After an offseason filled with trade rumors and speculation, Seahawks star quarterback Russell Wilson enters a pivotal season that could ultimately play a major role in determining his long-term future in Seattle. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

After an offseason filled with trade rumors and speculation, Seahawks star quarterback Russell Wilson enters a pivotal season that could ultimately play a major role in determining his long-term future in Seattle. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Van Til: It’s a pivotal season for Wilson’s future in Seattle

After the offseason drama, it could be a defining year for Seahawks star QB Russell Wilson’s future.

Russell Wilson, barring injury, will be the Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback this season.

That much is clear.

But after his frustrations with the organization went public in February and sparked an offseason filled with trade rumors and speculation, could Wilson’s long-term future in Seattle be in jeopardy?

That remains to be seen.

And this season could go a long way toward determining the answer.

To understand this complex situation between Wilson and the Seahawks, let’s start by revisiting a scene from the Super Bowl this past February.

Wilson, in attendance to accept his Walter Payton Man of the Year award, was watching from the suites at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. And at one point, the CBS broadcast cut to a shot of the Seahawks’ superstar.

Wilson was sitting between his wife, Ciara, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Those two were leaning around the quarterback, carrying on a conversation with each other.

Wilson, meanwhile, was staring blankly at the field.

As Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes dueled on the sport’s biggest stage, Wilson was left to contemplate yet another year falling short of the ultimate goal.

“I (was) watching this game wishing that I was in there playing,” Wilson said two days later on The Dan Patrick Show. “… You want to do everything you can to be there. That’s why we play this game.”

Since making back-to-back Super Bowl appearances following the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Wilson and the Seahawks have been stuck in a rut.

Although they’ve continued to rack up 10-win campaigns and playoff berths, they’ve now gone six consecutive seasons without advancing past the divisional round of the playoffs.

To put that in perspective: Over the last six seasons, 10 of the 16 NFC franchises have played in the conference title game. The Seahawks are one of the six who haven’t.

Wilson regularly mentions the word “legacy” in interviews. He’s stated his desire to become one of the all-time greats.

But though he’s already a surefire Hall of Famer, he’s running out of time to elevate himself into the conversation of best-ever quarterbacks. He turns 33 this fall.

The clock is ticking.

Wilson and the Seahawks have remained consistently in the NFC playoff mix, but they’ve gone six consecutive seasons without advancing past the divisional round. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Wilson and the Seahawks have remained consistently in the NFC playoff mix, but they’ve gone six consecutive seasons without advancing past the divisional round. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Two days after Wilson watched Brady hoist his seventh Lombardi Trophy — Brady’s fourth since Wilson last did so — the Seahawks quarterback made comments that sparked the offseason firestorm.

In a pair of interviews that day, Wilson voiced his frustration at being sacked 394 times over the course of his career — which is the most in NFL history through a player’s first nine seasons, according to Stathead.com. He also acknowledged a desire for more say in the team’s personnel moves.

The rumor mill then reached a fever pitch later in February, when The Athletic published an in-depth report detailing a “rift” between Wilson and the Seahawks — including the philosophical clash between head coach Pete Carroll’s long-held belief in a run-first offense and Wilson’s desire to throw more often.

That same day, Wilson’s agent told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that although the quarterback hadn’t demanded a trade, there were four teams he’d waive his no-trade clause for, if Seattle was interested in dealing him.

Now here’s the reality: Wilson almost certainly was never going to be traded this offseason.

Those rumors were overblown, most notably because of the salary-cap implications of dealing Wilson with three years still left on his contract. The Seahawks would’ve incurred a $39 million cap hit if they’d done so this offseason, as opposed to a $26 million hit next offseason or a $13 million hit following the 2022 season.

But going forward, to dismiss all these questions about Wilson’s future as a media-driven narrative? That’d be a mistake.

For Wilson, these frustrations have likely been festering for years.

* * *

Wilson’s post-Super Bowl comments about the need for better pass protection marked the first time in his career he’d even come close to voicing any dissatisfaction with the Seahawks.

In the media, Wilson has always been one of the most ultra-positive and image-conscious athletes in all of sports.

