Most people thought he was the typical Plan B.
Turns out, quarterback Russell Wilson was Exhibit A.
Wilson, selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the third round of last year’s NFL draft, looked to be a guy destined to hold a clipboard behind presumed starter Matt Flynn.
But Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll opened the door to a fair competition, Wilson won the job, then assembled a first season worthy of rookie-of-the-year consideration. Now, he’s the prime example of what every NFL team wants to do, regardless of position: find an overlooked diamond who has somehow slipped through the draft cracks.
“We were hopeful it would come out this way, because we knew how unique he was, how special he was,” Carroll said. “We didn’t go to the bank and bet on it or anything like that, but we all had hopes he could be this kind of player.”
So symbolic is Wilson that he will appear in and voice the opening intro for ESPN’s coverage of the first round Thursday night, a round in which the Seahawks don’t have a pick. He’s the embodiment of the best-case scenario.
“It’s basically me saying how I felt that day, and telling the kids of the future how do you be great,” said Wilson, the sixth quarterback selected behind Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Washington’s Robert Griffin III, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, and Denver backup Brock Osweiler.
After consecutive seasons in which four passers were selected in the opening round, this year’s draft class figures to have fewer quarterbacks near the top. Generally speaking, the five highest-regarded quarterbacks in this class are West Virginia’s Geno Smith, Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, USC’s Matt Barkley, Florida State’s EJ Manuel and North Carolina State’s Mike Glennon.
None is a lock to go in the first round, although there’s a strong possibility one or more teams will trade into the back half of the round to take one.
“I don’t know if there’s another Russell Wilson,” said ESPN’s Jon Gruden, who predicted during draft coverage last year that Wilson would win Seattle’s starting job if given the chance. “I think what he did as a rookie is unprecedented, really, for a third-round draft choice.”
Wilson tied the league’s rookie record by throwing 26 touchdown passes and, along with Griffin, broke the mark for passer rating by a rookie quarterback. Wilson finished with a 100.0 rating, just behind the 102.4 of the Redskins star.
The Seahawks finished the regular season with a five-game winning streak, including a win over San Francisco in which Wilson threw four touchdown passes, and one over Buffalo in which he ran for three scores.
He led Seattle to a come-from-behind victory at Washington in the playoffs, and brought them back again in a divisional game at Atlanta before the Falcons rallied in the final seconds to kick a game-winning field goal.
All that might have been sweet vindication for Wilson, who was largely an afterthought in the draft. But he said he hasn’t given a lot of thought to that.
“To be honest with you, I ignore the noise,” he said. “I don’t care what anybody has to say. I don’t worry about what the critics have to say about anything in terms of what they thought about me. I think that’s the biggest thing about elite players. Can they ignore the noise?”
There’s plenty of noise about this season’s crop of quarterbacks, but there’s a lot of need too. Jacksonville is one of the teams eyeing quarterbacks, looking for someone who could potentially supplant Blaine Gabbert. New Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley was defensive coordinator in Seattle last season, so he got an up-close view of Wilson and the keys to his success.
“They spent a lot of money to sign Matt Flynn and then choose a third-round quarterback,” Bradley said. “And Pete says, ‘We’re going with Russell.’ You need the backing of ownership and the wisdom that you’ve gone through it and say, ‘I have such conviction, I’m going to do it.’”
Carroll said one of the qualities that made Wilson so successful was his ability to make adjustments quickly and not repeat his mistakes.
“If there’s one thing that’s extraordinary about Russell, it’s his ability to fix things,” Carroll said. “There’s an example of the first day we were throwing deep routes. He kept throwing the balls to receivers inside, pulling them in to the middle of the field. I said something to him: ‘What’s up? We want to throw the ball to the guy’s outside shoulder.’ And he said, ‘I thought we wanted to draw the guy inside.’ He hadn’t thrown a lot of go-balls in his career. He thought that was the way to throw the football, so he said, ‘Oh, OK.’
“Next day, it was like it never happened. Hasn’t happened since. He fixes things immediately. As soon as he knows that something needs to be fixed, he fixes it. “
Then, there was Wilson’s habit in practice of double-checking every play call with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell before he ducked back into the huddle.
“He did it so regularly, it seemed to be like he wasn’t really getting the flow of the call and it was taking a little bit extra time,” Carroll said. “I said, ‘Russ, do you realize that you’re always asking for a clarification on the call. Do you really need that?’ He goes, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s kind of hindering the fluid process.’ He said, ‘OK.’ And it never happened again.
“The next four or five days we watched him, just to see if he could do it. Didn’t happen. So now if he steps out of the huddle for something, he does it because he might need a clarification, he might be correcting a coach, or whatever. The point is, he can fix whatever he needs to fix. That’s an extraordinary characteristic for a young guy.”
Wilson has made the extraordinary simply ordinary, raising the bar, redefining expectations, and giving hopeful teams another glimpse of what the draft can mean.