By Danny O’Neil
Last year’s turning point is this season’s launching pad.
And as Seattle prepares to begin this season of unprecedented expectations in Carolina on Sunday, it’s worth taking a look back at how far Russell Wilson has come because it’s the best way to get an idea about how far these Seahawks might go.
Seattle’s Week 5 win over the Panthers in Carolina last season was a turning point for quarterback Russell Wilson. (AP)
Carolina was a landmark for Wilson last year. It was the site of his biggest mistake as a rookie, and more importantly the first in a series of fixes he made over the course of the season.
That improvement – as much as Wilson’s ability – is the reason so much is expected from Seattle this season, and it’s also why the Seahawks will have an edge at quarterback in Sunday’s regular-season opener at Carolina.
Wilson is not a better athlete than his Panthers counterpart, Cam Newton. Wilson is certainly not bigger, but while Newton may be half a foot taller, Wilson has grown more as a quarterback in his single NFL season than Newton has in the two years since he was chosen with the first overall pick of the 2011 draft.
Newton may have passed for more than 400 yards in each of his first two NFL starts, but he has yet to make the playoffs. Newton has not only passed for more yards in his first two seasons than any other quarterback in NFL history, but he is also tops in rushing yards, too, yet there are questions about whether or not all those statistics will ever add up to a successful team.
Talent and potential get you drafted, but improvement is what makes champions. It’s a statement that’s as true for teams as it is for a player, and after one year in the NFL, it’s impossible to be unimpressed by Wilson’s ability to systematically rectify shortcomings, which brings us back to that Week 5 game in Carolina last year.
As tempting as it is to say Wilson was incredible from the very beginning, that’s not exactly true. He wasn’t great on the road to start last season, losing at Arizona and St. Louis. He wasn’t great on third down, either, failing to convert a third down via the pass in either Week 2 or Week 3.
Then came Week 5 in Carolina.
“Just like he does in everything, he improves when we ask him to improve,” said Darrell Bevell, Seattle’s offensive coordinator. “He’s just grown every single time he has gone out there.”
710 ESPN Seattle hosts weigh in on Seattle’s Week 1 matchup against Carolina, finishing the sentence, “The Seahawks will win if … ”
|• Brock Huard: They win the turnover battle.||• Bob Stelton: They can limit penalties and force Cam Newton to beat them with his arm.||• Dave Grosby: They win the turnover battle.||• Dave Wyman: They keep the Panthers under 110 yards rushing.||• Jim Moore: Marshawn Lynch rushes for 100 or more yards and Steven Hauschka hits the game-winning field goal.||• Michael Grey: They average at least four yards per carry.||• Danny O’Neil: Marshawn Lynch carries the ball more than 15 times.|
Wilson was 9-for-10 passing on third down in Seattle’s 16-12 victory in Carolina, a performance that was enough to make his coach overlook Wilson’s first-half pass, which he threw behind tight end Anthony McCoy, allowing it to be intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
“He threw one ball on a back hip,” Carroll said afterward. “Everything else was dead on the money all day long.”
Wilson completed 19 of his 25 passes, but it wasn’t the statistics or even the victory that had the long-term significance of Wilson’s ability to systematically address any shortcomings. He was a veritable Mr. Fix It as the week after the win in Carolina, Wilson began to keep looking downfield as he scrambled, keeping his head up and looking to throw even when the Patriots’ pass rush flushed him from the pocket. After that, red-zone efficiency became a priority and Wilson was much more productive inside the opponent’s 20 through the final nine games.
Wilson threw for more touchdowns in the second half of the season than he did the first eight games, while at the same time throwing for fewer interceptions. That improvement is why this season begins not with the hope Wilson will be as good as he was as a rookie, but the belief that he can be even better.
After all, if his rookie season proved anything, it was an ability to respond to his coach’s concerns.
“What we emphasize, we end up getting,” Bevell said.
It’s that ability to seemingly fix every little thing that comes up that has Seattle believing anything is possible with Wilson at quarterback.