PHOENIX – Two years, two icons.
And Russell Wilson.
In Super Bowl XLVIII, it was Peyton Manning playing the part of the headline quarterback act. In Super Bowl XLIX, it’s Tom Brady.
Wilson graciously goes along with the narrative, still sounding like that kid who grew up admiring Manning and Brady from a distance.
“It’s a tremendous honor to play two of the greatest guys, the greatest players to ever play the game,” the Seattle Seahawks quarterback said. “It’s one of those things you’ll never forget, it’s history. I’m just grateful I get to be on the same field.”
Last year, Wilson and his Seahawks teammates expressed their gratitude by pummeling Manning’s Denver Broncos, 43-8. Wilson outplayed his Hall-of-Fame-bound counterpart by throwing for 206 yards and two touchdowns, one more than Manning, who also was intercepted twice.
Although he has played only three NFL seasons, Wilson can put a strong exclamation point on his young career Sunday by becoming the first quarterback to win back-to-back Super Bowls since Brady and the New England Patriots did so in 2003 and 2004.
Such an accomplishment would require a revision of the Super Bowl QB discussion of the past couple of seasons. All of a sudden, Wilson would be much more than the dynamic playmaker who can make big things happen with his exceptionally quick feet and his passing arm. He would move into the category of one of the very best to play the game.
“To be the best, you have to beat the best,” Wilson said.
That’s how it happened for Brady. He entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick, a slow and gangly prospect who struggled for playing time at the University of Michigan. After winning two Super Bowls, and then adding the third in ’04, Brady became a legend.
Wilson joined the Seahawks as a too-short (5-foot-10-plus), more-runner-than-thrower third-round choice from Wisconsin. Initially, he was seen as a good game manager riding the coattails of the NFL’s best defense. However, that perception rapidly changed after Seattle’s Super Bowl win against Denver and has continued to morph into something far more prominent.
True, Wilson didn’t help himself by throwing four interceptions in the Seahawks’ NFC Championship Game victory against Green Bay. But he did do himself plenty of favors by shaking off the worst game of his career and leading a dramatic comeback culminated by his winning touchdown throw to wide receiver Jermaine Kearse in overtime.
“Russ definitely has got some years to put together,” Kearse said. “But he has a great start. If you compare” Brady’s and Manning’s “first three years to his first three years, he’s right there.”
And it’s reasonable to see Wilson firmly establishing his residency in their neighborhood in the not-too-distant future. As young as he is, there’s plenty of time for him to build an even more impressive legacy with additional Super Bowl wins.
His teammates and others clearly think Wilson has the goods to climb to greater heights.
What’s his greatest quality?
“The ability to scramble, look downfield and make plays,” Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin said.
That’s it in a nutshell. Wilson doesn’t just run. He runs to throw. And he throws well, with a career passer rating of 98.6. In 2014, he threw for a career-high 3,475 yards and a career-low seven interceptions.
It’s easy to dismiss running quarterbacks for being less effective in the NFL than in college, because NFL defenders routinely catch them. Washington’s Robert Griffin III, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, and – based on a much smaller body of work – Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel have found that out the hard way.
But Wilson’s game is different. He’s much more of a genuine passer than a runner who occasionally throws.
When he’s on the move, his receivers know they can never assume he’s going to keep running. Other than on a designed quarterback run, they know his first thought is to try to buy time to make a play with his arm. That means they must constantly be alert for the ball to come their way.
“His ability to extend plays is huge for us,” Kearse said. “We’ve got to stay tuned and find where he’s at and find the open area to give him a look. Then, when we throws the ball, just try to make a play.”
“I think he is changing the conversation about it,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said of Wilson’s impact on the quarterback position. “I think that when a lot of people looked at it before, they just looked at that number, 5-10 and a half, and that knocked him down, including us. We took him in the third round, which we felt like we were kind of pushing the envelope to get him there, but that is the first conversation that happened.
“So now it has started to change because of how he plays. He is playing really well, playing at a high level. He is the winningest quarterback at this time in his career. So, yeah, it is definitely going to change how people look at the position. There are still going to be traditionalists who look for certain things, but, really, you are looking for a guy who can win games. And however he can do it, you have to be able to bring those skill sets out.”
When Seahawks coach Pete Carroll looks at Brady and other historically great quarterbacks, he doesn’t do so with envy.
“I don’t think we can have a better guy for the Seahawks than Russell Wilson,” Carroll said. “He gives us such a dynamic approach to the quarterback position in just the football aspect of it. He’s such a tremendous passer. He can pass inside the pocket, he can pass on the move and all the structured stuff, but then he has the dynamic ability to get out of the pocket and create and really, with his legs, running, as well as passing, his ability to run the full gamut of what you would hope a quarterback could do.
“That’s not even to mention the leadership qualities, the character that he brings, the tremendous competitiveness. He’s a perfect fit for us.”
The Seahawks’ read-option offense is a perfect fit for Wilson. From it, he can do what he intends to do most of the time, hand the ball to running back Marshawn Lynch, but there’s always the possibility he could keep it and run.
Defenses can never be certain who they need to chase until Wilson pulls his arms away from Lynch’s gut. Often, when they figure out the quarterback still has the ball, it’s too late because he’s gone in a blink.
“We’ve always kind of wanted our quarterback to kind of be the point guard and distribute the ball to different players, and Russell has been fantastic in doing that,” Carroll said. “He understands the value of Marshawn, he understands the value of our receiving corps, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. Those guys are incredible football players and he helps them play at their best by being unselfish and by respecting their ability and talents by giving them the ball in situations where they can be a little creative. He does a marvelous job at that, and he’s just getting started.
“It’s a really, really exciting journey that we’re following here.”