How Russell Wilson Made the Leap from Super Bowl Star to Superstar

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistJanuary 5, 2016

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson runs onto the field before an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
John Froschauer/Associated Press

What has been perceived as a leap has, in fact, been a climb. Russell Wilson's performance down the stretch this season is the culmination of a methodical, paced effort. 

The Seattle quarterback has ascended the same way he might have ascended Mount Rainier. He read the landscape and found the right routes. He made sure his footing was solid at various levels before proceeding. His next step was the only one he tried to focus on.

He tested the holds on rocks before setting anchors. He put his faith in the ropes and carabiners at the right times. And every so often, he paused and tried to breathe deeply as the air thinned.

There is no question Wilson is on higher ground in his fourth NFL season. He is a different quarterback than the one who won a Super Bowl, a different quarterback than the one who lost one. If he gets back again, he is capable of having a much more profound impact than he did in either of his previous chances.

A defensive coordinator who has watched Wilson throughout his career explained the big picture.

"The guys who consistently work at it, you see progress, progress, progress, and then you see what looks like a huge jump," he said. "That's him.

"I think he's at the point where you see that jump."

At his rookie camp in 2012, Wilson performed impressively overall, but his deep balls lacked touch. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll met with him at the end of the three days and voiced mild concern.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

By the time Wilson came back for the next camp, coaches saw a difference in his deep balls. And they have never seen that lack of touch again.

"This guy, he's a fixer," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. "He's always been that way. If you tell him he needs to take care of something, he does it."

For Wilson, working to improve deficiencies is the "joy" of playing.

"My strengths I try to strengthen," Wilson said. "My weaknesses, I try to make them strong."

He learned this approach early in life. His late father, Harrison Wilson III, would play catch with him before school began. He peppered his son with questions the media might one day ask him. Wilson was seven at the time. "The separation's in the preparation," Harrison used to say.

Before this season, the book that defensive coordinators kept on Wilson was this: Take something off the pass rush, keep him in the pocket and make him beat you with his decisions and throws. Wilson's ability to create magic after the play breaks down was a bigger concern than his ability to defeat defenses in traditional ways.

Wilson knew it. So the fixer did his thing. In the preseason, Carroll noticed Wilson's comfort and efficiency in the pocket had improved. He saw more growth in that area early in the season.

But then the Seahawks' leaky pass protection kept forcing Wilson to abandon the plan and take off running. Wilson was sacked 31 times in the first seven games. The coaching staff subsequently made some adjustments. They replaced starting center Drew Nowak with Patrick Lewis. They emphasized quick, rhythm throws. And Wilson was encouraged to step up in the pocket more when the pass rush started to close in.

In his last seven games, Wilson has a 145.1 passer rating in the pocket, according to ESPN Stats and Info. For the season, he has a 118.6 passer rating in the pocket—highest in the NFL. This is noteworthy because even though he showed potential as a pocket passer going back to his days at Wisconsin, he mostly was a quarterback who beat defenses with his feet.

The great pocket passers tend to be statuesque men who stand above the crowd. As much as we talk about Wilson's growth, he remains a 5'11" quarterback who cannot see over linemen without a periscope. So his instinct always told him to rely on his athleticism and escape what can be an unsettling area of the field.

"He is learning to take what the pocket gives him instead of backing out all the time," said Schneider, the man who drafted Wilson. "You can see that this year. It's evolved. He feels he can escape anything to stay alive because he's so talented with his feet. But he's improved at stepping up in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield and knowing when to run and when to throw."

Frank Victores/Associated Press

Wilson, perhaps better than any quarterback in the game, now can combine the ability to pick a defense apart in the pocket with the ability to escape the pocket.

"What he's done better and better is operate the offense as a pocket quarterback, and you have seen an evolution there," the defensive coordinator said. "That being said, when he does drop back and things break down, he's so hard to get ahold of. The threat he's become as a true pocket quarterback has made his ability to move even more of an issue."

