Russell Wilson's Mind Games

Overlooked despite his historic streak of winning seasons, the Seattle QB takes us inside a competitive drive that is both procedural and relentless.
photo of Mike FreemanMike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterDecember 19, 2019

Russell Wilson is asked why, as one of the greatest players of his generation, he hasn't won an MVP award. His answer is telling.

"It's not something I really think about," Wilson says. "But if I had to guess, I think there are people just beginning to really notice me."

It's a remarkable statement. It's also remarkably accurate. Wilson has long been an almost cloaked superhero. Playing in Seattle, outside the traditional NFL media power centers, as well as his low-key personality, has led to his greatness being overlooked.

There has never been a player in the history of the NFL who has, at the same time, been so impactful, so important to the league, so remarkable and, in so many ways, almost invisible. Or, at least, that's how it used to be.

"I'm kind of hard to not notice now," says Wilson, laughing.

It's impossible. Like ignoring a punch to the face. This is the Wilson story and, perhaps, the Wilson irony. His low-key personality and lack of self-promotion have led to one of the best quarterbacks of all time receiving a shocking lack of respect. But especially this year, his play has also been so impressive he's almost forced people to see him for the historic player he is.

Wilson has never received an MVP vote, and while he's made the Pro Bowl (everyone makes the Pro Bowl), he's never been voted by writers to the Associated Press All-Pro team. Not the first team. Not the second team. Ten quarterbacks have earned such recognition since Wilson debuted in 2012. 

Yet when this year ends, Wilson will be the first quarterback ever to have a winning record in each of his first eight seasons. 

These three facts, all confirmed by the Seahawks—not a single MVP vote, no All-Pro berths, an unequaled streak of winning seasons—show how he's been overlooked. Here's one more fact: This season, we are watching the greatest version of Wilson at his magical best. And what he sees as reasons behind that may also explain why he has been overlooked. 

What's changed? How has Wilson's game gotten even better? The answer, like everything Wilson, is complicated and fascinating.

It begins with a fundamental belief that as good as Wilson has been, he has always had an extra gear to ascend to. He's hitting that gear now. Wilson will say it's just a product of determination. Others say the difference in his approach isn't just gradual.

"He seems like a completely different guy now," says a former teammate now playing for a potential playoff rival. "He's always been one of the best, and I think he's the best in football now. Not the best quarterback. The best player. What's changed, to me, is his cutthroat-ness. He's vicious. Fucking vicious. He wasn't always that way. Now he is, and that's the difference. He wants to rip a defense's head off." 

Wilson being Wilson, he would never offer such hyperbole.

Working with his career-long mental coach, Trevor Moawad, he has embraced the idea of neutral thinking, meaning a play (say a pass) isn't either good or bad, but a piece of data to be analyzed in your mind so the next play is different. This is a remarkably different approach in the hypercritical world of professional football where coaches and players ride emotional highs and lows.

"[Moawad] talks a lot about being emotionally balanced," says Wilson. "When you're balanced, it's more difficult for any defense or situation to get you out of your game."

This mentality is what allows Wilson to be so effective in the pocket. When the blocking breaks down, Wilson's blood pressure stays low, everything slows down and he takes out the scalpel. This approach carries over from individual plays to the games as a whole. He and Buffalo's Josh Allen lead quarterbacks this year with five game-winning drives and four fourth-quarter comebacks, as recorded by Pro Football Reference.

"Like [Drew] Brees, he can train himself to play fast, huddle fast. Many quarterbacks, no, most quarterbacks cannot do that," Saints coach Sean Payton says.

That's not to say he isn't competitive, just that he's very deliberate about it.

"I don't think there's any shame in pursuing perfection, always wanting to be great, always looking to outwork your opponent," Wilson says. "It's the key to longevity in this league and how you get better. Being consistent, improving. ... If you look at all the greats, that's what they did."

"I'm obsessed with winning," he says, "and that's something I'll always be obsessed with."

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Though the NFL spotlight went right to Lamar Jackson as he began the 2019 season with a five-touchdown game, Wilson also got off to an exceptional start. After five games, he had 1,409 passing yards, 12 passing touchdowns, no interceptions, a 126.3 passer rating and a completion percentage of 73.1. The NFL said Wilson was the first quarterback in history to throw for 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns without an interception.

On Oct. 3, after Wilson threw for four touchdowns against the Rams, safety Eric Weddle told reporters: "Russell Wilson's playing out of his mind right now."

Then, one month later, Wilson tossed five touchdown passes in Seattle's 40-34 overtime win against Tampa Bay. He is one of eight players in history with at least three career games of five passing touchdowns and no interceptions. The others are Brees, Jackson, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Deshaun Watson.

