Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson Ahead of Field as Best Young NFL Quarterback

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Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson Ahead of Field as Best Young NFL Quarterback
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Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks is the best young quarterback in the NFL

This isn't a difficult opinion to defend following a Super Bowl win, especially when he played well enough on that ultimate stage to nearly garner MVP honors. After a mostly up-and-down 2013 season with less offensive help around him than he would have liked, Wilson was superb in downing the Denver Broncos.

From CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora following the big game:

Only once did Wilson toss consecutive incomplete passes -- and that was the sequence early in the game on second-and-14 and the subsequent third-and-14. That's it, folks.

Wilson completed passes to eight different receivers, and four players had at least four targets. Everyone was involved. He finished 18 of 25 for 206 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers while averaging 8.7 yards per rush. Manning has never has a Super Bowl passer rating above 88.5 and had thrown at least one interception in every Super Bowl he has played in. And Manning has never tossed even two touchdown passes in a Super Bowl game.

So, Wilson is a bit of a quarterback de jour at the moment, and even after San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick's major extension (at least on paper), the biggest question was: "Well how much can Wilson get?"

The question is a silly one to ask—quarterbacks are paid by what they mean to their teams, and franchise signal-callers like Wilson always get top dollar—but it's also worth discussing these two players in the same frame of reference because they are two members of a serious uptick of young passing talent the league has seen in recent years. 

Wilson is the best of that group, though others are certainly close, and not for the reasons you may think.

 

Ignore the Wins and the Super Bowl, Isolate the Player

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If your only argument for Wilson being the top quarterback is that he's won a Super Bowl, that's fine, but that's not how football works. 

Take a statement like that and follow it to its many logical conclusions.

Did Tom Brady stop being a good quarterback after the New England Patriots' last championship? Was Peyton Manning not a good quarterback before he won his Super Bowl? Is Dan Marino less of a quarterback than Joe Flacco or Brad Johnson? 

Teams win Super Bowls. 

Yes, quarterbacks are the most important player to almost any football team—especially in this era of intensified passing. More than probably any position in any team sport, a quarterback bears the lion's share of the plaudits and the blame for his team's successes, and rightfully so. Still, every single one of us can come up with anecdotal evidence of teams winning games and even having successful seasons with subpar passers taking the snaps. 

Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar (then with Yahoo) wrote a fantastic column called, "Can We Please Do Away With Quarterback Wins" where he made the following argument:

More and more in the last few years, we've heard quarterback wins thrown out there as a supposed indication of player performance. And as ridiculous as wins and losses have always been for pitchers, they're far worse measurements for quarterbacks. The same analysts who use "wins" as a bar for performance will turn right around and point to the fact that football is the ultimate team sport, which hardly makes sense.

To back up his argument, Farrar looks at the performances of Peyton Manning and Rex Grossman in 2006 when the two faced each other in the Super Bowl. While that was Manning's Super Bowl, the "wins" reasoning puts Grossman on the same level as Manning, having gotten to the mountaintop and actually winning more regular-season games. 

Meanwhile, Grossman was terrible that season and "won" games in which he hardly contributed to the effort. Many quarterbacks captain the proverbial ship of their teams. Grossman (and plenty more like him) was simply along for the ride before his team managed to toss him overboard. 

Let's move past mere anecdotes.

Bleacher Report's NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon took a look at different metrics used to analyze quarterback play and came to the conclusion that using only wins and losses is the lazy way to talk about an individual's play. 

Here's a list of the most quarterback wins of all time, compiled by Wikipedia. When we're at the tippy top of the list, we can quibble about the order, but it's pretty clear that we're dealing with some of the best players in league history. 

However, as you work your way down, you start to see names like Donovan McNabb (13), Dave Krieg (14) and Jim Hart (27). Then, ask yourself if those quarterbacks are really that much better than some of the names below them: Troy Aikman (22), Dan Fouts (29) and Y.A. Tittle (41). 

