Why Russell Wilson finally getting to lead pass-first offense is NFL's top early season development

Matt Harmon
·8 min read

If you’ve spent any time hanging around the dregs of football twitter, you know that for years we’ve bemoaned the lack of a forward-thinking passing attack in Seattle. It’s been happening for the better part of five years but has reached a crescendo the last year and a half as the #LetRussCook movement took over.

In Week 1, it finally happened. The Seahawks were one of the most pass-heavy teams in the opening slate, throwing the ball on over 65 percent of their first-down plays in neutral situations. Only the Eagles out-paced them. It’s a drastic flip, especially when you consider that Seattle largely controlled the action against Atlanta, cruising to a convincing win.

Let’s not mince words. This is a massive development; for Seahawks football, for fantasy managers and, straight up, for fans of good football the world over. The magnitude of a shift in Seattle’s approach to offensive play-calling almost can’t be measured. This changes everything.

FINALLY, the Seahawks unleashed Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson (3) of the Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks finally let Russ cook! (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Ringer’s Kevin Clark likes to say that the Seahawks have never played a normal football game. Hard to argue. Something about the team under Pete Carroll’s watch has long given way to particularly weird scripts, wild fourth quarter finishes, and dramatic moments.

I’d assert that the Seahawks’ insistence on establishing the run and playing conservative football for years after their roster no longer fit that approach had invited the type of close games where heroics from their quarterback were needed to win. Luckily, they have been playing with one of the league’s best quarterbacks. That gives you plenty of room for bailouts.

If the Seahawks are finally committed to turning the keys fully over to Russell Wilson ... all bets are off. Also, we should feel pretty strongly that Carroll and co. have indeed had this epiphany. Apparently, Wilson went to the coaching staff himself and demanded the change. You can dismiss all that as rumor-mongering but in an era when players are more empowered than ever, it’s entirely plausible that one of the five best players at his position can wield such power over those who share his place at the top of the organizational hierarchy.

A pass-first, Wilson-centric Seattle team instantly rockets to the top of the NFC power rankings. Hell, a team that revolves around Wilson may well just be the favorite to take down that conference, if not win the whole damn thing (read: Super Bowl). As long as they keep this approach, they’ll be my pick to rep the NFC in February.

Seriously.

Wilson is one of the most efficient passers in the game. Since 2016, Wilson trails only Patrick Mahomes in touchdown rate (6.0%) while ranking fourth among quarterbacks to throw at least 1,000 passes in both passer rating (101.5) and adjusted yards per attempt (8.21). In the same span, he’s averaged 5.1 yards per rush attempt and scored seven more times. All that was just in case there’s any human out there still delusional enough to not consider Wilson a clear, at worst, top-five quarterback in the NFL. He is the epitome of a player you run an offense through, not just count on as a last resort.

We’ve already seen the ramifications of this shift for fantasy football. In Week 1, Wilson was the top-scoring quarterback, led a running back to a massive day, and fed his top-two receivers. The offense looked exactly like many hoped with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf combining for 45.7 percent of the team targets and a laughably high 99.2 percent share of the team air yards. It’s a funnel offense where we know exactly who is going to get fed. That’s the dream.

The Seahawks have long had the type of quarterback you need to dominate the modern NFL. The last two seasons they’ve had the receivers emerge to put the icing on the cake. Now, as long as what we saw in Week 1 is their new approach, they’re sitting on the exact type of offense a 2020 team needs to rival Mahomes’ Chiefs or Lamar Jackson’s Ravens.

This is going to be so fun. Records could be broken, fantasy titles will be won, remarkable moments will go down in the library of league history.

Thank the football gods. This was easily the biggest, most consequential development to come out of Week 1.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Austin Ekeler both Top-10 among RBs in routes run (20)

Despite prolific resumes as pass-catchers, these two AFC West running backs turned in extremely lackluster performances in the receiving box score. Edwards-Helaire was held catchless on two targets. Not what we expected after he broke LSU’s record for most catches by a running back with 55. Ekeler registered just one catch on his lone target of Week 1. Prior to Sunday, he hadn’t finished a game with just one target since Week 17 of 2018.