"We keep disrespecting Russell Wilson. Russell Wilson is out in Seattle ballin', year after year, and we don't give him the credit he deserves," said former Lions receiver Nate Burleson in late November on Good Morning Football

One NFC scout says that "if you could splice the genes of Steve Young, John Elway and Tom Brady to build the perfect quarterback, it would be Russell Wilson. In many ways, he's flawless."

The scout adds, "I'm as guilty as anyone not always fully recognizing until now how great a career he's had."

Maybe it's the nature of many of Wilson's completions this season that has made him shine brighter. Through Week 14, Wilson had four of the top 20 most improbable completions of 2019, according to Zebra Technologies, the force behind Next Gen Stats. Nobody else had as many as three.

Wilson is also responsible for the most improbable completion of 2019: a 13-yard pass to Tyler Lockett in the back-left corner of the end zone that had just a 6.3 percent completion probability. It was the most improbable completion since Week 12 in 2017. Wilson did not have any improbable completions in the top 20 in 2017 or 2018.

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Tyler Lockett. WHAT?! (via @NFL) https://t.co/MYTm56XvN3

Compared to the past two seasons, Wilson is also throwing into tight windows more often. He threw into a tight window 14.3 percent of the time in 2018 and 16.1 percent in 2017. This season, that number has jumped to 17.5 percent through Week 15. He ranks 13th in that category after finishing 27th in 2018.

But it's the less flashy attributes that continue to give Wilson, and the Seahawks, an edge. This season has been a stark example of how he raises the level of play around him.

Said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth on the air: "The passing game is so much more reliant upon the quarterback position than anything to do with the running game...especially in that offense. Russell Wilson, when you watch him play, it's hard to explain how dominant he is with that team."

The Seahawks, who have never paired Wilson with a receiver on the level of DeAndre Hopkins or Michael Thomas, have had one of the league's most effective passing offenses in 2019 despite depending on a rookie receiver, DK Metcalf, who was considered too raw to thrive right away. The belief was that his route tree was so limited that it would take him at least a few years to develop into a well-rounded receiver.

But Metcalf worked extensively with Wilson in the offseason, and the chemistry has developed at warp speed. Metcalf's downfield bursts and newfound route versatility, combined with Wilson's accuracy, put him at the top of the rookie class in receptions and third in receiving yards through Week 15.

Wilson is doing more of what Wilson has always done, and finally, we're all noticing. He has taken all his positive attributes and amplified them to a point at which he cannot be ignored.

"One of my main goals is consistently trying to be consistent," Wilson says. "Year in and year out. If you look at all of the great quarterbacks, like Tom Brady, one of the main hallmarks is how they play consistently great. That's what I push for. To me, all of this is about being great, getting teammates to be great and enjoying the ride along the way."

The 11-3 record, the unprecedented excellence, the teamwork, the leadership. The improvements we see in Wilson this season, improvements on an already superb career, are a product of the very thing that makes him underappreciated.

"I will say this right here, right now," Burleson said on NFL Network in October, "...Russell Wilson is the best in the pocket that I have ever seen. I'm not talking about the last 10 years. I'm not talking about the era of the 2000s. I'm talking about the entirety of the NFL from its inception to now." 

Of course, Wilson's take is on the other end of the hype spectrum. When Wilson talks football, he sounds like a college astronomy professor excitedly explaining how a star works. There is always a whimsical exuberance, and it's wrapped in a quiet self-confidence.

Sometimes when he speaks, it sounds insincere. Like when a car salesman says, "Let me check with my manager." But what you learn in interviewing Wilson over the years is there is nothing insincere about him. There is no phoniness. He's almost incapable of it. There's a Vulcan-ness to Wilson: logical, analytical and relentlessly in pursuit of excellence.

So again, how is this season different? People see it, but they don't know why.

"I'm not with him every day anymore, so I don't know what he's doing different," says former teammate Richard Sherman of the 49ers, "but he's improved his decision-making."

For Wilson, it's all in the head.

"I think one of the things I focused on this offseason was being obsessed with winning," Wilson explains, "but also, not being concerned or ashamed with wanting to be obsessed. ... I love the late wins. I loved watching Michael Jordan. You always felt like no matter how far down the Bulls were, he was going to find a way. I want teams we face to think the same about me."

"Something that has always stuck with me since I was a young player," he says, "and I really live it now, is the mental side of the game can beat you up if you're not prepared. I prepare and ready as best I can, and I think that's why I never let anything tear me down.

"I want to be known as the greatest winner in this game. There's people to catch up to."


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.