The "quarterbacks with the 50 most all-time wins in NFL history" is not the same list as "the best 50 quarterbacks in NFL history," period...end of story. 

The moment you sit down with an NFL coach or a scout and watch a game (or tape) with them to talk about a player, the first thing they want you to do is isolate the player in question. Ignore whether the receiver catches the ball or if the line held its blocks. Ignore who's on defense and whether or not what they ran was effective. 

Isolate the player. 

Of course, there's a broader context to this team game, but it's impossible to talk about how talented a single player is if the only frame of reference is everything else happening on the field.  

This is why advanced stats (like yards per passing attempt) and metrics (like ESPN's QBR) are important. They're numbers, yes, just like wins, but they seek to add context to the number that a bare "stat" like wins will never have. 

Stats and scouting will never completely mesh together perfectly because one is objective and the latter is entirely subjective, but advanced stats can more adequately tell the story of what is seen by a talented scout's eyes. 

Wins might be a small part of the the equation, but it's too broad of a stroke to complete the argument. 

 

Diminutive Wilson Finds Ways to Avoid Coming Up Short

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Prior to the draft, Wilson was a known commodity thanks to a fantastic transfer season in Wisconsin. Yet many were torn (including both Bleacher Report's Matt Miller and myself, among plenty of others) because he lacked ideal height.

While we can take our lumps for missing so terribly on Wilson, the NFL missed, too. He went 75th overall! It's not just that a bunch of teams passed on him. Every team passed on him numerous times! Even the Seahawks weren't planning on Wilson having this kind of career, as he was ostensibly brought in as insurance and competition for free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn

Some fans have tried to cite some revisionist history that the Seahawks knew what they were doing all along and always thought Wilson was going to be their starting quarterback, but that's nonsense, according to a well-placed source with knowledge of Pete Carroll's thinking—Carroll himself. 

Speaking with me last year, Carroll cited his "Win Forever" philosophy as what allowed him to hold such an open competition and that no decision was made on a starter even going into the third preseason game. Wilson had earned an "extended look" as Carroll called it, but it wasn't until he (and I quote) "kicked a-s" in that game that Carroll saw him as the team's starter. 

Fast forward and Wilson's made a lot of people look awfully small for calling him awfully small. 

That doesn't change the fact he actually isn't that tall. 

There are two main ways NFL fans and commentators talk about Wilson's height: First, that it's a complete non-factor and doesn't matter in the slightest; second, that it's something that matters, but it's a deficiency that he's overcome thanks to fantastic play in other areas. 

If you're going to tell me that height doesn't matter for NFL quarterbacks, you better have a big ol' list of successful quarterbacks under 6'0", and a scatter plot of quarterback heights would be helpful if you can show that quarterbacks come in all different shapes and sizes rather than the commonly held notion that most are 6'1" to 6'3" or taller and roughly have the same body type across the board. 

Can't do that?

Literally all the evidence points to the contrary? Huh. 

No, a better way to talk about Wilson's height is to acknowledge that he's an outlier. Teams and draftniks missed on him because he's an outlier. They saw the talent; it was on national TV repeatedly before the draft, but they (sorry, we) missed on him because this industry isn't built to take chances on negative outliers—height, weight or otherwise. 

That's what makes Wilson's story so fantastic. 

Last summer, I took a scouting look at all of the young quarterbacks in the NFL. With my criteria, Wilson came out on top—though Andrew Luck was awfully close. Height was not much of a factor on that scout sheet, and it gave Wilson's physical attributes and mental abilities a chance to shine through. 

When he's on his game, literally everything Wilson does is at a high enough level to make up for his not-quite-high-enough height. 

My favorite anecdote about Wilson's college career came from a member of the Wisconsin Badgers support staff. Following his arrival from North Carolina State, the coaching staff met to decide how much they were going to dumb down the playbook. Meanwhile, in the same time, Wilson had basically digested the entire thing. 

