LANDOVER, Md. – The smartest man at FedEx Field stood in the back corner of the Seattle Seahawks' locker room, hovering by the coaches offices. General manager John Schneider then leaned against a table, looked down at the carpet and shook his head.
No, the man who drafted Russell Wilson could not have imagined such brilliance from a quarterback picked to be a backup said a smiling Schneider minutes after his Seahawks beat the Washington Redskins 24-14 in the final game of wild-card weekend.
"I'd be lying to you if I told you that," said Schneider, whose team travels to play the NFC's top-seeded Atlanta Falcons next Sunday.
So if the man who saw potential greatness in an undersized quarterback from Wisconsin couldn't predict a season like Wilson's, who could? Yet in the Year of the Rookie Quarterback, this autumn of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, it's Wilson who is left standing in this postseason.
The player who was too short and too slow and too deliberate to lead all the predraft shows, and walk in a tie across the stage at Radio City Music Hall was the one walking to a bus Sunday night with his season still alive. Perhaps now the rest of the country will finally realize just how good the quarterback in Seattle has become.
All three of the great rookie quarterbacks were playing on Sunday. They were all in the same state, in stadiums less than 50 miles apart. By early evening there was no doubt as to the best one in the playoffs.
Wilson jogged silently into the Seahawks' locker room wearing the same cold, serious look that never seems to leave his face. He didn't wave to cameras or wave a No. 1 finger or run up to a knot of reporters as his receiver Doug Baldwin did and screamed: "Why y'all here? No words need to be said!"
He simply did what he has done 11 other times in this improbable rookie year. He won.
When the Seahawks fell behind 14-0 and looked like they were going to be blown out, Wilson was calm. He told his teammates they were fine. He told them they could still win the game. In his mind, he kept saying it didn't matter who won the first quarter, it was the end of the game that was important.
When the Seahawks needed a drive, he led them on one. When the Seahawks needed a big pass completion, he made one. When the Seahawks were desperate for a first down, he ran for one. For the game, he had 187 yards passing and 67 rushing. These are not gaudy statistics, but what Wilson does is not gaudy. He manages to create victories.
"Unassuming," is the word Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon used to describe Wilson as he stood in a hallway outside the Seahawks' locker room. But there is something more, Moon added, something that's hard to find in any quarterback let alone one in his first NFL season.
"He has confidence," Moon said. "He's been like that since day one."
Across the field, RG3 broke on Sunday. The Redskins pushed him farther than his body would go, forcing a hybrid of pro and college offenses and hoping he could run them to a Super Bowl that Washington has craved for two decades now. Perhaps if this was Dallas or Philadelphia, Sunday might have been different. Against Seattle's aggressive blitzing defense, his bad knee finally gave way. Like Luck a few hours before in Baltimore, the day would not be about Griffin.
Instead it was about the quarterback from nearby Richmond, Va., who is generously listed at 5-foot-11. As he has all year, he dodged the Redskins' pass rushers, he eluded tackles, he saw receivers down field and he completed enough important passes to win an important game.
So, yes, perhaps it is time to make the rookie quarterback conversation about Wilson now. The Seahawks have been trying to say this all year, ever since he took the starting job away from Matt Flynn in training camp. They have been telling the same story of a man who never rattles, who has made big pass plays out of certain sacks. They laugh at the folks who say he is too short or too slow. They agree, but they also say it doesn't matter.
"He's shifty," said Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin who spent a fruitless Champs Bowl in 2010 chasing Wilson around. Every time Irvin was sure he had Wilson, the quarterback was gone and his hands were empty.
On Sunday evening, Wilson showed off a different skill: he tried to throw a block. He ran in front of Marshawn Lynch as the running back raced toward the end zone for what would become the winning touchdown and he looked for a Redskins player to knock aside. Undoubtedly it shocked the television audience buried in Luck and RG3 hype, and missed the way Wilson has played this season. To the Seahawks players this brought a shrug.
"He does that all the time," Irvin said.
When asked about the attempted block, Wilson smiled. He then suggested he wanted to help Lynch since the rusher always tells him, "I've got your back."
For Wilson, this is about as exciting a response as he will give. And in the world of Luck and Griffin it will forever keep him from the commercials that other men get. Maybe that's all Wilson needs: His playoffs continue, the others' don't.
"People ask me if I have a chip on my shoulder because I was a third-round pick," Wilson said before leaving the stadium. "If I was first overall or picked in the third round where I was, I'm blessed to be a Seattle Seahawk."
In this he is probably right. Playing angry will only take you so far in the NFL. Eventually you have to be good. Eventually you have to come into the biggest game of your life, with 84,325 roaring in a foreign stadium and believe you can forget about a 14-0 deficit.
Eventually you just have to win.
Eventually you have to be the last rookie standing.
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