Russell Wilson faces new pressure
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson spent last week's minicamp doing what he usually does -- saying all the right things. He talked about the need to grow and expand on what he did in his impressive rookie season. He raved about his team's talented roster, one that now includes explosive wide receiver Percy Harvin. What Wilson didn't have to say, however, is something that should be all too obvious to anybody watching the NFL this year. Of all the young star quarterbacks coming off breakout seasons, he still has more to prove than any of his peers.
That might be hard to accept for the Seahawks fans who watched Wilson help their team earn an 11-5 record and an NFC wild-card spot. He went from being an unheralded third-round pick to a Pro Bowl alternate, all while throwing for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns. Wilson was so good that it's easy to wonder whether a sophomore slump is coming, even though he scoffs at the possibility. "I don't even know those words," Wilson told reporters last week. "I don't pay attention to it. I think the biggest thing is just focusing on tomorrow and focusing on the day."
Although such confidence is predictable, here are a few things to remember when considering how far Wilson has to go in his NFL experience. He hasn't faced nearly the scrutiny that Robert Griffin III has thrived under with the Washington Redskins. He didn't replace Peyton Manning and take a two-win team in 2011 to the postseason a year later, as Andrew Luck did. Wilson also didn't face the same pressure that San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick had thrust upon him midway through the 2012 season, when the 49ers benched Alex Smith and gave him the keys to a team that had reached the NFC Championship Game a year earlier.
What Wilson did was make the most of his opportunity, which was pretty amazing in its own right. He beat out a more experienced, higher-paid veteran (Matt Flynn) and entered last season facing as few expectations as the team around him. Wilson flew under the radar for at least half the year, while most people around the league slowly discovered how potent the Seahawks really were.
"I like the kid, but he also was playing with a top-five defense and a top-five running game," said one opposing quarterbacks coach. "It helps a lot when you don't have to throw the football 35 times a game."
Now Wilson gets to find out what life is like as a burgeoning superstar. It's a little different when you're taking snaps with that label attached to your back. Suddenly people don't rave about you when you're merely efficient and managing a game (which is a good part of what Wilson did last year). Those cynics expect "SportsCenter" moments on every other possession, along with numbers that keep fantasy football fans giddy from week to week.
If Wilson wants some advice on that, he can look to Carolina's Cam Newton. Newton followed an amazing rookie season -- easily the best individual performance by a first-year quarterback until Luck, RG III and Wilson thrived last year -- with a solid second campaign. The only problem was that few people were raving about him as they did in 2011. He had set the bar so high in his first year that it was difficult for people to appreciate what he was doing in 2012.
Wilson easily could face a similar predicament in Seattle. For all his promise, he wasn't carrying that team last season in the same way RG III and Luck led their franchises. Wilson didn't throw for more than 300 yards until Seattle's playoff loss to Atlanta, and, including the postseason, he had 10 games in which he threw for fewer than 200. Wilson was a revelation early mainly because he wasn't a total disaster. He was a feel-good story most people outside of the Pacific Northwest didn't even see coming this past fall.
The question Wilson will face this season is how he'll cope when defenses force him to win more games on his own talents. The benefit he has is a full offseason of working as the team's top signal-caller after he spent last year's training camp competing for the job. The disadvantage is that every opposing defensive coordinator on the Seahawks' schedule has had a year to prepare for him, as well. They will know whatever flaws didn't emerge in the way Seattle handled him last year. They will be waiting to exploit them every time he lines up under center.
The good news here is that neither laziness nor lack of preparation will be Wilson's undoing. Even the notion of relaxing in the weeks leading up to training camp seemed strange to him. "I'll rest later," Wilson said. "You guys have to remember that I played two sports most of my life [football and baseball]. It's one of those things where I've never had a break before this past offseason. I like to have a lot of things on my plate."
It will be wise for Wilson to maintain that approach because flying under the radar will never be part of his NFL experience again. The Seahawks will be a trendy Super Bowl pick, and the collective ascension of so many young quarterbacks means there will be more comparisons in the coming years. Instead of being cherished for being a pleasant surprise, Wilson will be judged by how he measures up to the progress of Luck, Griffin, Kaepernick and Newton. Winning alone might not be enough to satisfy his critics anymore.
What we can't see yet is how far his skills might take him. He could be merely a more dynamic version of Alex Smith, the second coming of Matt Hasselbeck or even another Tom Brady, who went from being a skilled game manager in his early years to an icon in the second half of his career. People tend to forget that when they rave about New England's star quarterback. He was successful largely because of all the talent surrounding him -- and the approach of his coaches -- at the start of his run.
Wilson clearly won't have the luxury of blossoming with the same ease. Bigger things will be expected from him from the moment this season kicks off, and he's about to learn even more valuable lessons about playing quarterback in the NFL. The most important is that becoming a star is a process that produces plenty of joy, thrills and immense anticipation. Being one, especially at the position he plays, brings an entirely different set of challenges.