That's what Wilson's working with above the shoulders. He's one of the smartest, hardest working quarterbacks in the game—young or old. 

 

The Best Is Yet to Come  

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Wilson, though, is not a finished product. 

That's another place where the "greatest...because, Super Bowl" argument falls short. Anyone who watched Wilson last year knows that he had some ups and downs. Last season, he was the No. 4-ranked quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus (paid link). However, that included a hefty bonus for running. Solely as a passer, Wilson's ranked dropped to No. 9. 

Running is certainly part of what Wilson brings to the table, so it's not something to simply cast away, but it's also clear that there's room for improvement. 

In terms of NFL rating (101.2, according to PFF), Wilson was seventh in the NFL. In yards per attempt (8.2), he was fifth. In completion percentage (63.1), he was 12th. 

First off, those are pretty good numbers to make the statistical case for Wilson as a top quarterback. In some of those ratings, other young quarterbacks like Kaepernick or Nick Foles may be near or above him, but the Seattle passer is the only young quarterback consistently at the top of every single measurement. 

It's also an argument, though, that there are finer points of Wilson's game to improve. 

Go back to that fourth overall PFF ranking. When you break that down, he had five games with a negative rating in their system. Peyton Manning only had three. Drew Brees only had two. Philip Rivers didn't have any. 

In-game consistency isn't much of a problem for Wilson, but there tend to be long stretches where he can't seem to get rolling. One of those times was the conference championship game this past year against San Francisco. Week 14 at San Francisco was even worse. 

Take the running away from Wilson and force him to lean on his passing and bad things can happen.

Part of the issue—at least, at times—is the whole height thing that a lot of people try to dismiss. When a team manages to contain Wilson, the passing lanes aren't always evident. He may not get a lot of passes batted down, but he's also not passing at a high percentage in those situations. 

Much like Brees, who is often considered somewhat as the patron saint of shorter quarterbacks, Wilson will need to learn to pass for a higher percentage from the pocket. Brees had an issue with that for years but eventually settled into being one of the most efficient pocket passers in league history. 

Wilson has that potential, and he could be even better. 

Some of this, too, is both scheme and teammate related. You know that whole thing about isolating a player? One of the benefits to doing that is seeing firsthand when a player is either using his surroundings as a crutch or (in the case of Wilson) being shortchanged by them. 

Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell isn't the best offensive mind in the league, but he's done a good job evolving from his days at Wisconsin and with the Minnesota Vikings. He's also utilized "college style" offensive traits (quickly becoming an anachronistic phrase) in transitioning his young pupil into the big leagues. 

It's worked, but it could work better. Bevell isn't exactly known for an intricate passing attack, but he'll need to channel his inner Norv Turner if Wilson is going climb into the discussion of best quarterback in the league. 

On top of that, the offensive personnel that Wilson has worked with has been less than stellar. 

Last year, the Seahawks brought in Percy Harvin to rectify that situation, but he spent most of the year injured. Sure, he came back for a few games, but by then he was never really integrated into the offensive rotation. For a player like Harvin—hardly a traditional skill set—that sort of time is needed in the summer, not in the playoffs. 

This year, the Seahawks hope to have Harvin (and Sidney Rice) healthy and drafted a few young receivers in Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood to add to the mix. It's not a huge change, but the pieces are there for a big leap forward in support for Wilson. 

More importantly, warm bodies that can contribute on offense mean the ability to spread teams out more. Spreading teams out means wider passing lanes. Better passing lanes means Wilson can see the field that much better. 

Wilson may have won a Super Bowl following the 2013 season, but 2014 could be one of his best years yet. 

When looking at the influx of great young quarterback talent we've seen in recent years, whether you're just accounting for Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Wilson, or if you also add in the younger (EJ Manuel, Geno Smith) or the older (Kaepernick, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton), Wilson comes out on top. 

The more one watches him play, the more evident that fact becomes. 

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.

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