A Year Later: What we’ve learned from Seahawks’ Russell Wilson trade

Mar 8, 2023, 9:11 AM

Seahawks Russell Wilson Geno Smith...

Seahawks QBs Geno Smith and Russell Wilson vs the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 25, 2020. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Sometimes the best stories are surprises. Exactly one year removed from the Seahawks’ blockbuster trade of Russell Wilson, it’s safe to say that’s a lesson learned.

Pete Carroll explains why Seahawks committed to Geno, what it means

On March 8, 2022, the Seahawks shocked the NFL world by sending the nine-time Pro Bowler to Denver in exchange for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and a trio of players.

The “I told you so” crowd can enjoy a victory lap. The larger number of people who didn’t necessarily predict this outcome but who felt Wilson was in decline following an ugly second half in 2020 and an up-and-down 2021 can feel validated. So, too, can the handful of national voices who bet on the Seahawks to have a winning season, or even predicted they’d look just fine with Geno Smith under center. But in case you needed a trip down memory lane, most people didn’t.

National voices predicted a horrible season. Broncos fans had high hopes for Wilson and chastised Seahawks fans for greeting their new franchise star in Week 1 with a chorus of boos (though they did plenty of jeering on their own later in the season). In the preseason, even Seahawks fans who’d grown tired of Wilson knew a known commodity was easier to trust than an unknown commodity, and that’s what Smith and Drew Lock presented. Need a reminder? Go find tweets announcing Smith as the starter and – while I would normally never advise this – read the comments.

Reflection can be a tough process, but it can also be enlightening. Thanks to the Wilson trade, here’s what’s become clear in the last 365 days:

It’s hard to walk away from a star, but sometimes you need to

“Sometimes you got to make tough decisions and you got to go for it,” head coach Pete Carroll told Brock Huard and Mike Salk when asked what he learned from the Wilson trade.

“It just reemphasized to me that sometimes you got to just say ‘What the heck?’ and go. And with really a good commitment of people in connection with the people that have to bring in the input for those decisions, you can make good, solid choices.”

Make no mistake: trading Wilson was a huge gamble.

It’s easy to look back after a horrible 2022 season and think Wilson was in decline. There was evidence to say he was – particularly in the year-and-a-half that preceded the trade – but Wilson’s best seasons were also true reflections of immense talent.

Did he hold onto the ball too long? Sure, but his ability to extend plays and throw outside of the pocket made him a nightmare to defend. Did he take advantage of every part of the field? No, but he threw one of the league’s best deep balls.

There was enough there for multiple teams to approach Seattle for a trade and for one of them, Denver, to send over two first-round picks. This isn’t a defense of Wilson as a top passer; rather, it’s a reminder that the decision Carroll and general manager John Schneider made carried real risk. We’d seen franchises like the Jets and the Bears go decades without finding franchise quarterbacks – after trading the most prolific passer in Seahawks history, would Seattle find itself there, too?

Here’s why the decision matters: The Seahawks don’t have a lengthy history of getting the most from aging stars. Richard Sherman was released and Earl Thomas departed in free agency. Both were integral to the team’s first ever Super Bowl win, but neither were used in trades in the years that followed. Seattle had good reason to believe it could still be a contender, so there was reason to hang onto as many stars as possible. But sometimes those tough decisions do pay off. In this case it came in the form of a franchise left tackle and, this year, the highest draft pick Carroll and Schneider have ever had.

Sometimes a narrative becomes stronger than the player

Immediately following the Seahawks Week 1 victory over the Broncos, Geno Smith hit NFL fans with one of the best quotes of the season:

“They wrote me off, I ain’t write back though,” a grinning Smith said during a postgame interview.

Smith’s fall from grace isn’t a secret and is a big part of the reason there wasn’t a ton of faith around him entering the year. The former second-round pick was thrust into the spotlight as the Jets’ answer in 2013. He wasn’t. Smith threw 21 interceptions to just 12 touchdowns in his rookie year. That interception total dropped to 13 in year two, but Smith was completing less than 60 percent of his pass attempts and was benched for Michael Vick in late October. And of course, there was the 2015 locker room altercation during which a teammate punched Smith, leaving him with a broken jaw before the start of the preseason.

Smith started five games over the next six years.

Fans and reporters don’t get to see practices during the regular season and don’t often focus on the play of a second-string quarterback when the starter is being paid and doesn’t miss games.

The story of a 32-year-old Smith was, fairly, more heavily influenced by his first two years in the league. Frankly, there wasn’t much else to go off. But perhaps we should’ve more closely considered two factors.

Firstly, that Smith wasn’t a backup on struggling teams, but was instead a reserve for Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Russell Wilson – three franchise stars who rarely missed time. There was no outplaying those three in the eyes of a franchise, nor were there many opportunities to start.

Secondly, that Carroll was adamant about Smith’s talent in the offseason. Smith took the vast majority of first-team reps through training camp and into the preseason before being named the starter. It was his job to lose from the start, and he didn’t.

What Smith managed to do isn’t common. That his play was surprising is fair. For that reason, so too are worries that he could regress given his limited experience as a starter. But if there’s one lesson to take here, it’s that our own analysis of players will always have holes.

The Seahawks won the trade, but it’s not clear they’ve found the answer

No amount of mental gymnastics can make the Seahawks losers of a trade that opened up cap space for 2023 and beyond and netted them two top-10 picks. Take away a Super Bowl run for the Eagles and you’ve got Schneider with one of the better cases for executive of the year.

But winning the trade doesn’t mean solving every issue left by the move. The question mark at quarterback got smaller with Smith’s return, but it’s still there.

Wilson struggled toward the end of his tenure in Seattle but for 10 years the Seahawks knew who they had at quarterback. They also won a Super Bowl with that player. Few would’ve placed him above Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at the height of his career, but most would have him as one of the league’s best and most dynamic quarterbacks.

In his age 33 season, Smith provides at least a short-term answer. He may prove to be more than that. After all, he broke Wilson’s own franchise record for single-season passing yards. But it’s a different route from the one Seattle took in 2012. And now, as they stare down the No. 5 overall pick, it’s fair to wonder whether Schneider and Carroll are tempted enough to roll the dice again

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