by Scott Kacsmar
Lord, I was born a scramblin' man.
If Russell Wilson ever wants to have his own Super Bowl Shuffle moment, he just has to slightly modify that 1973 classic from The Allman Brothers Band. Wilson has led all quarterbacks in scramble runs in each of his first three seasons, so that opening lyric summarizes him perfectly.
Or does it? To this day there is still a negative connotation associated with the running quarterback at the pro level. Former NFL general manager Bill Polian, who probably still hasn't turned the calendar over from 1973 yet, said earlier this season that "What we're seeing this year is the incredible erosion of the running quarterback." That was probably premature, but why does that not apply to Wilson? Is Andrew Luck still in the mix, or are his runs too infrequent and don't travel far enough to qualify?
What makes the player a "running quarterback" versus a quarterback who can run?
Wilson's league-leading scramble totals over the last three years have been very consistent at 50, 51 and 51 plays -- a hair over three times per game for a full regular season. Wilson also averages 2.0 designed runs per game in his career. Is that handful of plays each week the reason he's branded, or is it the sense that Wilson runs around like a chicken with its head chopped off too often? In a league where the highest-praised quarterbacks are in a feverish hurry to get rid of the ball within 2.5 seconds, Wilson's freelancing style is a bad look for some.
The plight of the mobile quarterback has always been the same in the NFL. For some people, the ideal quarterback is one who does everything a pocket passer can, but with the added dimension of mobility to make things happen when the play breaks down. There is nothing more dangerous than a quarterback who can accurately throw a ball 50 yards and also run for 50 yards on any given play. These dual-threat players often have great showcase reels, which feeds fans' spotlight syndrome, where negative plays are overlooked. One of the most popular myths in football is that mobile quarterbacks don't get sacked very much. In fact, they are often among the most-sacked passers in the league. Too many people assume the opposite because of the escapability that shines through in highlights.
Those mistakes do not get so easily overlooked by the detractors of the mobile quarterback, who are often football purists (read: slow to change). The critiques are all too common. He doesn't read the whole field and relies on one-read throws. He's too quick to run from the pocket and feels phantom pressure. He's not durable and isn't built for the long run. Once his speed declines, he's finished as a starter. Insert a "fake smile" comment if you are trying to sell some magazines in the digital age.
Yet here is that scrambling man Wilson, playing in the Super Bowl against one of the premier pocket passers of this century for the second year in a row. His style may not work as well in Denver or New England, but it's a perfect fit for Seattle. While the best passers in the league continue to struggle to throw against this Seahawks defense, Wilson uses his mobility to enhance a versatile Seattle offense.
The Mobility Project
Rather than conduct a high school science experiment for deflated balls, I spent my Super Bowl bye week charting Russell Wilson's 55-game NFL career (including playoffs). That's a total of 1,866 plays after removing three spikes and 52 kneeldowns.
The short version (no pun intended): he's very good and sometimes downright great, with plenty of room for improvement.
But you know I prefer long versions, and I planned to take on this study since December. One of the easiest storylines this season was that what Wilson lost in his passing efficiency, he was making up for with an improved rushing attack. Wilson's rushing provided 284 DYAR this season, the most for any quarterback since 1989. Unless we ever get back to 1972 to find that Bobby Douglass had a more valuable season, Wilson's 2014 is the gold standard.
There were some obvious rushing highlights for Wilson this year. He rushed for over 100 yards in three games, including the first game in NFL history by a quarterback with 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing (against St. Louis). If you are wondering why his DYAR was so high, consider a play like Wilson's 52-yard run on third-and-9 against St. Louis, or his career-long 55-yard scamper from his own 5-yard line against Arizona. Those were two of the best run defenses in 2014. Wilson never had a 30-yard run until 2014, when he had three of them (all at least 40 yards). If we exclude kneeldowns, Wilson rushed 109 times for 920 yards (8.44 yards per carry) this season.
|Russell Wilson: Career Rushing Breakdown (Incl. Playoffs)
|Total runs (excluding knees)
|Yards per carry
|Scramble yards per carry
|Designed run yards
|Designed run yards per carry
|* Scrambles/designed runs as a percentage of all non-kneeldown runs.
Having studied Wilson's rushing in the past, I wanted to know if he was really running more this season, and if so, why? Was the protection worse than last season? That would be hard to believe since the 2013 Seahawks allowed a higher rate of pressure than any offense from 2010-2013.
