both,” Wilson said with a smirk.

The Ringer Fantasy Football Show

2023’s Most Interesting Fantasy Wide Receivers

The Ringer's Philly Special

NFC East Sneak Peek and James Harden’s Future With the Sixers

The Bakari Sellers Podcast

Marcus Spears on Ja Morant, Locker Room Culture, and the State of Football

View all stories in NFL