Early in December in Minneapolis, Wilson lined up with a play intended to get the first down on 2nd-and-1. He smelled blitz and recognized safety Antone Exum would be left in a mismatch with Doug Baldwin if he changed the play so Baldwin would run a post. He audibled and hit Baldwin in stride for a 53-yard touchdown.

It was a play Wilson might not have made in a previous season.

"Now he has complete command of the offense at the line of scrimmage as far as changing protections and making the right choice based on what he sees from the defense," said Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who is the radio analyst for Seahawks games and spends time counseling Wilson every week.

Sometimes, Wilson takes two or three plays from the sideline call and makes the choice based on the defensive alignment. At other times, he comes to the line with one play but retains the freedom to completely change to another. There are run/pass checks, directional checks and "advantage" checks, which are designed to shift the advantage from the defense to the offense.

Since about halfway through his rookie year, Wilson has been given degrees of freedom at the line. But he has more freedom than ever, and he has learned to use it wisely.

It has impacted matchups, and it also has impacted his mindset.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

"His ability to change things at the line of scrimmage gives him a calm," Moon said. "That's half the battle when you are playing quarterback. If you already have it figured out what you want to go to, the game moves a lot slower for you."

When Baldwin was in his fourth season last year, he said he felt the game slowing down. Now, he is seeing the same thing happen to his quarterback.

"That Minnesota game is when I first noticed how seamless it has become for him," Baldwin said. "It was very smooth."

Baldwin ran the wrong route on a play in the Vikings game, and it could have cost his team dearly. But Wilson recognized what Baldwin was doing at the snap of the ball. Instead of throwing an interception or incompletion, Wilson connected with Baldwin for a nice gain.

After thousands of passes between them—in games, pregame warm-ups, practices, training camps, minicamps, OTAs and private workouts—Wilson knows Baldwin the way a trucker knows the 18-wheeler that has taken him to all points of the country.

Baldwin has been there every mile of the road for Wilson. The years have developed a trust and understanding between them that enables them to communicate without words and anticipate without hints.

"Time has improved our connection," Baldwin said.

Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

Over the last seven games, Wilson has completed 75 percent of his 53 passes to Baldwin for 11 touchdowns. His passer rating when throwing to Baldwin in those games is 150.9. This is a part of Wilson's surge.

Wilson also is forging connections with others more quickly. Rookie Tyler Lockett went from third-round pick to Pro Bowler faster than grapes become wine. Wilson is making receivers like Lockett better through enhanced decision-making and accuracy.

Wilson isn't just making the right decision more frequently—he's doing it more expediently.

"I think he's starting to play faster," receiver Jermaine Kearse said. "What I'm seeing in him is he's picking his matchups really well and letting the ball go."

Part of the Seahawks' late-season offensive success has been calls for quicker-developing plays. But Wilson still has had to make smart post-snap reads before unleashing.

"I understand more, so I'm diagnosing things quicker," Wilson said. "It's experience through playing, film study and understanding what defenses are trying to do."

For the season, Wilson has completed 68.1 percent of his throws, significantly better than his previous career percentage of 63.4. And not coincidentally, he has thrown only one interception in his last seven games. 

"He's throwing balls where only his guys can get them," Moon said. "If he misses, he misses to the right place, whether it's high and to the outside, or wherever it needs to be. Defenders don't have a chance to get interceptions on his balls."

On Twitter, Wilson repeatedly has referenced what he hashtags as #BVY, his Bible Verse of the Year: 

Russell Wilson @DangeRussWilson

#BVY "He must increase, but I must decrease." John 3:30

It is an interesting choice of verse for Wilson, because his role and his profile continue to increase. The Seahawks have taken off since Marshawn Lynch has been sidelined. This offense has been all on Wilson. He has grown from a soft-spoken game manager to an international personality and game-changer.

Wilson's base salary last year was $662,000. His average salary the next five years after signing a contract extension last July will be $21.9 million. He recently bought a $6.7 million mansion on Lake Washington in Bellevue. He divorced his wife and, after being spotted out on the town with Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Samantha Hoopes, began romancing pop star Ciara. He moved his mother Tammy and younger sister Anna to the Seattle area.