So when Wilson deviates from that, you better believe what he’s saying is a big deal.

Asked about being on pace to be the most-sacked quarterback in NFL history, Wilson said of Seattle’s pass protection: “That’s gotta be fixed, and has to be at the end of the day, because my goal is to play 10 to 15 more years. … We’ve gotta get better up front.”

Later that day, when asked in a separate interview whether he’s frustrated with the Seahawks, Wilson responded: “I’m frustrated (about) getting hit too much. I’m frustrated with that part of it.”

And here’s the thing: Wilson’s frustration is entirely justified.

For five of Wilson’s nine seasons in Seattle, the Seahawks finished 30th or worse, out of 32 teams, in Pro Football Focus’ pass block grading. And not once in the Wilson era has Seattle finished a season ranked better than 18th.

In other words, Wilson has spent the majority of his career playing behind one of the three worst pass protection units in the league.

And he’s never been afforded a season with even league-average pass protection.

For a brief stretch early last year, Wilson actually got a chance to show what he’s capable of when adequately protected and given a reliable pocket. Through the first five weeks, the Seahawks ranked 11th in pass block grading. It was a big reason why Wilson went on a historic early-season tear.

But as the season progressed, injuries decimated the offensive line. After the strong start, the Seahawks finished 19th in pass block grading. And they got manhandled up front in the wild-card playoff loss to the Rams, who pummeled Wilson all game long.

For Wilson, it was déjà vu all over again.

Wilson has spent the majority of his career playing behind one of the worst pass protection units in the league. (AP Photo/Scott Eklund)

Wilson has spent the majority of his career playing behind one of the worst pass protection units in the league. (AP Photo/Scott Eklund)

And then there was the Super Bowl — which provided a crystal-clear illustration of just how significantly poor pass protection can limit even the greatest quarterbacks.

Mahomes is a generational talent and a recent league MVP. But while playing behind an injury-depleted Kansas City offensive line that got overwhelmed by Tampa Bay, Mahomes spent much of the Super Bowl either getting hit or running for his life. He had one of the worst statistical games of his career, and the Chiefs’ high-powered offense sputtered to just nine points.

Wilson, undoubtedly, could relate.

“The reality is (Kansas City) couldn’t block those guys on the other end,” he said when asked about the game in one of his post-Super Bowl interviews. “Patrick was running for his life the whole game, it felt like.”

After the Super Bowl, the prevailing media sentiment was that the Chiefs’ offensive line “gave Patrick Mahomes no chance,” as one USA TODAY headline read.

That’s probably correct. And if so, it means Wilson has had “no chance” far too many times throughout his career.

Consider this: Kansas City’s pass block grade in the Super Bowl was an abysmal 42.2 (on a scale of 0-100). It was the first time in 54 career games that Mahomes had played behind sub-45 pass blocking.

By contrast, Wilson dealt with sub-45 pass blocking five times in the 2019 season alone.

For many quarterbacks, playing behind pass protection that bad is a rarity.

For Wilson, it’s an all-too-common reality.

And one has to wonder just how much it’s kept him from reaching his full potential — and from helping the Seahawks compete for championships.

* * *

The other major issue reportedly at the core of Wilson’s frustrations is that he’s been stuck in a run-heavy offense for most of his career.

Early-down pass rate, a stat measured by the NFL advanced statistical site RBSDM.com, provides a good snapshot of why Wilson would be upset. This stat uses down, time and win probability to measure how often teams pass in neutral situations, independent of other factors that influence play-calling.

From Wilson’s first season in 2012 through 2019, the Seahawks had an early-down pass rate of just 47.5%, which ranked 28th out of 32 teams. That included a 37.8% rate in 2018, which was the lowest mark of any team over the last eight seasons.

By contrast, the game’s other top quarterbacks typically get to air it out at the highest rates.

Over the last 10 seasons, the top three teams in early-down pass rate were the Packers, Saints and Patriots — each at over 55%. Those teams, of course, spent nearly the entire past decade with all-time greats Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Brady under center.

And then there are the Mahomes-era Chiefs, who have dwarfed the rest of the league with a 64.6% early-down pass rate over the last three seasons.

