The position of quarterback has never been played at this high of a level before. The evolution of the sport, the alteration of the rules to accommodate passing and the heightened athleticism of 21st-century athletes has culminated in the finest quarterback play across the league we’ve ever seen.
And, in 2020, leading vanguard on that charge is Russell Wilson. Through the first quarter of the 2020 regular season, the Super Bowl XLVIII winner has been on a warpath. Wilson either leads the NFL or is in the top five or six quarterbacks in every single positive statistical category. Per Sports Info Solutions, Wilson is second in completion percentage (76.7), third in yards per attempt (9.0), first in touchdowns (14) and fourth in yards (925).
With the Seahawks standing 3-0 atop the NFC and also leading the toughest division in football, the NFC West, Wilson has the ballclub in a strong position to contend for the Lombardi Trophy come February. Let’s breakdown just what makes Wilson the frontrunner for the 2020 regular season MVP.
Amidst Wilson’s stellar quarterback play, the popularity and significance of the online hashtag #LetRussCook has skyrocketed. So much so that the public pressure put on the Seahawks coaching staff, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer in particular, to alter their gameplan around Wilson.
Before the 2020 season, the Seahawks offensive gameplan was lambasted for being centred around the run and with the franchise quarterback metaphorically collecting dust in the garage. For example, per Pro Football Reference, in 2019, the Seahawks ranked third in the NFL in total rushing attempts with 481 total attempts. Comparatively, they ranked 23rd in passing attempts with 517 total passing attempts. In 2018, they ranked second in total rushing attempts with 534 attempts. When it came to passing, the Seahawks ranked BOTTOM of the NFL, attempting only 427 passes.
Flash forward to 2020 and the message seems to have finally gotten through to Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer. Instead of waiting to be in a deficit, the Seahawks are now taking the initiative, putting the ball in Wilson’s hands early and often. Via TeamRankings, Seattle throws on first down 61.19% of the time, ranking them 12th in the NFL. However, compared to previous years, Seattle ranked 24th in first down percentage in 2019 and 32nd in 2018, this is a marked improvement.
In the 1963 book, ‘Darrell Royal Talks Football’, written by Darrell Royal, the former Texas head coach wrote, ‘three things can happen to you whenever you throw the football, and two of them are bad. You can catch the ball, you can throw it incomplete, or have it intercepted.’ While not exactly false, with the way the NFL has evolved, highly efficient passing is now the most lethal, and perhaps the most efficient way of moving the ball downfield, and Wilson is the perfect demonstration of this.
As mentioned before, Wilson is only second in the entire NFL when it comes to completion percentage, completing 76.7% of his passes. Heading into the Week Three victory over the Cowboys, Wilson had thrown only three more incompletions (11) than touchdowns (9). So far, Wilson has only thrown one interception this year, and that was a nicely thrown ball that deflected off the hands of his tight end. It’s remarkable how few times Wilson puts the ball in danger.
This Seattle passing game is a well-oiled machine. Pass short, pass short, run, run, pass short then boom: Russ has dropped a deep bomb to one of either Tyler Lockett or DK Metcalf. Per Sports Info Solutions, Wilson’s average throw depth is only 7.5. That ranks him sixteenth out of thirty-two NFL quarterbacks with a minimum of 50 attempts. So it’s not a case of deep bombs all the time, this Seattle offence is patient and has found the perfect blend between running and passing.
The prevalence of cover 3 schemes in the NFL these days makes Seattle’s offence so potent. Wilson always has either Metcalf or Lockett one on one on the outside on the majority of his passing attempts. You can double Lockett, or you can double Metcalf. You can’t double them both.
Big time throws
Per PFF’s Sam Monson on The Athletic’s Football Show, in that last two years, Russell Wilson has the most ‘big-time throws’ in the NFL (big-time throws being PFF’s highest-graded throws).
That’s no surprise considering the type of offence Wilson is conducting. As mentioned before, defences can’t double team both Lockett and Metcalf at the same time, and right now, they’re the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL.