His world keeps spinning faster, faster, faster.

Failing to maintain equilibrium in similar situations has been the downfall of many.

You might have heard about Wilson making multiple visits to the White House. Or seen him doing the Whip and Nae Nae on the Kids' Choice Sports Awards. Maybe you noticed Ciara caused a bit more buzz than other players' wives or girlfriends when she showed up at training-camp practices; those in the administrative offices and the locker room did. Or maybe you noticed how glorious Wilson looked in Ciara's Instagram posts of their Mexican vacation during the bye week, when the Seahawks were a disappointing 4-4.

And then there were the reports in November saying the Seahawks were concerned about Wilson becoming a "celebrity quarterback," according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen via Rotoworld's Evan Silva. Anyone who went to the Bill Parcells school of football can tell you being a celebrity quarterback worked only for Joe Namath.

"He is dating a girl who is a pop star, so it adds more notoriety and opens you up for more criticism when things aren't going well," Moon said. "He's had to deal with that and some of the jealousy that maybe comes from some of his teammates. It's a very talented team with a lot of ultra-egos on it."

The uneasiness about Wilson being a "celebrity quarterback" had nothing to do with Wilson failing to give his all to football or acting foolishly away from the game. The concern was that the message he was sending teammates was that he was more celebrity than football player or teammate.

The concern was conveyed to Wilson, and he has kept a lower public profile since.

For Christmas, he bought two round-trip airline tickets for every one of his teammates and coaches. He gave all of his offensive linemen Movado watches. Being one of the guys has value, and he understands.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Baldwin believes Wilson may have reacted to the change in his life by feeling more pressure and taking on more responsibility. "He thrives in those situations," he said. "And he's done a fantastic job of keeping his focus when it comes to football. To his credit he has not allowed any of those distractions to change who he is."

From the time he became a Seahawk, Wilson would show up ready to work at 6:15 a.m. and put in a long, regimented day. He would compete with Baldwin, Kearse, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner and others to be first in/last out. That has not changed. "He's maintained his work ethic, his habits," Carroll said. "He is the same player on the practice field he's been. He challenges himself every day. I think he's dealing with it well."

Staring down the heart of the Vikings defense, Wilson cleared the underneath traffic and split the safeties for a 20-yard touchdown strike to Baldwin. Right over the middle.

It was the kind of pass Wilson had not often made in past years. "He's just now starting to use the whole football field. In the past he threw mainly from the numbers outside," Moon said. "Now he is using more of the middle of the field, he's more comfortable throwing it there. As he continues to use the middle of the field, it will open up another horizon for him and make him that much better."

He acts so mature, comports himself with so much poise and has played in so many big games that it's easy to forget he is just 27 years old. "I definitely see room for growth," said Moon, who had yet to take the first snap of his Hall of Fame career at 27.

The Seahawks gave Wilson the second-richest contract in the NFL behind Aaron Rodgers' deal because of promise more than performance. Carroll believes it can take up to eight years for a quarterback to become a master of the game. If that theory works in this case, Wilson has up to four years before he even starts to plateau.

For now, we only can imagine what the best of Wilson will be. "I'm interested to see how much higher his ceiling is," Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "He's playing great. I think he can continue to do this. I don't know how many levels there are, but this is a high level. But there are so many things you can ask him to do, wrinkles to put in."

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 13: Quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks acknowledges the crowd after defeating the Baltimore Ravens 35-6 at M&T Bank Stadium on December 13, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

There will be new challenges ahead—some that are impossible to foresee. Teammates will come and go. Coaches and systems may change. Injuries might stop him cold and then permanently take away some of what he was intended to have. More success will mean more temptation. His personal life is bound to evolve.

Wilson will tell you he is a much better quarterback now than he was, and he is confident he can clear whatever hurdles that life will put in his path. "I know there is a lot more I can do," he said. "I want to continue to grow in every way, every part of my game. My expectations are higher than anybody else's will ever be for me."

The summit remains in the distance. For now, the next step is what he is focused on.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.