Wilson is one of the league’s best quarterbacks. But for most of his career, he’s been subjected to a pass rate more reflective of an NFL backup than a future Hall of Famer.

“Wilson believes that Carroll’s conservative philosophy is limiting his production and, by extension, his ambitions to be one of the game’s all-time greats,” The Athletic wrote.

Last offseason, Wilson publicly expressed his desire to play a more aggressive offensive style. According to The Athletic, Carroll initially pushed back.

But ultimately, in a dramatic shift, Seattle unleashed its star quarterback like never before.

Through their first eight games last year, the Seahawks had a league-high 62.8% early-down pass rate. Wilson was on pace to break Peyton Manning’s single-season touchdown pass record. And Seattle was scoring a league-best 34.3 points per game.

It was all much to the delight of the “Let Russ Cook” segment of Seahawks fans, who’d spent years clamoring for their team to open up a more aerial attack for Wilson.

Playing in a more pass-oriented attack, Wilson opened last season with the best stretch of his career. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Playing in a more pass-oriented attack, Wilson opened last season with the best stretch of his career. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Then all of a sudden, things fell apart.

After the scorching start, Seattle averaged a middle-of-the-road 23.1 points per game over the final half of the season.

The offensive decline stemmed from a variety of interrelated factors. Among them: Injuries to the offensive line, a lack of adequate schematic adjustments, uncharacteristic poor play by Wilson, a tougher slate of opposing defenses, and a No. 2 receiver in Tyler Lockett who likely wasn’t at 100% after a midseason knee sprain.

And ultimately, it was a highly unusual rash of turnovers from Wilson that prompted Carroll to pump the brakes on his team’s new pass-heavy attack.

Wilson committed 10 turnovers — including seven interceptions — over a four-game stretch in Weeks 7-10. In those four games alone, he surpassed his interception total from the previous season. It went against the cardinal rule in Carroll’s football philosophy — protect the ball.

“Carroll wanted to be more careful with the offense,” The Athletic wrote. “Wilson wanted to stay the course, trusting in himself.”

According to The Athletic, in the days leading up to the Seahawks’ pivotal Week 11 game against Arizona, Wilson met with coaches and shared his ideas on how to get the offense back on track.

The Athletic reported that Wilson’s suggestions were dismissed, and that he “stormed out of the room.”

From that point on, over the final seven regular-season games and the playoff loss, Seattle’s early-down pass rate was 57.1%. That marked a decrease of 5.6 percentage points from Weeks 1-10.

It wasn’t a massive change. The Seahawks were still among the most pass-heavy teams, ranking sixth in early-down pass rate over that stretch.

“But it was effectively a rebuke of Wilson,” The Athletic wrote, “and sources close to the quarterback said it upset him.”

For Wilson, he’d finally gotten a chance to throw at the rate of other star quarterbacks. It yielded the best stretch of his career.

But the moment things went awry, Carroll pulled back the reins, instead of trusting his star quarterback to figure things out and return to form.

And then there were Carroll’s media comments a couple days after the playoff loss. Sharing his thoughts on how to improve the offense going forward, he indicated he’d like to move closer to the run-pass ratio of years past.

“We have to run it more,” Carroll said.

After a midseason rash of turnovers from Wilson, head coach Pete Carroll pumped the brakes on his team’s new pass-heavy attack. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

After a midseason rash of turnovers from Wilson, head coach Pete Carroll pumped the brakes on his team’s new pass-heavy attack. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Wilson stated back in June, during his first media availability since the offseason drama began, that he hopes to remain with the Seahawks for his entire career.

“I hope I play my whole career here,” he said. “That’s my mission. That’s my goal.”

That same day, Wilson also emphasized that everything is good between him and Carroll. He said they had many conversations this offseason that ultimately made their relationship stronger.

“We’re on the same page,” Wilson said. “We’re here to do what we’re meant to do, and that’s to win it all.”

In the short term, there was little doubt the two relentlessly positive competitors would find common ground and work together to pursue another championship this season.

But given their differences in offensive philosophy, can Wilson and Carroll continue to coexist long-term?

***

That brings us to new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron.

He may be the X-factor in this whole thing.

