If Russell Wilson doesn’t start the Seahawks third exhibition game Friday in Kansas City, it will be an abdication of coach Pete Carroll’s strategy in camp, as well as his coaching beliefs.
Wilson has earned his chance to fail. If he does fail, then we know, for now.
If he doesn’t fail, then he’s earned the right to be part of history — becoming the fourth rookie quarterback from the 2012 draft to open as his pro team’s starter. Already there are three rookies who have been handed the No. 1 job — No. 1 pick Andrew Luck at Indianapolis, No. 2 Robert Griffin III at Washington and No. 22 Brandon Weeden at Cleveland.
Never since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger has a season begun with three rookie QB starters, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Should Ryan Tannehill, the No. 8 pick by Miami, beat out veterans David Garrard and Matt Moore, the Dolphins would add another to the kiddie QB corps.
The most improbable would be Wilson, who graded out well pre-draft in all facets except one — height. At a haircut less than 5-foot-11, he lasted until the third round in April. After the Seahawks took him, Carroll virtually went Gabby Douglas, back-flipping his way through the draft room.
Few understood why. Now it is becoming apparent. Yes, the sample size is two halves of pro football against second- and third-string defenses. But the point is he not only survived, but flourished. Making plays with arm, head and legs, Wilson is justifying Carroll’s controversial decision to divvy up training camp reps in thirds among incumbent Tarvaris Jackson, veteran newcomer Matt Flynn and Wilson.
The truth of Carroll’s competition theme is that in football, a coach has to find the level which a quarterback, or any player, fails to function effectively at his position.
Wilson has looked sufficiently good in his first two exhibitions to earn the chance to flop against the Chiefs facing a first-unit defense.
Flynn has been OK, and somewhat compromised by a temporary absence of first-team talent, as well as dumb penalties Saturday and a 46-yard touchdown pass turned incompletion when Terrell Owens dropped it in the end zone (the shrieks from the I-told-you-so’s across the region registered on the Richter scale: a .01 Least Quake). But Flynn is virtually guaranteed a job, and the Seahawks are fully prepared to trade Jackson in the next couple of weeks, presuming there’s a market.
The small shudder among the coaches regarding Flynn’s performance is that it has lightly resembled Jackson’s biggest weakness — an absence of effectiveness in the red zone. Jackson did most things reasonably well a year ago with the exception of finishing off drives. He knew it, and was hoping to get a chance to show his decision-making has improved with a full season behind him and a full camp ahead of him. It may not happen in Seattle.
At an unusually mature 23 and athletic enough to be a high draft choice in baseball, Wilson acted the past two games as if he owned the joint, knowing when and where to run, unloading the ball out of bounds when needed and showing the stones to match his accuracy in tight windows downfield.
Still, to make the leap to rookie QB starter is way out there in the NFL frontier. Since 2002, 34 QBs have been drafted in the first round, and according to research by Albert Breer of NFL.com, only three were named to start as early as August. And the reason isn’t purely a shortfall of talent and experience.
“I think it was beneficial for him and the rest of the team that way,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera told Breer of waiting until Sept. 1 to name Cam Newton starter last year. “This is my personal opinion, but I didn’t want to have guys see us just giving things to people. We talked about competition at all the other positions, and I wanted to be on point and consistent. But everyone handles things differently.”
Last season, Jackson, a four-year vet, was handed the QB job after the Seahawks cut loose Matt Hasselbeck, but the reduced training time after the lockout virtually mandated a fast decision. That was a one-off circumstance. Then again, choosing Jackson ahead of Charlie Whitehurst wasn’t all that difficult. This time, Carroll virtually forced Russell into the equation that is rare for a third-round pick because the coach had to get his mind to agree with his heart about Wilson.
Carroll needs to start Wilson Friday to provide him the chance for success that would sell him as a starter to a deservedly skeptical locker room. As would be the case with any team, players have favorite QBs, and Jackson was respected by many. Flynn and Wilson are newbies. Even though Flynn has 34 NFL game appearances, only two have been starts, so the resume is not exactly bristling with achievement. The opening is available for Wilson.
As has been much discussed, the Seahawks are staying away from the quarterback-dominated spread offenses that are increasingly popular in the NFL. Under Carroll, the QB is a game manager protected by multiple-tight end, multiple-back sets that count on rushing first, which is working. Nothing so far has suggested that rookie fourth-round running back Robert Turbin, a k a the Turbinator, is much of a dropoff from incumbent Marshawn Lynch.
The fate of Wilson as a rookie starter would be determined by whether the Seahawks can rely on their offensive line, as well as getting tight ends Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow Jr. on the field at the same time. For injury reasons, that hasn’t happened yet. It would also help if someone besides Doug Baldwin becomes a reliable receiver.
Wilson was drafted by a team that doesn’t need a superhero at QB. They just need someone to do the math that gets them from three to six more often. Wilson has shown enough to merit an opportunity to show his computing skills.