Changing direction is a skill we've seen from Russell Wilson. He'll need to show it again Sunday in the Super Bowl if the Seahawks are going to beat the Broncos.
In the last six games, Wilson has a passer rating of 82.1, a completion percentage of 57.9 and a yards per attempt of 6.92. Previously in his career, he had a passer rating of 103.6, a completion percentage of 64.3 and a yards per attempt of 8.37.
What's going on here? A number of things.
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said by design, the Seahawks have gone into Beast Mode late in the year and emphasized the run more. But they might have had to do it even if it wasn't in the plans.
Wilson's slump probably had its roots in the offseason, even though it didn't begin to show until December. That's when opposing defensive coordinators took a long, hard look at Wilson's rookie year and started to dream up ways to make his Sundays hell. And that's also when defensive coordinators pledged to stop being embarrassed by the read-option.
The Seahawks, cognizant of this, have used the read-option a little less than one year ago, according to an NFL front-office man who has tracked it. And Wilson has kept the ball on those read-options significantly less than he did one year ago. Part of this has been by design, part because his reads have led him to pitch the ball to a back.
But this is about more than the read-option. It's about playing chess with defenses.
What Wilson has gone through is a natural progression for a second-year quarterback. The league adjusts. The quarterback must counter-adjust. Andrew Luck and RGIII went through it as well. Wilson is still figuring out the counter-adjust. "There is an evolution with how you handle the second year," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. "People have done a good job of studying him. Now it's about how he responds to that."
Some believe late in the year, Wilson might have felt pressure that wasn't there. If so, his jitteriness may have been rooted in early-season hits. Three of the Seahawks' opponents during Wilson's slump were their NFC West rivals—the 49ers, Cardinals and Rams. In three earlier games against those teams, Wilson, playing behind a mish-mash offensive line, was sacked 14 times and hit another 30 times.
Hit any quarterback enough, and eventually he will start flinching. It didn't help that Wilson did not have the two players to throw to who were supposed to be his primary receivers. Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin were on the sidelines for almost all of Wilson's late-season problems.
Bevell acknowledged Wilson got beat up a bit, but he thinks he came through it pretty well. "It affects you in the course of a game," he said. "You get hit early in a game, it may affect you. But if you get in a groove and get it going, I don't think it has much of an affect."
Wilson's late-year mini-slump has obscured the areas of growth in his game that have not escaped his teammates, coaches and Schneider. Wilson has gone from a third-round pick hoping to play and seeking acceptance from teammates to a player who others follow. The mantle of leadership came naturally for Wilson, in part because he stepped up as a player and in part because of the way he sets the standard in terms of work ethic and preparation.
"He got the guys together in the offseason and it started there," Schneider said. "Guys felt they had to keep up with him. Offensively, it has become his team."
It was particularly evident when the Seahawks were trailing the Bucs by 21 points in the second quarter of a November game. A lot of young quarterbacks might have come unglued by those circumstances. Instead, Schneider said Wilson "showed a natural confidence that calmed everyone," and he prevented teammates from coming unglued. The Seahawks scored 27 of the next 30 in a 27-24 victory.
Bevell has seen Wilson's understanding of the offense grow in year two, the result of significant offseason study. And Wilson has paid attention to details. "His footwork has improved, so that helps him with progressions," Bevell said. "How to progress things, how to [cross] some guys out and get through a progression faster."
The other side of Wilson's maturity that has been evident is his willingness to throw the ball away or take a sack rather than make a risky throw.
The Seahawks believe Wilson's efficient play in the NFC Championship Game showed his slump is over. And it better be for the Seahawks. They need Wilson to play his best game yet in his biggest game yet.
• Derrick Coleman is a good example of how good coaching can develop a player. The Seahawks identified Coleman as a special teams player and fullback, and they had him focus on developing those skills. Coleman, in the opinion of one NFL pro scout, has become an above-average special teams player and is a developing fullback. The Vikings, on the other hand, did not have a precise role for Coleman when they signed him as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2012. He bounced between fullback and running back and never excelled at either before being cut last year. The Vikings knew he had potential; they just couldn't get him out of it in a short period of time without giving him defined responsibilities.
• Jason Hatcher is coming off an 11-sack, Pro Bowl season, but the chances of him becoming one of the highest paid DTs in the game are slim. The reasons? He will be 32 years old before the start of next season, and it's highly unlikely he can perform better than he did in 2013. Some would say it's pretty unlikely he can perform as well as he did in 2013. The Cowboys were not expecting 11 sacks from Hatcher. His previous high was 4.5. They credit the motivation, technique work and system of Rod Marinelli for much of Hatcher's success. The best-case scenario for Hatcher might be to sign a club friendly deal.
• If the Browns don't re-sign Alex Mack, the Pro Bowl center figures to have quite a market in free agency based on the buzz around the league. And the Browns' chances of re-signing Mack before he becomes a free agent are not good unless they overpay. The franchise tag isn't a sound option for Mack because the number for offensive linemen is estimated to be more than $11 million. That number is driven by the salaries of offensive tackles. No center in the NFL last year made more than $5.5 million. Mack is sure to become the highest-paid center in the game. The question is who will be paying him.
• Steven Jackson will be 31 before the start of next season and is coming off the least productive season of his career, but it appears he will remain the starting halfback in Atlanta. Falcons coaches liked how Jackson ran the ball when he was healthy and are blaming at least part of his lack of production on poor blocking. The biggest concern is whether he can stay healthy given his age and the pounding he has taken. So it remains very possible the team will try to fortify the position with a capable backup.
Numbers Games: Strahan vs. Sapp
Warren Sapp, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year, thinks Michael Strahan, who was a finalist last year and is a finalist again this year, does not belong in the Hall of Fame. The numbers say Strahan belongs there ahead of Sapp.
Strahan played 18 more games. They also played different positions, as Strahan was an end and Sapp was a tackle. But it's clear Strahan should not have to take a backseat to Sapp. Here is how they compared statistically:
• Strahan had the edge in tackles 854 to 573.
• Strahan had the edge in sacks 141.5 to 96.5.
• Strahan had the edge in postseason sacks 9.5 to 5.5 (he played one more postseason game).
• Strahan had the edge in knockdowns, according to Stats LLC, 306 to 221 (and that isn't even counting the first two years of Strahan's career, as the statistic was not tracked until 1995).
• Strahan had the edge in stuffs (tackles for a loss by a runner) 84.5 to 58.
• Strahan had the edge in forced fumbles 24 to 19.
• Strahan had the edge in fumble recoveries 15 to 12.
• Super Bowl participants received diamond-encrusted Beats by Dre headphones. So when Warren Sapp started flapping his jaws about who didn't belong in the Hall of Fame, no one had to listen.
• The NFL came up with a way to inspire veteran stars to actually show effort in the Pro Bowl. The next step is enlisting Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders to captain preseason games.
• Deion threatened to put Giants PR man Pat Hanlon on his "hit reel" after Hanlon referred to Sanders' reputation as a player who didn't like to hit. No one could recall if he ever made the same threat to Mike Alstott, Jerome Bettis or Tom Rathman back in the day.
• Jamaal Charles said (via Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star) he thinks he never suffered a concussion against the Colts. Of course, he also thought they were playing the Baltimore Colts. In cricket.
• The Rams have become a team that knows how to dial up pressure, whether the object is an opposing quarterback or the city of St. Louis.
• The Robin Thicke song "Blurred Lines" is not about the Cowboys organizational chart. But it should be.
• Before Super Bowl week, I hadn't seen so much smoke blown about weed since the heyday of Cheech and Chong.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.