If you watched Wilson run wild against Washington on Monday Night Football, it felt like every play was right out of the schoolyard. Forget offensive design. He was just improvising out there. One play even saw Wilson step beyond the line of scrimmage, only to retreat back and complete a pass for 19 yards. Who does that in the NFL?
(Editor's Note: The officials ruled this a legal pass because Wilson's entire body did not pass the line of scrimmage, as discussed here.)
So instead of just breaking down the rushing numbers, I watched every Wilson dropback with an emphasis on mobility. How often did Wilson use his legs to extend the play and still throw the ball like he did to Doug Baldwin for 51 yards in the 2013 NFC Championship Game? How often did Seattle move the pocket for him to take advantage of his ability to throw on the run? Could I quantify what percentage of Seattle's offense involves these crazy sandlot plays?
I created a few metrics to break down Wilson's plays:
- Pressure Rate (PRES%): Rate of Pressure on Throws + Sacks + Scramble Runs
- Scramble Rate (SCRAM%): Rate of Scrambles on Throws + Sacks + Scramble Runs
- Offensive Flow Play Rate (OFP%): Rate of Offensive Flow Plays (plays that come within the general flow of the offensive design, rather than improvisation) on Plays (Broken Plays excluded)
- Move the Pocket Passes (MTP%): Rate of Move the Pocket Passes on Throws + Sacks
|Russell Wilson: Play Breakdown (Includes Playoffs, Excludes Kneeldowns, Spikes and Lateral Passes)
|Note: "Broken" plays include botched snaps, botched handoffs, busted plays and two failed laterals that went down as fumbles on rush attempts for Wilson. Runs that we have marked as "coverage scrambles" or "hole opens up" are not pressures.
First and foremost, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has crafted a very consistent offense that has played to Wilson's strengths since Game 1. I saw a lot of the same concepts applied each year. Wilson's performance was also fairly consistent from year to year; as you can see, he scrambles around on just over one-third of his plays. That also means two-thirds of his plays were Offensive Flow Plays. Wilson freelanced more often in 2013 than he did this past season, but all three years have been pretty close in that regard.
I wish I could compare this to other quarterbacks, but the work was very time-consuming, so we are left with comparisons of Wilson to himself in the last three seasons.
In the Pocket
In addition to leading the league in scrambles, Wilson has also thrown the most passes out of the pocket in each of his three seasons. In the regular season he has thrown 24.7 percent of his passes from outside of the pocket, compared to a league average of about 13.5 percent. Though his advanced stats say otherwise, many will tell you that Wilson is not that good at playing from inside the pocket.
I struggle with this one, because you see moments of brilliance from Wilson in the pocket, like on the two 35-yard dimes he dropped in overtime to win this year's NFC Championship Game. He's very comfortable at short drops and getting the ball out quickly into the flat. He consistently gets the slant out on time after his back foot hits. Those are two of the most commonly used "quick passes" in the Seattle playbook. This has not been a big screen offense, and that's especially true after the departures of Golden Tate and Percy Harvin.
However, if you want to see a quarterback make a lot of subtle movements in the pocket to deal with pressure, then that's still Tom Brady much more than it is Wilson. Something Brady often gets credit for is his ability to hang in the pocket in the face of pressure and still deliver the throw. I wanted to see if I could use my metrics to summarize how often Wilson did that each season. Any plays marked as a pressure and an OFP without a scramble should serve as a good representation of that "standing in there" type of pass.
- 2012: Wilson completed 6-of-21 such throws.
- 2013: Wilson completed 24-of-49 such throws
- 2014: Wilson completed 9-of-25 such throws
- Through three seasons, Wilson completed 39-of-95 (41 percent) of such throws.
OK, maybe he's better off scrambling. However, if given a clean pocket, Wilson will often make good use of it. I only charted 86 plays where Wilson scrambled without any pressure. One of the pivotal plays in that NFC Championship Game comeback was the 29-yard completion on third-and-19 in the third quarter. The Green Bay defense took a big risk by only rushing three defenders, but Wilson stayed in the pocket the whole time and eventually found Baldwin for the big completion.
