Warren Moon’s mentorship helps Russell Wilson move past calls for his job

SEATTLE -- As the 2012 season began for the Seattle Seahawks, all the talk was about a third-round rookie from Wisconsin named Russell Wilson. The 5-foot-10 5/8 Wilson had deflected all talk about his size and took the starting job away from Matt Flynn, the free-agent signing who was expected to roll to that position after four years in Green Bay as Aaron Rodgers' backup.

Wilson sailed through the preseason and started to take his lumps when defenses got more complex in the regular season, as defenses will do. When he walked out of St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome last Sunday following a 19-13 loss to the Rams in which he threw three interceptions, Wilson had to know that at least among the local fan base, the drumbeats had started for a change at the quarterback position.

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, the man who signed off on Flynn's addition, only to watch Wilson clearly outshine him early, said on Wednesday that while Flynn is ready to come in the game if needed, there's no specific imperative to make a change at this time.

One voice in Wilson's ear is that of Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. Currently a member of the Seahawks' broadcast team, Moon played in the NFL from 1984 through 2000, and he was the Seahawks' starting quarterback in 1997  and 1998. As a man who passed for almost 50,000 yards in the NFL despite losing several potential early years to the Canadian Football League because of the stigma surrounding black quarterbacks at that time, Moon knows what it's like to prevail despite what people think of you. It's made him a friend to Wilson as the rookie tries to gain necessary experience.

"We had a long talk just the other night, on the airplane on the way back [from St. Louis]," Moon told me on Wednesday. "He wanted to get an assessment from me of where I thought he was right now -- that particular ballgame, and what he's done through the season so far. I'm not a guy who's going to try and pressure you with a bunch of suggestions, but if there's something I really feel I need to talk to you about, I'll seek you out and mention it to you. He's got a million different people trying to tell him what he needs to be doing -- I would much rather he comes to me when he needs to talk, and we've done that throughout the season."

While there are certainly aspects of Wilson's game that need improving at the NFL level, two things are apparent when speaking to players and coaches about him -- Wilson has the trust and belief of his teammates, and he's got the "little things" nailed to an impressive degree.

"I've seen him progress in areas of handling the team, tempo, calling the right plays, getting them in and out of the huddle, getting them in and out of the right protections," Moon said. "Getting them into the right plays, based on the looks. Those things he does like he's a veteran. He's very good at throwing the football on the move. There are times when he could stay in the pocket longer and trust his protection, and I think some of that came from the first game [against the Arizona Cardinals], when there was so much pressure, so early and so often. Neither he nor his offensive linemen had seen that kind of pressure all preseason long. First game, you get blitzed 60 percent of the time, and it was a little unsettling. You start bailing sooner than you should, and I understand that, because I did it even as a veteran."

In addition, Wilson's not shy about seeking ways to improve from those with more experience. This was even true right after the Seahawks' controversial "Monday Night Football" win over the Green Bay Packers.

"I remember right after the Green Bay game, with all the hysteria that went on -- I walked up to him, and the first thing out of his mouth was, 'I've got to stay in the pocket longer,'" Moon recalled. "He already knew it, and that's what I love about him. He assesses the things he does wrong, and he wants to correct them."

Part of Wilson's problem so far, Moon believes, is a game strategy that alternately fails to give Wilson enough responsibility at times, and then overcompensates by giving him too much. Projected through a full season, Wilson's numbers would be startlingly low for a 16-game starter. A prorated line of 240 completions in 400 attempts for 2,376 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions might have worked in 1973, but in the modern game, more is asked of the quarterback, even in the most rudimentary offensive system.

"I've told him that the team has to help you more -- getting involved in the offense," Moon said. "He can't go down the field -- boom, boom, boom, run-pass run-pass, and then run-run-pass. They're putting him in all these third-down situations where they ask him to throw the football, and it's tough to throw the football on third down. Especially when you're not in a rhythm of throwing the ball. It's hard to complete that third-down pass when everybody in the building knows it's coming, and they're all coming at you.

"He feels that he can do more and handle more than they're giving him. You've got to remember -- Pete's a defensive coach, and he preaches, 'Turnovers, and take care of the football.' He tells his quarterback constantly, 'Don't turn the ball over.' And you become ... frigid about throwing the football, because you're so worried about turning the ball over. Matt Hasselbeck complained about it when he was here, and Tarvaris Jackson was told that constantly last year. He played like a robot, and Russell is starting to do that. They've got to relax on that stuff."

Carroll might say, as he did Wednesday, that the process is about matching Wilson to the game plan over time.

"We're trying to make sure that we are doing things to compliment the run game, and we're trying to do things that we know we can do well," Carroll said. "When you don't have a backlog of a lot of plays and history, then you have to grow with the things as you add. There are things that we'll be doing; no matter what we do we can't get a lot of reps at it. It's really nailed as we grow with the offense. We're doing that week to week and it's a day-to-day process. Mainly we're trying to fit things together with guys that do things well in terms of the routes that we run, in terms of the throws that we want to make, it all fits together with both sides. It's not just the quarterback; it's a little bit of everything. All clubs that are starting with newer quarterbacks are in that mode for a while, and it just takes time."

Moon also feels that given the same overall game plan, Flynn would be no better in that spot -- in fact, things might be worse.

"Because of his immobility -- not that he can't move at all, but he's not as mobile as Russell -- he'd probably get sacked a little more. Russell's been able to get out of some jams because of his athleticism, and if they called the game the same way, Russell's throwing it at about a 60 percent [completion] clip. [Flynn]'s a veteran, but he's a two-game veteran."

When I asked if his strong opinions could cause conflict in the building, Moon waved that off. "He wants to do more," Moon said of Wilson. "He's used to having a lot more on his shoulders, and being the focal guy. But he understands that he's a rookie, and he understands where they're coming from, too. What I say is that you don't want to put any quarterback -- rookie or veteran -- in a position where the only time you ask them to make plays is on third down. That's a tough down for everybody. Get him involved in early passing downs, and Pete talked about that today. They're aware of it, and I'm not saying anything they don't know. I'm just voicing my opinion."

When Carroll voiced his opinion, it appeared that Wilson's job isn't in any imminent danger as the team prepares for a Sunday road game against the Carolina Panthers. "We'll continue to grow," Carroll said. "We have thrown the ball fewer times than anybody in the league, but [Wilson] was 17 for 23 on first and second down last week. Those are pretty darn good numbers, we just didn't produce on third down. If we tie that together, we know we can be effective and be a pretty good team. He's very hard on himself, but he has great resolve, and he believes in himself. He's steady."

So, why don't the Seahawks expand the palette at this time? If they want any quarterback to succeed in their offense, they're going to have to at some point.

Moon is already a believer. When I asked him if Wilson has what it takes to be a legitimate NFL starter over a period of years, Moon was succinct.

"I think he has a chance to be special."

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