Russell Wilson talks to Peyton Manning after Seattle's 30-10 preseason win over the Denver Broncos. (AP)RENTON, Wash. — While the Tennessee Titans and Miami Dolphins provided clarity to their preseason plans by naming Jake Locker and Ryan Tannehill as their respective long-term starters, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll did nothing but upset the applecart by naming rookie quarterback Russell Wilson his starter for Seattle's Week 3 preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday.
Wilson, drafted in the third round, was seen to be the definitive backup to former Green Bay Packers backup Matt Flynn, who was signed to a three-year contract in the offseason. Flynn performed reasonably well as the starter through the first two preseason games, especially in last Saturday's 30-10 win over the Denver Broncos. (His 6-of-13, 31-yard performance was much better than the numbers indicate, because Terrell Owens was 0 for 5 on his targeted passes, and Flynn unleashed a couple of nice deep throws.)
Wilson, however, has forced the issue in the second half of wins over the Broncos and Tennessee Titans. Playing against second-team defenses but with reserve teammates as well, he's put up impressive numbers: 22 of 33 for 279 yards, three touchdowns and one interception to Flynn's 17 of 26 for 107 yards for no touchdowns and one interception. Wilson has an 8.5 yards per attempt average; Flynn's is 3.9.
As Seahawks general manager John Schneider said Wednesday on SIRIUS NFL Radio, the decision isn't as much about Flynn as it is about Wilson's compelling play with and against non-starters, and the now imperative need to see where he is against the ones.
"He's been going with the twos, he's had eight drives, and scored six times: five touchdowns and one field goal," Schneider told Adam Schein and Rich Gannon. "He's been pretty dynamic. Matt's done a nice job and has a good feel for the system ... Russell's done so much in the second half of these two games. Pete preaches competition all the time, he'd be remiss if he didn't put this guy with the ones and see what he could do with that group."
Wilson has received as many reps as any backup would through Seattle's training camp -- more than most, actually -- and as time went on, it seemed that Wilson's coaches wanted to test him more to see how he would react. I asked Carroll on Tuesday just what he'd seen out of the rookie.
"First off, his poise and the ability to just feel comfortable and communicate really well and he has done a great job at that especially for a being a first-time guy at that," Carroll said. "When you look at Russell's numbers passing, running, and putting points on the board it has been obvious that's the stuff that we have seen, he has a great arm and a great vision. It's just exciting to watch this kid play and everyone that's grown up and watched him back at N.C. State and Wisconsin and we're seeing the same thing they saw. He's carried the style of play from college level to our level in these first couple preseason games and we are going to see what that means in Game 3."
In fact, as I posed to Wilson, it seems that his college experience makes him an unusually good fit for Seattle's offense. He played in a West Coast offense at N.C. State, and added a liberal dose of two-back, power zone, old-school football in the one year he spent at Wisconsin after giving Major League Baseball a shot.
Perhaps the most impressive attribute Wilson showed in his two NFL games was the ability to effectively and intelligently improvise even after the pocket, and the original play, breaks down. It's something that many athletic quarterbacks struggle with for years, but Wilson and Carroll said that they saw Wilson's ability to make something out of nothing as a key tool important to his future.
"He's been doing that for a long time -- we have not taught him that," Carroll said. "That's something that he brings with him. He has extraordinary instincts for when to move and when to get out, and he's very effective at making the right choice, and knowing how to handle the situation. He can escape, he knows how to get out of bounds or on the ground, and he knows where the sticks are to make the first down -- he's shown that three or four times already. He has tremendous awareness, and that's from all of his playing days."
Experience can only teach so much, though. Wilson's innate sense of when to make the play and when to bail out comes from a sense of order on the field that he best explained.
"I think more than anything just salvage the play as much as I can," he said. "I'm obviously always looking to throw the ball, I'm never looking to run the ball first, but if nothing is open I may extend the play here and there for a couple of more seconds to try to find guys down the field. I always keep my eyes down the field. That is something I have learned throughout playing in high school and college. So I think that is really important. Being smart with the football, throwing it away if it's not there, and just getting to the next play. It's never bad punting the ball either. You don't have to force the ball all the time. Obviously there are certain situations at the end of a game or at the end of a half you may have to throw it up or whatever, but you always just try to salvage the play and get something positive. If I'm going to run the ball and escape or something, just try to get 4 or 5 yards if I can."
Carroll wanted to make it clear that although the third preseason game is generally the one in which the quarterback will see most of the first-team defense -- and that's why the third start generally goes to the eventual regular-season starter -- the move to start Wilson is by no means definitive or indicative of anything long term. it's simply based on a need to see what Wilson can do against the best of the best ... to see what happens when Tamba Hali is in his face, and Eric Berry is reading his throws before they leave his hands.
"I don't think we will see anything different than what we have been seeing," Carroll said of the idea that Flynn should remain the starter. "I know that there's a thought about Game 3 and we need to always be in tune, however neither John nor I feel we have to operate under that kind of guidance system and we have not been. We are really excited about what we have so far and let's take another week and see what that means. I told you we are going to need preseason to figure this thing out. It's a great competitive opportunity for these guys as quarterbacks."
Wilson, who's been marginalized by some experts due to his 5-foot-10 5/8 stature (there are many in the league who believe that he would have been a top-10 pick at 6-foot-2) sees this as just one more challenge to ace.
"I definitely imagined myself always being successful. I knew one thing, I was going to do everything I could to be successful. That's what I always do no matter what the situation is, no matter what situation I'm in rather right now or down the road, I'm always going to do the best that I can to put myself in the best situation possible and put the Seahawks in the best situation possible. That's all I can do, that's all I can control and just put my best foot forward every time I have an opportunity."
The Chiefs await, and then, perhaps the rest of the NFL. Russell Wilson is clearly on an unexpected fast track.