Rost: It’s wrong to say we saw Russell Wilson’s spectacular failure coming

Mar 9, 2024, 12:43 PM | Updated: 3:04 pm

Seahawks Broncos Russell Wilson...

Russell Wilson of the Denver Broncos reacts after a stalled drive against the Tennessee Titans on November 13, 2022. (Silas Walker/Getty Images)

(Silas Walker/Getty Images)

It’s hard not to roll out a few “I told you so’s” or victory laps after Russell Wilson was a spectacular failure in Denver. Trust me, I took one, too.

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But looking at what led to a divorce from the Seahawks and a breakdown with the Broncos is a delicate balancing act between realization and honesty.

On the one hand, we’re very capable of looking with hindsight to see those moments when a romantic idea of who Russell Wilson was at his best overshadowed very real flaws; one of the prettiest deep balls in the game and a magician’s ability to scramble away from pressure masked issues with anticipation, taking sacks and missing opportunities with a clean pocket, and missing wide-open receivers.

Seeing Wilson away from Pete Carroll also made it clear how much Carroll masked those issues – whether through encouragement, his favored style of play, or a rotating cast of offensive coordinators who took the brunt of the blame for failures.

What feels like a mistake, though, is pretending we saw it all along.

I don’t mean that you couldn’t see issues with Wilson’s play, didn’t doubt that he could become the next Drew Brees, or felt suspicious of a saccharine veneer.

What I mean is that few were predicting just how astronomical – just how jaw-droppingly awful – this mess would become.

Perhaps you, reader, were someone who wasn’t sold when others were. It’s too bad you couldn’t get to George Paton in time. Because I’ve seen the texts and the tweets, heard the callers and read the articles for years. The national perspective was that Wilson was an MVP candidate who was being held back by an archaic, run-heavy offense. I was just as frustrated as anyone else over those years, wondering whether the offense was too vanilla, the head coach too stubborn, and the offensive line not great enough to support the offense we could have seen during Wilson’s prime years.

When the trade happened, Broncos fans and plenty of national critics were convinced the Seahawks made a horrible mistake. Even the Seahawks couldn’t fully claim to foresee it; team statements at the time of the trade made it clear that it was Wilson who wanted out.

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It all fell apart, of course, and became a salary cap disaster and one of the worst trades in NFL history. But Wilson’s career in Seattle could only provide some of those clues.

What made it so confusing was this: it wasn’t all the wool being pulled over our eyes. The Seahawks don’t win Super Bowl XLVIII without the Legion of Boom. But they also got 26 touchdowns from a second-year quarterback and nearly 900 rushing yards from him in their following season. Wilson wasn’t the strength – and that much was obvious with an historically elite secondary – but he had the ability to be a potent, dynamic weapon.

Later on, though, he was. The idea that Wilson was always supported by a strong run game doesn’t hold up when you consider that he led the team in rushing in 2017 or that just one running back rushed for a touchdown that season, nor when you consider that the team went four years after the departure of Marshawn Lynch before seeing another 1,000-yard back (Chris Carson).

The idea that he was in a perfect situation carries little weight when you consider that Seattle’s top-10 scoring offense from 2018-2020 was partnered with a defense that ranked 16th, 26th, and 22nd in yards, respectively. That’s thanks in large part to stellar receivers, but it feels disingenuous to brush aside what was serious praise for Wilson five years ago.

This isn’t a defense of Wilson for the sake of it, though I’ll still contend he’s the best quarterback the Seahawks have had. Rather, this defense is to point out that the story of Russell Wilson becomes infinitely more fascinating when you consider that there was a time when he was really, truly a great quarterback. Still flawed, still not especially personable, but special.

Here’s why that’s important: ignoring that as a starting point lets us forget that the story of Wilson’s failure in Denver is also one of ego and hubris.

It’s a reminder of the finger-pointing that fractures so many relationships.

The Seahawks’ relationship with Wilson didn’t sour because he missed an open receiver, took an extra sack, or struggled to see what a defense was offering. At the core of their broken marriage were philosophical differences about how he should be used, how the team should be built, and how much (or how little) they valued his insight there. Through it all were rumors of difficult dealings with representation and a public back-and-forth about a trade.

So many people didn’t see this mess coming because it’s one Wilson partially created himself, though he got plenty of help from a Broncos team that wasn’t as healthy and deep as anticipated and set up a bad match between coach and quarterback the following season.

Personally, I’d like to see Wilson succeed in his next landing spot. I don’t think all of the failures in Denver were his alone; this is a team that’s swung and missed a number of quarterbacks and hasn’t made the playoffs since they won Super Bowl 50 in 2015.

But before you take that victory lap (again, like I did at first) stop to question what it is one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history taught us about what we think we know – and don’t – about perception and the game we love so much.

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Rost: It’s wrong to say we saw Russell Wilson’s spectacular failure coming