Is This Real? Russell Wilson, Elite QB

Russell WilsonOf all the players in the NFL last Sunday, it was Russell Wilson who turned the most heads. Marshaling a 97-yard touchdown drive with 3:40 left in the game against Chicago to take a 17-14 lead was one thing, but after the Bears miraculously tied the game in the 20 seconds left for them on the clock, Wilson made a mockery of momentum in overtime and drove 79 yards in 12 plays to score a second game-winning touchdown. The first drive revolved around Wilson’s abilities as a passer, as he went 6-of-8 for 77 yards, but the second drive saw the Seahawks use Wilson with Marshawn Lynch in the read option and rely on Wilson’s work as a runner. He ran for 28 yards on the drive, and when he had to throw, he completed all three of his passes, picking up 12 yards on a key third-and-5 and then immediately following that with the game-winner to Sidney Rice.

It was a crucial road win for the Seahawks, who have now won three of their last four games and now have, according to Football Outsiders, an 87.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. Wilson’s improvement has been cited as the key factor in that winning streak, and that’s something worth looking at: Has Seattle’s rise coincided with a dramatic leap in Wilson’s play? Is there some particular aspect of Wilson’s performance that has driven that improvement? And is that sustainable? Is this the real new Russell Wilson?

Well, the numbers sure seem to say so. Although Wilson’s impressive stretch actually began with the Week 8 loss to the Lions, let’s split Seattle’s performance into the first half of the year (an eight-game stretch that saw them go 4-4) and the third quarter of the year (their aforementioned 3-1 stretch). The difference between those two runs has been almost entirely driven by an improvement in their offense. The defense allowed an average of 16.8 points per game in the first half, and that’s risen slightly to 17.0 points per game in the last four outings. Meanwhile, Wilson’s offense was averaging just 17.5 points per game during the first half of the season, but in the third quarter of the season, the Seahawks are all the way up to 25.5 points a game. There are some nits to pick — a fumble return for a touchdown “against” the defense, a kick return touchdown from Leon Washington — but it’s pretty clear what’s changed during this win streak.

Specifically, Wilson’s numbers have blossomed. Blossomed like MVP Candidate blossomed. No, really:

Line up those numbers from the last four games against the MVP candidate of your choice and they’re still going to look pretty good. Oh, who is Player A? That’s Robert Griffin III, whose seasonal line Wilson has eerily matched over the last month. RG3 has been a better runner, but the difference isn’t enormous — Griffin’s run for 238 yards on 35 carries (6.8 yards per attempt), while Wilson’s picked up 170 yards on his 30 rushing attempts, an average of 5.7 yards per carry. And I don’t bring that up to detract from RG3’s brilliant work this year whatsoever; it’s just important to acknowledge that Wilson’s been every bit as good over these past four tilts.

The unsustainable thing about his performance, of course, is that big fat zero in the interception column. Wilson was throwing a pick every 26 passes or so during the first eight weeks of the year, but over the last four games, he’s had 107 attempts without surrendering one to the other team. If he continued to throw interceptions at his previous rate, he would have had four picks over the last four weeks. Now, there’s no guarantee that Wilson’s “true” interception rate will return to that one-in-26 figure from the first eight games, but it’s safe to say that he won’t be the first quarterback in NFL history to stop throwing picks altogether. Wilson will almost surely see interceptions return to his game over the final four weeks of the season. If that means one or two picks in four games, there shouldn’t be a noticeable difference; if it means six or seven, well, that could drive a dramatic downswing in Seattle’s performance.

Obviously, throwing no interceptions is good. Has there been some other change in Wilson’s output worth mentioning? Fortunately, for the purposes of this column, there’s been one dramatic swing: third down. Wilson’s productivity on third down has skyrocketed over the last month. During the first eight games of the year, in situations where neither team led by more than 14 points, Wilson completed 51.6 percent of his passes and converted just 30.3 percent of the third downs he threw on. That was good for 26th in the league.

Since Week 9, Wilson has completed 60.5 percent of his passes in the same situations, and those passes have converted an even 50 percent of third downs. That’s tied with Green Bay for the best rate in football. That’s staggering; seemingly overnight, the Seahawks have gone from being one of the worst third-down passing teams in the NFL to its best. It speaks to how random third-down conversion rate can be over the course of a season, but again, the truth about Wilson’s level of play likely lies somewhere in between. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll lead the league in picking up third downs alongside Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning, but if Wilson falls to 12th in that category over the last four games, Seattle should be just fine. If he tumbles all the way back to 26th, well, that doesn’t work.

There’s your recipe for the Seattle offense (and Wilson) getting better: When you don’t throw any interceptions and you pick up half the third downs you face, chances are that your offense is going to do very well. You can see the evidence in Seattle’s ability to possess the ball, too. During their 4-4 start, Seattle averaged 29:54 of possession per game, with 43.2 percent of their drives going for 30 yards or more. The 3-1 stretch has seen them add nearly five minutes of possession per game, accruing 34:41 per contest, and they’ve produced drives of 30 yards or more on 56.1 percent of their possessions. That does more than create points for the offense; it saves points for the defense by improving their field position and producing longer fields for the opposing offense to traverse.

While the possibility of an easy schedule was always worth considering with NFC West players in the past, Wilson’s improvement hasn’t been driven by an easy run of games. He’s faced two top-ten pass defenses per DVOA in the past four weeks, including the ninth-ranked Jets and the top-ranked Bears. There’s been virtually no shift in the quality of the defenses he’s faced; during the first eight games, the average pass defense Wilson faced ranked 13th in DVOA, and over the last four, they’ve ranked 12th.

There’s one other factor that’s pushed Seattle into contention in the NFC that doesn’t involve Wilson or any four-game stretch: health. The Seahawks have been a remarkably healthy team this season, especially in terms of their starting 22, where injuries are far more meaningful. Seattle’s had a trouble spot on their offensive line, where James Carpenter and John Moffitt have each struggled to stay healthy, but they’ve otherwise been stunningly spry. By my count, the other 21 Seattle starters have missed a total of four games, with no single player missing more than one. That includes healthy seasons from oft-injured players like Sidney Rice (who, admittedly, just suffered a head injury and is following concussion protocol that might keep him out of this week’s game versus Arizona). Injuries are often blamed as the cause of many disappointing seasons, but health is almost never credited as the cause of many successful ones. Here’s one where that’s absolutely the case.

As for Wilson, though, is the new model the one we’ll see over the remainder of the season and into the playoffs? I don’t think so. There’s just too much to worry about in Wilson’s stat line to make me think that he’s going to be the same player for the rest of the year. The interceptions are going to come back. The third downs are going to slow down. Those changes are inevitable, and they have an oversize impact on winning football games. In the long term, I think Wilson should end up being a terrific quarterback — the ability to have even a four-game stretch this good as a professional quarterback says a lot about his ability to play at a high level — but Seahawks fans ought to expect a few more growing pains over the last four games of the season.

Filed Under: NFL, Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell