Barring some kind of zero-TD, 10-interception catastrophe in his final two games, Lamar Jackson’s going to win the NFL MVP this season. You know this. I know this. What this article presupposes is, what if Jackson doesn’t win? Is there a case to be made for Russell Wilson, who’s in the midst of the greatest season of his underrated career?
Were it not for Jackson — had he been playing receiver, as we all know some suggested he should — Wilson would’ve already locked down MVP honors. He’s not going to win — Jackson’s just too magnetic, too transformative, too new for Wilson to overcome — but Russell Wilson has, in one season, rewritten his own legacy, completed Seattle’s total transformation from defensive deathtrap to offensive battleship, and established himself as one of the elite quarterbacks for the decade to come.
Not bad for a guy whose own teammate once told him he f—ing sucked.
Second-tier QB no more
Every roundup of the NFL’s top quarterbacks over the last few years always hits the same notes, like a classic rock band trotting out the familiar hits — Brady, Brees, Rodgers, over and over. Wilson’s always in that “oh yeah, him too” second tier, but why? What is it about him in particular and the Seahawks in general that keeps Wilson out of the ranks of the elite?
Perhaps it’s familiarity; Wilson is durable as hell — he’s started every single game since he entered the league eight years ago, and he burst onto the scene with two Super Bowls in his first three years. He’s had enough national exposure and enough big games that we feel like we know what to expect from him.
Perhaps there’s still some lingering unconscious bias against Wilson stemming from the days when Seattle’s defense pounded the rest of the league into paste, and Wilson’s only job was not to screw things up too badly. Back then, Wilson drew jealous grumbles from the Legion of Boom, which noticed the way coach Pete Carroll protected his young QB like a mother chewing out the school bullies.
That all came to a head back during a 2014 minicamp, when Richard Sherman intercepted a Wilson pass and, according to an ESPN story, threw it back to him with the above performance review. The defense muttered about Wilson’s preferential treatment, and raged when Wilson threw an interception later that season that cost the team the Super Bowl — and the defense a chance at claiming the title of “all-time greatest.” Four years later, Wilson’s still here, but the Legion is no more.
(There’s also the fact that Wilson — look, there’s no easy way to put this — is a bit of a weirdo. All the power in the world to the dude for jamming to his own beat, but between his strange, earnest, open-air romance with wife Ciara and his hawking of dubious concussion remedies, he’s got some odd angles. We’re fine with our QBs having an obsessive love of ketchup or fear of strawberries, but that’s the line. When you’re a quarterback, you get one mild quirk. That’s all.)
Regardless of the reason, it’s impossible to ignore Wilson any longer. He signed a contract this offseason that made him the highest-paid player in the league at $35 million a season, a deal that raised eyebrows and drew heat when Seattle basically stripped the team to the chassis to orchestrate it. Where the Seahawks had won Super Bowls paying the defense top dollar and employing Wilson on a cheap rookie deal, now they were making Wilson the centerpiece of the team.
Was Wilson worth it? In the post-Super Bowl years, the how-did-he-do-that escapes and put-it-in-the-Louvre passes never wavered, but Wilson’s success did. He was an NBA player in an NFL context, much better in Twitter snippets than in actual gameplay. Could he flip the Seahawks’ entire philosophy from defense to offense? Was he worth the team’s total faith?
As it’s turned out — absolutely. He’s pulled a team of castoffs, role players and low draft picks to the top of the NFC. After seeing favored receiver Doug Baldwin retire, Wilson turned his sights to improving Tyler Lockett’s stats, and transformed unheralded second-round pick DK Metcalf into a highlight-reel stud. Chris Carson harkens back to the bowling-ball days of Marshawn Lynch enough to give defenses a pause that Wilson exploits. And when Wilson’s got time to act, he’s got time to create sorcery. He’s in total control even amid chaos, a grandmaster playing chess in a constant hurricane.
Does Wilson have a real MVP case?
Judging by topline stats, Wilson matches up reasonably well with Jackson. Seattle is 11-3, Baltimore is 12-2. Wilson has 28 touchdowns to Jackson’s 33, five interceptions to Jackson’s six. Wilson’s completion percentage is 67.4 percent; Jackson’s, 66.2. Wilson averages more yards per game — 264.9 to 206.4 — but he also throws the ball about five more times a game, too.
Dig a little deeper, and the waters get even muddier, especially when you start to consider whether “Most Valuable Player” means “Best” or “Most Irreplaceable.” The Ravens have been pummeling teams into submission, winning their 12 games by an average of 19.6 points. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have had to scrap their way to double-digit victories; 10 of their 11 wins are one-possession ones. Wilson has led Seattle to four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives, both career highs.
In their matchup earlier this season, a 30-16 Baltimore victory back in Week 7, Jackson rushed for a touchdown, while Wilson threw for one. Jackson wasn’t particularly impressive through the air, but he did have a 30-yard run, while Wilson, struggling in ugly weather, threw his first interception of the season, a pick-six. Advantage here: Jackson.
There’s also the fact, though, that Jackson has the benefit of a voracious defense on his side, while Wilson — hey, here’s some irony — has to compensate for a far more porous one. Seattle’s 21st-ranked D gives up nearly a touchdown a game more than No. 4 Baltimore — 24.6 points a game compared to 18.4 — every point of which, Wilson has to overcome.
Plus, Wilson authored the year’s most improbable play: a 13-yard touchdown pass to Lockett in Week 5 against the Rams that stood just a 6.3 percent chance of completion, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Here it is, one of the season’s best:
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 4, 2019
That’s impressive enough in itself, but Wilson also threw four of the top eight most improbable catches of the year, none of them with a greater than 15 percent chance of success. Bottom line: every time Wilson has the ball, he has the ability to alter the entire course of the game from multiple angles. It’s made him one of the year’s elite QBs, and it’ll make Seattle one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs once again.
Jackson’s likely to win the MVP award going away, and deservedly so. But there’s always that outside chance that Wilson could sneak in and vulture it away. It’d be just one more miracle in a season full of them.
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