In an offense that uses play action as much as any other, Wilson can hit big throws from the pocket as long as it's clean enough for him. Most of his big pass plays still come from design and not improvisation. In this year's NFC divisional game against Carolina, Wilson had the highest OFP percentage of any game in his career at 85.7 percent. He only scrambled three times (a career-low 10.7 percent scramble rate), including one play with just a little movement to the right to free up the passing lane for a 33-yard completion to Jermaine Kearse.
If you acknowledge Wilson as a wise scrambler, then you probably won't be surprised to learn that the correlation coefficient between his pressure rate and scramble rate is 0.71. Here is a graph that plots his pressure rate versus scramble rate for all 55 games of his career. Again, scramble rate includes plays where Wilson scrambled, but still threw the ball ("extended the play," as we like to say).
Ideally, you want a quarterback with mobility to use it when necessary, like in the case of a pass rusher beating your left tackle and coming in for a sack. Wilson for the most part has done a great job of moving when he needed to, but not falling victim to phantom pressures.
Here is a play from the 2013 NFC divisional round against New Orleans where Wilson trusted his protection until he realized Cameron Jordan had left tackle Russell Okung beat.
When Wilson steps up in the pocket, defenses have to respect his quickness and overall rushing ability. That often leads to secondary players dropping their assignments in coverage to target the quarterback, even though Wilson is also a threat to throw. On this play, cornerback Keenan Lewis left his man, creating a wide-open receiver for an easy 25-yard gain.
This offense gets a lot of open receivers that way, though Wilson does not make every throw on the run look so easy. In fact, he has a tendency to throw high in those situations, either forcing his receiver to make a great catch or just missing the play like he did here against the 49ers in Week 15.
Not many players can evade Aldon Smith twice like Wilson did there, but that throw has to be better. Not everything is rosy with the mobile quarterback.
The Double-edged Sword of the Scrambling Man
Sure, when the passing and running are both on point, quarterbacks like Wilson look virtually unstoppable, like he did on Monday Night Football against the Saints in 2013. That was right up there with the best games of his career. Even when he's having a down day and you think you have him beat, he can escape and make a play in a critical situation. This run on fourth down in Houston (2013) is my favorite rushing play of Wilson's career and one of the dozens of plays I noted as "magician" work.
That's a far path to take for 3 yards, but not many players make that play work the way Wilson did. That is also a reason why I mentioned highlight syndrome, because that play was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise subpar performance in that game. But it helped Seattle come back to win the game, so he's forgiven for the most part.
While I marked Wilson's magical plays, I also noted several times each season when he took an absolutely brutal sack that never should have happened. He had ample time to throw the ball away and save some field position, but that's the double-edged sword with the mobile quarterback. You can't take away that playmaking spirit, because you might sacrifice some huge plays for your offense. You just have to hope he plays smart enough most of the time and avoids awful sacks like this one against the Falcons in 2013.
There is an argument that he never should have went to his left in the first place. Once he did, after avoiding that first rusher he should have just thrown the ball out of bounds, but took a hit and an 8-yard loss instead. This is definitely something that can be improved through experience. Wilson has had a similar start to Ben Roethlisberger in his career, and we now see Roethlisberger avoiding a lot of bad sacks except in situations where it's more appropriate to try being a hero (third down and in the red zone).
Fortunately, Wilson does not turn his back towards the defense that often, because when the quarterback starts running the wrong way, it usually results in disaster. He is a bit more controlled than that, but he will take some bad plays like that sack. However, you live with it just because you know he can make plays like this in Carolina in 2013 to Baldwin on the sideline.
Even though Wilson can make those incredible plays, putting pressure on him is still very important, because most of the time he's going to throw the ball away or take a sack or suffer some kind of negative play that's a win for the defense. He is one of the best quarterbacks in the league under pressure, but pressure still makes all quarterbacks play at a below-average level.
We Now Turn to Brian Billick Screaming "BOOT!"
While the highlight-reel plays are special, let's look a much more repeatable way Seattle can take advantage of Wilson's mobility. Only a few Seattle games need to be viewed before you see that this offense loves to move the pocket for Wilson. At one point I thought a certain play felt like a good 20 percent of their passing game, though it may actually just be 10 percent given the rates shown earlier. Here, against the Giants in Week 10, is one variation of the famous Seattle bootleg.
Whether it's Zach Miller, Luke Willson or Cooper Helfet above, this play works at a high rate. Wilson fakes the handoff and does a bootleg, usually to his right. From there he has a few options.