[Week 2 Fantasy Rankings: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | FLEX | DST | Kickers]

Yet, the narrative around these players’ future receiving workload is quite different. Edwards-Helaire is universally expected to see an uptick in target volume. The fantasy hive mind seems to have accepted that Ekeler’s receiving work will be nearly wiped out.

We’ll obviously find out more when their two teams go head-to-head in Week 2. However, considering the route volume is already in place for these two guys, the smart bet is to expect more targets for both going forward.

Diontae Johnson among Steelers Week 1 pass-catchers:

- 32.3% of team targets (1st)

- 55 snaps (1st-tied)

- 32 routes run (2nd)

Some absolute lunatics wanted to bury Diontae Johnson at halftime on Monday night after a drop and a muffed punt. Imagine being more over-reactionary.

You shouldn’t care about those mistakes one bit because based on the volume and playing time he received following the miscues, the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger didn’t care about them. No matter what you think Johnson’s ceiling as a player is, the Steelers clearly view him as one of their top-two playmakers. He’s one of the biggest trade-for candidates heading into a matchup with a depleted Broncos secondary.

Top-5 teams in play-action play rate:

  1. Bills

  2. 49ers

  3. Chiefs

  4. Rams

  5. Patriots

Some of these squads aren’t much of a surprise. The Rams, Chiefs, and 49ers have been built around play-action passing for years. New England made plenty of use of play fakes with Tom Brady in the fold and it only makes sense they’d juice that up with a refreshed Cam Newton under center.

The Bills are the surprise here, as they ranked 24th last year. Josh Allen led the NFL in play-action passes (18) in Week 1. He completed 12 of those passes for 165 yards and one score with a 114.4 passer rating. Buffalo was also top-six in percentage of plays with motion, per ESPN, first in plays run (81) and eighth in passing play percentage at 58 percent on early downs (1st/2nd) despite controlling the contest against the Jets.

There’s just so much positive signal out of Buffalo’s offense from Week 1. As long as this holds up, it’s all systems go for Josh Allen, Zack Moss as the goal-line back, and the wide receiver duo of John Brown and Stefon Diggs.

Top-5 teams in early down success rate:

  1. Vikings

  2. Patriots

  3. Cowboys

  4. Rams

  5. Raiders

The Vikings and Raiders are surprises here. For Minnesota, there’s probably some garbage time discounting we need to apply to this number. The Packers had a vice grip on that game from at least half-time on. With Las Vegas, this could be a product of playing a way-too-inexperienced Panthers defense.

The middle three offenses are more in line with expectations. The Patriots look like they’ve built an ideal infrastructure for Cam Newton at a rapid pace. The Cowboys were an underwhelming Week 1 performer but with all the talent, they could be in line for a bounce-back. Dallas gets Atlanta in Week 2 — fire the canons. It also looks like we underrated the Rams coming into 2020. This looks like it will continue to be one of the most productive ecosystems in the league.

Just 40% of Odell Beckham Jr.’s targets were deemed “catchable” by PFF

According to Rich Hribar, that ranked 57th out of 60 players with five-plus+ targets In Week 1. Not what you want.

Look, if you thought any part of the Browns offense was going to be successful against the Ravens in Week 1, that’s on you. It was clear to see this team installing a new system after a shortened offense was going to run into a buzzsaw against a continuity-laden Ravens team boasting an MVP passer and pristine defense. You shouldn’t have expected Beckham to produce.

That said, it’s troubling that for over a year now, we’ve witnessed the play of Baker Mayfield flounder and the chemistry between him and his top receiver never materialize. We should still expect Beckham to rebound in 2020 but the fact the conditions that existed during his poor 2019 season were so present behind center in Week 1 brings some pause.

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