By John McGrath The News Tribune
Russell Wilson’s inability to engineer a game-winning Seattle Seahawks touchdown drive on Sunday shouldn’t have been surprising.
He was playing in his first NFL game. With 38 seconds remaining and the Hawks in a first-and-goal sequence, were you expecting a rookie quarterback, in his regular-season debut, to exhibit the accuracy of Johnny Unitas, the poise of Joe Montana and the unsinkable confidence John Elway?
Were you waiting for the kid to produce a magic moment — one of the most stirring comebacks in franchise history — 59 minutes into his pro career? Seriously?
True confession: I was.
Until Wilson’s third straight complete pass inside the Arizona Cardinals 5-yard line found the Seahawks 20-16 losers, I assumed I was watching the drive that would establish Russell Wilson’s legacy in Seattle.
Which is ridiculous, because Wilson was a third-round draft choice. The fact he even started the game was remarkable. For him to win the game, on the road, after spending most of the afternoon dodging pass rushers who either weren’t identified, or weren’t blocked?
Remarkable wouldn’t begin to describe the gravity of that accomplishment.
And yet the opportunity was there. Had I been wagering, my money would’ve been on Wilson.
“We had four great shots,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said afterward. “Four balls to be caught right there. Throw and catch.”
Carroll’s summation, like Wilson’s last-minute passing arm, was slightly off. The Seahawks had four great shots, yes, but after Marshawn Lynch bulled his way to the 4 on first down, the difference between a 1-0 start and an 0-1 start came down to three balls that weren’t caught.
Next time Wilson has the offense knocking on heaven’s door, next time he’s facing a first-and-goal with the clock ticking and a victory in the balance — and there will be a next time — I hope one of those plays is a roll-out keeper that takes advantage of the quarterback’s elusiveness on the run.
After all, Carroll’s decision to appoint Wilson the starter over veteran free-agent Matt Flynn was based largely on the rookie’s play-making potential. Is there a better time to make a play than with little of it left and the ball inside the opponent’s 4-yard line?
The deflating conclusion to the final drive already has stirred up the inevitable “We-Want-Flynn” faction of Seahawks fans. The Wilson—Flynn debate is a topic that figures to dominate the sports-talk radio stations this week, just as it dominated the sports-talk radio stations during the exhibition season.
While Wilson’s passing stats (18-for-34, for 153 yards and a touchdown) suggested no upgrade from 2011 starter Tarvaris Jackson, don’t underestimate the Cardinals’ influence in those numbers.
“They threw everyone hard at us,” said Carroll. “Considering how Russell was under duress, I think it was a great first game for him. It was not easy for him at any time.”
Consider something else, too. Among the five rookie quarterbacks who started Sunday, Wilson’s effort was eclipsed only by Washington’s Robert Griffin III, who completed 19-of-26, for 320 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for another 42 yards on 10 carries in a 40-32 Redskins victory.
When Griffin was putting up those kinds of numbers against the likes of Missouri and Texas Tech last season, it was the basis of a successful Heisman Trophy campaign. Except Griffin wasn’t facing Missouri or Texas Tech. He was taking on the Saints in New Orleans.
Griffin is the real deal, but his first-year colleagues struggled. Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden finished 12-for-35 for 118 yards, with no touchdowns and four interceptions. (The Browns lost to Philadelphia, 17-16.) Miami’s Ryan Tannehill threw three interceptions, without a touchdown, during the Dolphins 30-10 defeat at Houston.
Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck went 23-for-45 for 309 yards and a touchdown, but the first overall draft choice put three passes into the hands of the Bears during the Colts’ 41-21 thumping at Chicago.
Wilson threw an interception — a deep ball airmailed at the end of the first half — and though the turnover was harmless, it contributed to the notion he might be in over his head.
“Now he’s looking like a rookie,” Fox studio analyst Michael Strahan told viewers at halftime.
Wilson looked like a rookie more often than he didn’t Sunday. Blitzes went unrecognized. A short swing pass was thrown into smothered coverage. It went incomplete, and the Seahawks got a break when the replacement officials ruled it was a forward pass and not the lateral it appeared to be.
And yet his composure never wavered. On an afternoon the sheer speed of pro football had to be a revelation for him, the rookie from Wisconsin had the Seahawks in position to win.
“I thought Russell battled,” said Carroll. “They pressured a lot, made it tough on us. But he hung in there, came back, and did a very nice job of getting back into the game in the second half.”
Wilson hung in there, and if his final-drive pass to Doug Baldwin is delivered a few inches toward the body of the intended receiver, he’s remembered for doing more than a nice job. Baldwin made a mid-air stretch for the catch in the end zone, and got his hands on the ball, but couldn’t maintain control upon hitting the ground.
“It would’ve been exactly what I wanted if he caught it,” said Wilson, “but it didn’t work out.”
So what were you expecting, an incredible catch to culminate the miraculous drive that would auger the beginning of Russell Wilson’s Hall-of-Fame career?
You were expecting that?
Don’t be ashamed to admit it.
The line forms here.