Waldron, the former Rams passing game coordinator under head coach Sean McVay, was hired in late January to replace the recently fired Brian Schottenheimer.

Wilson publicly acknowledged he wasn’t in favor of Schottenheimer’s dismissal. But in the search for a replacement, it’s widely believed Wilson was closely involved with Carroll in choosing Waldron.

And assuming Waldron’s offense in Seattle is similar to the balanced and cutting-edge attack he helped run in Los Angeles, he might just be the perfect guy for the job.

The McVay-era Rams have featured one of the more effective and diverse rushing attacks in the league. But they also throw the ball more than most realize, as evidenced by an early-down pass rate that ranks fifth over the past four seasons. And their passing attack showcases plenty of creativity, with receivers often schemed open for easy completions.

In other words, this offense seems like an ideal way to mesh the type of productive run game Carroll covets with the type of innovative passing game Wilson desires.

Perhaps most importantly, Waldron is reportedly bringing a much-needed emphasis on the short-to-intermediate passing attack. That’s been a staple of the McVay-era Rams, who excel at getting the ball to receivers in space and using horizontal movement to stretch defenses from sideline to sideline.

From a schematic standpoint, that was the biggest missing piece in the Seahawks’ offense last season. Wilson thrived on the deep ball for the first half of the year. But as defenses began taking that away, Seattle didn’t have enough of a quick passing game to adequately counter and keep opponents honest.

An effective short-to-intermediate passing attack should expand the field for Wilson. It should set up easier completions, so that he doesn’t have to be Superman every play. It should help alleviate pressure, by getting the ball out of his hands faster. And ultimately, it should help free space over the top for Wilson to hit the deep home-run passes he excels at.

New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron (left) is tasked with helping Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense rebound from last year’s disappointing finish. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron (left) is tasked with helping Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense rebound from last year’s disappointing finish. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Two more aspects that Waldron reportedly is implementing — a more up-tempo offense and increased freedom to audible — are surely music to Wilson’s ears too. Wilson has long favored and seemed most comfortable in a quicker-paced attack. And with more leeway to change plays at the line of scrimmage, Wilson will have greater control over the offense — something he’s earned at this stage of his career.

Waldron also is expected to employ some of the tactics that make the Rams’ offense so unpredictable — a heavy dose of play-action, plenty of pre-snap motion, and varied formations from which certain plays are run. Wide receiver DK Metcalf admitted in a podcast that, over the second half of last season, opposing defenses started to “figure us out.” In Waldron’s offense, it should be much easier for the Seahawks to keep defenses off balance.

“Shane does a great job with making everything … kind of look the same versus a run play or a pass play,” Seattle running back Chris Carson told reporters recently. “The defense can’t tell the difference between which one.”

There are personnel-related reasons for optimism too.

The offensive line, assuming All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown’s contract standoff doesn’t extend into the regular season, returns four of the five starters from last year’s productive early-season unit. So with an upgrade at guard in veteran acquisition Gabe Jackson, this could very well be the best pass-protecting offensive line of Wilson’s career.

Lockett’s presumptive return to full health, after playing through his midseason knee sprain last year, also could make a big difference. And the addition of former Rams tight end Gerald Everett should help fill the receiving void behind the one-two punch of Metcalf and Lockett.

“I think we can be the No. 1 offense in football,” Wilson told reporters after Sunday’s mock game.

If Wilson and the Seahawks can indeed reestablish themselves as one of the league’s elite offenses and legitimately contend for the Super Bowl, this drama-filled offseason will feel like a distant memory.

And if this season marks the beginning of a Wilson-Waldron partnership that ultimately helps the star quarterback unlock his full potential and pursue the championships and greatness he’s striving for?

Then perhaps a few years from now — as Wilson is playing on a new contract and delivering another Super Bowl to Seattle — Seahawks fans will look back and laugh at the idea their star quarterback would ever leave the Pacific Northwest.

But if the same issues persist — if Wilson feels another year of his prime has been squandered and his overall potential continues to be limited — then his long-term future in Seattle might really be in jeopardy.

Either way, there’s a lot riding on this season for Wilson and the Seahawks.

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