At 5 feet 10 and seven inches, Russell Wilson would be the shortest quarterback to play in a Super Bowl. Amazing to see him carry such a monumental burden on that humble frame. He already has become an MVP candidate, outperforming the young quarterbacks who have received more acclaim — Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck — but also are struggling to varying degrees in their second seasons. More importantly, Wilson has been an impressive model of consistent leadership and production, oozing necessary cool and class for a Seattle team that otherwise smacks of his evil antithesis.
The Seahawks, if you haven’t noticed, are a renegade operation. You probably haven’t noticed because they are based outside the national media vortex, in the Pacific Northwest, but as they romp through the NFC, they continue to be dogged by NFL suspensions — seven since 2011 — for substance-abuse or performance-enhancing-drugs violations. Their coach is Pete Carroll, who fled for Seattle as USC’s house was burning down in one of the NCAA’s most infamous scandals, and with the Seahawks bee-lining to meet the Denver Broncos in New York’s first Super Bowl, a story line already is developing: Crazy Pete and his drug thugs against the American darling, Peyton Manning.
Not only is Wilson a model citizen amid the drug cloud, he has played better over the last month than the record-stalking Manning and every other quarterback. His tear continued in a 34-7 blowout of Seattle’s foremost NFC challenger, the New Orleans Saints, directing the Seahawks offense with such poise and panache that GQ editors should apologize for relegating him to an inside sidebar — modeling cardigan sweaters — while Kaepernick and Griffin graced the cover in September. He has no rhythmic nickname. He has no wild tats.
He just wins and excels, going 19-4 over his last 23 starts with 43 touchdown passes and a 115 passer rating while somehow staying upright as a dual-threat weapon absorbing countless hits. We knew Wilson was terrific last season, when he tied the rookie record for touchdown passes and led the Seahawks to the divisional round of the playoffs. While others in his quarterbacking class have regressed — Griffin after a devastating knee injury, Kaepernick snuffed out by the demise of the zone-read option, Luck fading without sufficient weapons — Wilson has been even better. The nation was privileged to view his progress against the Saints, whom he riddled for 310 passing yards and three touchdowns. Needless to say, it would be shocking to see anyone beat the Seahawks in the playoffs at home, where their fans break decibel records and Wilson has gone 14-0 as an exceptional defense establishes the tone for a rock show.
“For us to come out in that fashion and to win that game the way that we did was awesome,” said Wilson, who blew away his boyhood idol, Drew Brees.
With a dominant defense and an efficient offense, Seattle looks like the NFL’s best team. They also talk the talk. “It wasn’t that we had to play them. They had to play us,” said defensive end Michael Bennett, per ESPN.com, after he contributed a fumble recovery and 22-yard touchdown run to the rout. “We’re the best defense in the NFL, and we want to be the best ever.” But without Wilson to calm the rowdy ship, the Seahawks would be vulnerable to their hubris. Against the Saints’ gambling defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, Wilson knew he would face pressure. He handled it with aplomb.
“We wanted to be great against the blitz,’’ he said. “We prepared for it. We like the pressure because we know there’s a lot of green grass behind it. But for us to win that game the way we did was pretty awesome. The crowd was awesome and broke the (decibel) record again.”
The noise contests may be dubious because another city sets new standards every week, with Seattle reclaiming the “record” from Kansas City. But the city’s raucous love-in for this team is real and breathtaking, with Wilson serving as the equilibrium for the rah-rah Carroll and the law-breakers on defense. “He’s just efficient,” wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. “He doesn’t have to do too much because we have a great defense, but when he gets the opportunity to make plays, he does that as you saw. It’s just a tribute to the hard work Russell puts in and his preparation and consistency, which is off the charts. I believe Russell was 22-for-30, which means we left (eight) plays out there on the field. We’ve definitely got room for improvement.” Which will come when receiver Percy Harvin, one of the league’s most explosive weapons, returns at full strength from a surgically repaired hip.
Carroll looks unstoppable in his quest to become the rare coach who wins championships on the NFL and college levels. But he will be smothered, particularly by the Super Bowl media swarms in New York, with questions about the drug issues. if the Seahawks were a major-league baseball team, people would be calling for a massive investigation of a dirty franchise because baseball is a sacred sport beholden to history and numbers in different eras. PED use is more tolerated in the NFL — people assume football players are juicing because of the sport’s barbaric nature — but it doesn’t excuse the Seahawks from overindulging. Carroll is known for gambling on problematic players and may want to rethink his philosophy about character.
“We’re still trying to work through it. I’ll say it again: I’ve always found myself looking for guys that maybe other people don’t see something special in and we take a chance on a guy here or there that needs some extra consideration and care,” Carroll said after correrbacks Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner were suspended last week. “And sometimes guys they have issues and things pop up but I’ve always been kind of hopeful and make guys find the best in them and bring it out. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. We’ll certainly hang with our guys and take care of them.”
Receiver Golden Tate was closer to the better point, describing the drug users as “selfish.” Said Tate, on 710 ESPN Radio in Seattle: “Everyone should realize where this team is. You are affecting way more than yourself. I feel like that was kind of a selfish move on both those guys’ part. But it is what it is. The show must go on.”
And it does.
Carroll’s devil-may-care stance won’t win him many fans around the league. But Russell Wilson’s character keeps shining through the haze. It is Manning’s year and his MVP award, but someday, it will belong to the best pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch football player on the planet.