Tyler Lockett is Wilson’s very own Tyreek Hill; a small, speedy receiver capable of taking the top off defences or running around multiple defenders, utilising his speed in the YAC game. However, Lockett, like Hill, ranks in the lower percentile of receivers with YAC. This indicates that Wilson is doing most of the work for Lockett with his arm on those lethal deep throws.
Tyler Lockett is the MOST UNDERRATED WR in the NFL
— DK Metcalf (@dkm14) October 1, 2020
With Lockett in mind, DK Metcalf has taken a giant leap forward this year and is quickly becoming Wilson’s go-to target. Watching tape on Wilson, Metcalf kept jumping off the screen, demanding attention time and time again. Take a look at this example of Metcalf’s and Russ’ synergy from Week One against the Falcons.
Atlanta’s defence is pretty much in a cover 3 shell (one single-high safety and two corners on the left and right side playing their own deep third) for most of the game. Thus creating the perfect scenario for Wilson to exploit them deep on the outside.
The Atlanta safety is on the right hash – his attention focused primarily on Tyler Lockett. Wilson knows Lockett will be doubled so he looks to Metcalf and recognises that Falcons corner, Isaiah Oliver, is playing press coverage. As soon as Wilson sees box safety, Keanu Neal, stay on the 30-yard line, he lets rip and drops the ball into a breadbasket for the Metcalf touchdown.
Before this throw, Wilson had thrown short all game before springing the trap for the Seattle score.
Let’s take a look at the Wilson – Metcalf connection again. Here we meet the Seahawks up in the 4th quarter, driving to kill the game.
Once again, Atlanta is in that predictable cover 3 shell with Metcalf one on one on the outside. Metcalf proceeds to COOK his matchup with a beautiful sluggo route (sluggo: slant-and-go, a slant mixed with a go route) for the big gain. Metcalf’s route running has come on leaps and bounds this season. If he can combine his size and speed with crispy route running, then the sky is the limit for the young receiver.
The third and final example we’ll look at came against New England in Week Two. The Patriots love playing cover 1 robber on defence (cover 1 robber: one single-high safety, with man-to-man coverage everywhere else apart from the middle of the field where the ‘robber’ plays zone. In this instance #35, Kyle Dugger is the robber, also known as the rat).
In this instance, Metcalf is lined up in the slot against Stephon Gilmore. Wilson sends running back Chris Carson in motion to confirm it is indeed cover 1 he’s facing. Now, Gilmore is the best corner in the NFL. Yet, due to the corner post, Gilmore gives Metcalf inside leverage before being caught off guard as the receiver bursts to the corner.
Wilson, once again, drains the deep pass like Steph Curry drains three-pointers. At this point in the NFL, aside from maybe Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, there is not a better deep thrower than Russell Wilson.
Most Valuable Player
Much has been made in the NFL cognoscenti about Wilson never receiving a single MVP vote. Although there have been a few egregious nominations over the Seahawks quarterback, the NFL MVP voting does not operate like a ballot. You get one single vote and that’s it.
Since Wilson has been in the league, there has not been one season where the quarterback has deserved an MVP vote over another player. Last season over Lamar Jackon? No. 2018 over Mahomes? No. 2017 over Tom Brady? No. I could go on.
This is not a slight to Wilson, since 2014 he has constantly been in the upper echelons of NFL quarterbacks. However, in 2020, Wilson is surrounded by the best receiver tandem in the league, a veteran tight end in Greg Olsen and a nice stable of running backs. If Wilson’s play was to decline from this point on, it could be only due to one of two things; either the offensive line collapses – Wilson does have the tendency to hold the ball for too long, and on each of these deep bombs downfield, he gets nailed at the end of them – or these past three weeks of play-calling have been an anomaly from Brian Schottenheimer.
However, these past three weeks have been a masterclass in play-calling from Schottenheimer, quarterbacking from Wilson and receiver play from both Lockett and Metcalf. If Wilson, and to a larger extent the Seahawks, are to maintain this level of execution, then the NFC may have found it’s Super Bowl contender to take on Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.