O’Neil: Russell Wilson outlasted the QB trend he helped usher in
Let’s go back to a simpler, less divisive time in our recent history.
This was before Russ’s culinary freedom was a matter of hyperbole and rhetoric and when the Seahawks could make a fourth-down decision without it being a referendum on how much the team trusted its quarterback.
This was an idyllic era in which Seattle’s defense flattened opponents with impunity, Marshawn Lynch left footprints on the chest of opponents and Russell Wilson was this precocious and fleet-footed lad asked only to do enough to put Seattle over the top.
Back then, Wilson was part of a larger trend in the league. Young quarterbacks schooled in the read-option offenses that proliferated amidst college football and arrived in the NFL ready to hit the ground running in a fairly literal sense.
Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Five quarterbacks chosen over the span of two drafts who appeared to be Generation Next at the position. All were able to throw, each a threat to run, and as every one of them led their team to the playoffs in either 2012 or 2013, it looked like these were five franchise cornerstones for at least the next decade.
Seven years later, Wilson is the only one at the helm of the team that drafted him and Newton is the only other one with a starting job. He’s with the Patriots now, the Seahawks’ opponent on Sunday night, when he’ll be trying to run his way back into prominence after the Panthers gave up on him. Griffin is a backup in Baltimore who hasn’t appeared in more than 10 games in a season since his rookie year while Luck retired last year after an unrelenting streak of injuries. What happened to Kaepernick’s career is something else entirely. He lost the starting job in San Francisco because of injuries and a subsequent surgery, and never got another job after he protested police brutality before games in 2016.
These five guys were going to redefine the position, and Wilson is the only one who even got so much as a chance to redefine his game. So what happened?
Well, a couple of things. First, becoming a great player is one thing. Remaining one is something else entirely, and all those people who are projecting Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes as Hall of Famers are advised to remember back in 2013 when Ron Jaworski – then an ESPN analyst – stated with great enthusiasm that Kaepernick had a chance to be the greatest quarterback of all-time. Technically, Jaws may have been correct. Everyone has a chance of being the greatest quarterback of all-time no matter how infinitesimal the opportunity is. But that doesn’t mean it’s likely, and long-term projections are best written in pencil and not pen even when quarterbacks look great early on.
The second issue relates to one of the reasons coaches have always been so hesitant to have quarterback who run: injuries. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin hinted at that reality during an interview at the owners meetings in March 2013.
“We’ll see if guys are committed to getting their guys hit,” Tomlin said to reporters.
Injuries are an inevitable part of football. Having quarterbacks who run make them even moreso.
Griffin suffered a knee injury his rookie season, which he tried to play through in the playoffs against Seattle only to make the injury worse. Kaepernick’s fourth season ended with shoulder surgery in November 2015 and he followed that up with procedures on his thumb and shoulder in January 2016. Luck missed an entire season recovering from a shoulder surgery and his injuries became such a non-stop refrain that he stopped wanting to do rehab.
Then there’s Newton, the only one of the five to win an MVP award. He’s suffered injuries to his foot and shoulder, and his durability was such a question that the Panthers couldn’t even trade him this offseason. They flat-out released him and he hung out on the open market until taking a one-year contract for the inexplicably low price of $1.75 million.
Newton looked great last week in his Patriots debut. He rushed for 75 yards and a couple of touchdowns and controlled the game despite attempting only 17 passes. This season will determine if Newton is still capable of carrying the same old burden for his team.
In Seattle, the questions aren’t about Wilson’s durability. He has never missed a game. He’s also the only one who has been able to survive long enough to transition from being a young multi-threat player surviving with moxie and athleticism to the veteran armed with the expertise that only experience can bring.
Is Wilson ready for another championship run? Well, that’s only a metaphor now because if the Seahawks get back to the Super Bowl, it’s going to be because of Wilson’s arm, not his feet.
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