On this particular play, Seattle lined the two tight ends together on the same side. Helfet took the deepest route while Willson starts as a blocker before running a route into the flat. Kearse, lined up in the left slot, comes across the field to give Wilson an option at three different levels of depth. It's up to him to pick the best target, and he usually does. This play gained 32 yards to Helfet. This is such a hard play to stop. Often Seattle will bring the tight end across the formation, but the releasing receiver is always a threat to catch the ball. If the defense tries rushing Wilson right away on the bootleg, he is fast enough to outrun them until he is comfortable throwing, or he can get the ball out quickly to the flat. Another variation of this play is the moving pocket with the throwback to the running back on the left side of the field. He is usually wide-open, just like Marshawn Lynch was for a 15-yard touchdown against the Eagles this year.
Deception in the backfield is a big part of Seattle's offense. We know Wilson loves the play-action pass and is adept at the read option, whether it's giving the ball to Lynch or keeping it himself like he did 37 times for 295 yards and six touchdowns in 2014. Wilson is very decisive when Seattle chooses to feature his mobility in the offensive design. Rarely do you see the defense fluster him on these rollouts and pocket-moving plays.
Is it Safe?
If there is a valid knock on mobile quarterbacks, it is the durability issue. We are talking about extra hits and some open-field shots that pocket passers just do not have to deal with at the same rate. Many notable mobile quarterbacks saw promising seasons end due to injury. If Wilson is the new Fran Tarkenton, then he will hope to have the same injury luck, as Tarkenton did not deal with anything serious until he was 37 years old.
Fortunately, Wilson is a very smart runner and protects himself well, which is something I have tracked the last few years. Ideally a quarterback should slide or get out of bounds without taking a hit when he runs.
|Russell Wilson: Rushing Safety Check
|Type Of Play
|Total runs minus kneel downs
|Ran out of bounds
|Hit out of bounds
|Tackled - straight
|Tackled - diving forward
|Tackled from behind
|Walk-in scoring play
|No play (botched snap/handoff)
|Sandwich hit (mult. defenders)
|Ran out of bounds %
|Total out of bounds %
Wilson had more slides (39) this year than the previous two seasons combined (35). I guess it helps to have a baseball background. Wilson was taken down from behind more often this year, but generally he has decreased his tackled percentage each season. He only suffered one sandwich hit this year, but it was a bad one against Washington with helmet-to-helmet contact. You especially do not want to see your quarterback take a hit like that for a 7-yard gain on third-and-12, which was the case here.
We dubbed Wilson "The Asterisk" when he was coming out of college in 2012; little did we know how fitting that nickname would be. Win or lose this Sunday, a monster payday is coming Wilson's way very soon. Some will argue he does not deserve to be among the highest-paid quarterbacks due to his lack of volume. An increase in pay will make it very difficult to sustain the best defense in the league. However, I think Wilson's unique style of play will allow the Seahawks to save a lot of money on the offensive line and fantasy positions. The growing deficiencies at those positions are rarely discussed with this team, because they are still enjoying success. Wilson's ability to help cover up some of those flaws is a big advantage.
After watching his career to this point, I feel confident in saying Wilson was most impressive as a passer in 2012, his rookie season. That is not to say he has regressed individually; it is more of a reflection of what's around him. It is likely not a coincidence that he had his healthiest offensive line in 2012 with Russell Okung and Max Unger having Pro Bowl seasons. He had his best set of receivers with Golden Tate and the underrated Sidney Rice playing great football. We saw how good Tate was this year in Detroit's high-volume attack. In 2012, Baldwin only had to be the No. 3 receiver instead of the No. 1 with Jermaine Kearse moved up as a starter after the Harvin experiment failed. Those are big changes in a short period of time, but this offense still ranked fifth in DVOA this year.
There is no definitive way to judge how Wilson might handle a more quarterback-centric offense, but it's not like his skill set is going to suddenly disappear with eight more throws per game. Some of the best Wilson moments have been in games where he had to carry the offense, like the overtime win in Chicago in 2012, the playoff comeback in Atlanta, or this year's rally efforts against St. Louis and Green Bay.
Whether it's inside or outside the pocket, with his arm or his legs, Wilson's just trying to make a living and do the best he can