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Russell Wilson Is an All-Time Great NFL Passer and He Keeps Getting Better

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 16, 2020

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 15: Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson #3 reacts to throwing a touchdown pass against Carolina Panthers in the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There will be a battle raging at the top of the NFL's all-time quarterback leaderboards this season, one that could change the way we look at quarterbacks forever.

I'm not referring to Tom Brady and Drew Brees, who will jockey for position atop the all-time yardage and touchdown lists as they battle for the NFC South and one last chance to reach the Super Bowl. Brady and Brees are living legends. It doesn't matter who finishes where in the all-time rankings.

There's a more interesting leaderboard battle to watch this season, this one between two quarterbacks still cementing their legacies: Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson.

Rodgers has been the NFL's all-time leader in passer rating for several years, with a current rating of 102.4. Wilson is second at 101.2, and he has been gaining on Rodgers for several seasons.

Here's how close Wilson is to Rodgers: If both quarterbacks repeat their exact statistical lines from last season—4,110 yards, 31 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 66.1 percent completion rate on 516 pass attempts for Wilson, 4,002/26/4/62.0 on 569 attempts for Rodgers—then both of their passer ratings at the end of this season will be 101.8. Rodgers would still lead if you round to the second decimal place, but the margin is so narrow that one additional Rodgers interception could hand the crown to Wilson.

Now, passer rating is a pretty terrible stat. Let's not delve too deep into the technical issues, but a quick look at the all-time top six (there's a tie for fifth place) highlights some of the metric's major flaws:

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  • Aaron Rodgers (102.4): He led the league in rating during his MVP and Super Bowl years in 2011 (122.5) and 2012 (108.0) but has not cracked the 100 barrier in the last three seasons. As quarterbacks age, they tend to have weaker seasons that cause their ratings to drop, something that can't happen on yardage or touchdown lists.
  • Russell Wilson (101.2): He led the league in rating in 2015 (110.1) and has produced ratings higher than 100 in each of the last two seasons. Wilson is five years younger than Rodgers and still near the top of his peak.
  • Drew Brees (98.4): He led the league in rating in 2009 (109.6) and 2018 (115.7), and his ratings have actually gone up in recent years. But NFL completion averages and interception rates have improved steadily over the years, taking passer ratings with them. Most of Brees' great seasons in the mid-2000s only earned ratings in the 90s. Things have changed so much that the league average for the last two seasons has hovered in the low-90s. 
  • Tony Romo (97.1): Romo was a much better quarterback than he is given credit for, but that's a topic for another column.
  • Tom Brady (97.0): Brady led the league in rating in 2007 (117.2) and 2010 (111.0). But like Brees, he has many great seasons in the 2000s with passer ratings that now look ordinary. Brady's ratings have also declined in three consecutive seasons.
  • Dak Prescott (97.0): Yes, Prescott has the same career passer rating as Tom Brady, illustrating that passer rating has both a recency bias and a built-in advantage for players who have not been around long enough to start declining.

Any statistic that ranks Tom Brady fifth all-time (and Peyton Manning ninth behind Kirk Cousins; Joe Montana 15th behind Carson Wentz; Bart Starr 70th behind Blake Bortles, and so forth) is not a worthy measure of who the greatest quarterbacks of history are.

But passer rating does help separate veterans like Rodgers and Wilson who have had a long run of excellent seasons from quarterbacks who accumulated lots of stats because that's what quarterbacks do nowadays. Rodgers and Wilson are a notch above Cousins (96.8), Matt Ryan (94.6) and everyone else in their general age group.

So while the Patrick Mahomes generation is just entering the conversation and the Brees-Brady generation is approaching the summit of Mount Olympus, Rodgers and Wilson represent the ideal of the veteran quarterback: They have established a level of excellence that has stood the test of time, but they haven't yet come face to face with Father Time.

That makes Wilson's bid to overtake Rodgers an important changing of the guard that has repercussions for the whole NFL.

At his peak, Rodgers inspired a lot of arguments like this one: Obviously, Brady/Manning/Brees are the GOATs, but they are getting old, so if I had to pick a quarterback to build my franchise around, it would be Rodgers. Those arguments once held water: Rodgers produced year after year of high completion rates and interception rates close to zero; 4,000 passing yards and around 40 touchdowns; accuracy, mobility, efficiency, big-play capability and lots of wins.

But Rodgers hasn't been that guy since his 2017, and we don't need to grind film or evaluate his interpersonal skills to see it. His completion rate and yards per attempt were below league average last year. Rodgers ranked 12th in the league in passer rating, just between Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz, his figure buoyed by the fact that he threw just four interceptions.

SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 19: Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers sacks Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers during the game at Levi's Stadium on January 19, 2020 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers defeated the Packers 37-20. (Photo by Micha
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Wilson keeps getting better. He finished fifth in passer rating last year, third in 2018. His completion rates have gone up in back-to-back seasons while his interception rates have gone down. Wilson is now the guy with every single attribute every team should want in a franchise quarterback.

Keep in mind that rushing ability does not factor into passer rating at all. And Packers fans who wish to lament Rodgers' lack of weapons over the last few seasons are invited to imagine how he would look (and react to) executing Brian Schottenheimer game plans while throwing to Tyler Lockett and a bunch of rookies and blocking tight ends. Wilson is doing all the things that once put Rodgers in his own special category, and he's doing it with little help from his team.

The all-time passer rating list is trying to speak to us. It's telling us that Rodgers is getting older, but the Packers appear to have figured that out. More importantly, it's shouting at us to stop sleeping on Wilson's excellence. Wilson is one of the best all-around quarterbacks of his era and is building a case to be a top-tier Hall of Famer. But he is too often still pigeonholed as a gutsy scrambler who wins with miracles and a great defense. 

Wilson may well pass Rodgers this year. But it doesn't matter who comes out on top, because Mahomes and others will trounce them both in a few years. What matters is that the best of the next generation of quarterbacks is following in Wilson's footsteps in many ways, most notably their ability to be "dual threats" in the best sense of the term: daring, thrilling scramblers to be sure, but also accurate, efficient, decisive, traditional passers, like quarterbacks of yesteryear that the ratings formula was designed to reward.

The passer rating stat is begging the football world to see Wilson the exact way we always saw Rodgers. It's past time for everyone to listen.

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