COMMENTARY | Though he's not the tallest NFL play-caller, Russell Wilson faces the pressure of standing taller than he ever has before leading up to the Seattle Seahawks' first game of the 2013 season on Sunday in Carolina.
Everywhere you look, the second-year quarterback -- who produced a historic rookie season en route to leading his team to the postseason and earning a Pro Bowl nod -- is in the media spotlight. From magazine covers to video game commercials to television interviews, Wilson is on a sports hot streak.
It's easy to see why.
He's coming off a campaign in which he tied Peyton Manning's rookie record for touchdown passes (26). He orchestrated Seattle's run into the postseason that culminated in a heartbreaking 30-28 loss to Atlanta in the divisional playoffs, but one where Wilson again pulled his team out of a deficit.
Last year, he stayed cool under the pressure of the NFL. He opened eyes across the league with his arm and feet. Off the field, he showed the kind of charisma that Johnny Manziel's handlers would pay money and give some cattle for.
Wilson and the Seahawks are facing the loftiest of lofty expectations as favorites to win a Super Bowl ring. ESPN has them No. 1 in its power rankings, and so do others. In Week 1, he travels to North Carolina to face a Panthers team that started last year with a record of 1-6, including a loss to these same Seahawks.
The momentum is on Wilson's side right now. People have hopped on his bandwagon. However, nothing could tip a bandwagon over faster than a lackluster Week 1 performance. Can you imagine the national narrative if Cam Newton -- who faced similar expectations after his rookie season -- outperforms the younger Wilson?
It won't be a cake-walk, as some Seahawk fans eagerly are suggesting. Starting the season at 10 a.m. Southwest Alaska time on the East Coast is difficult enough, let alone against a team that won its final four games of the regular season.
But if Wilson is to clear the high bar he has set for himself, he'll have to stick to a few things:
1. Let Marshawn Lynch, Seattle's Backfield Eat 'Em Up
While this may make fantasy owners who selected Wilson as their QB cringe (I, myself, am guilty as charged), this is the formula that propelled Seattle last year.
Seattle is a running team. It led the NFL in rushing attempts last year at 536. It has the league's most bruising back in Lynch. It has an athlete in rookie Christine Michael. Robert Turbin can also provide some quickness.
Given Seattle's read-option scheme, Wilson would be remiss to stray away from giving his backs a steady diet of carries. He tried to carry the team with his throwing in the preseason with varying results, including two picks at Green Bay. Running the ball will loosen the Panthers' defense so he can roll outside or look down the field for a pass play.
One question that will be answered Sunday is whether the absence of longtime, Pro Bowl fullback Michael Robinson -- who was cut last week to free up salary cap space -- will affect Wilson and the Seahawks' run game. He was a good blocker, but more importantly, he knew the schemes and could adapt as Wilson did. It will be interesting to see how the new fullbacks, Derrick Coleman and Spencer Ware, perform in Week 1.
2. When Wilson Does Run, He Shouldn't Try To Be Kaepernick, RG3 or Newton
Seahawk Nation is collectively asking Wilson to not be his more-tattooed counterpart in San Francisco, and it isn't just about kissing a bicep. (Although that's a huge reason in itself.)
In those instances when Wilson does find space to run Sunday, he needs to follow the 2012 script and immediately slide before a defender tries to obliterate him. And with his newly found notoriety, defenders across the league would just love to knock him down a peg or two, as well as out of the game for a few plays. Sliding is not a knock on his size. It's just what smart quarterbacks who want long, productive careers do.
This shouldn't be too big of a problem if Wilson sticks to what he did last year. Part of the reason the league became so enamored with him is he thinks like a seasoned veteran. Maybe it's his baseball background. Whatever the reason, he knows when to slide. That's a good thing.
3. Do Not Force (Too Many) Things in the Air
It's tempting for a quarterback like Wilson, who has a deceivingly strong arm, to try and force passes when receivers are covered.
And it often works. Just ask the Green Bay Packers. (I know, it was the refs, blah, blah.)
But Wilson should not try and force things with his arm. The guy Seattle's front office brought in specifically to create separation from defenders -- Percy Harvin -- is out for what now looks like the first half of the season. Seattle's other receivers such as Golden Tate and Sidney Rice had trouble creating their own space between defenders last season. Maybe a guy like Jermaine Kearse, with a combination of size and speed, will be Wilson's get-me-out-of-jail card when the rest of the receivers are blanketed, but he has yet to have a big game in the regular season.
For this week, at least, Wilson would be smart to play it safe while the offense works itself out. Use those running backs. Use those feet. Use that arm smartly.
An efficient, Week 1 win will remind the league that 2012 was no fluke.
Brent Champaco is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered professional, college and high school athletics in the Northwest. He has worked for several newspapers, including The News Tribune in Tacoma, and was a Senior Local Editor at Patch.com. He lives just outside of Seattle with his wife and two daughters.
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