SEATTLE -- Russell Wilson insists his right middle finger is fine. Pete Carroll says the system and playcaller aren't to blame.
So why has one of the NFL's best quarterbacks not been playing like himself since his mid-November return from injured reserve? It's the biggest question facing the Seattle Seahawks as they wind down this disappointing season and head toward an offseason that could drastically reshape their franchise.
Wilson's future in Seattle has been in question since his frustrations with the organization bubbled to the surface this past February, leading to discussions about a possible trade. He put his concerns on the back burner, with a plan to revisit them this offseason. With not much going right for the quarterback (who ranks 19th in QBR), the offense (20th in scoring) and the 5-10 Seahawks (who have suffered their most losses in more than a decade), there's a good chance the two sides will return to the same crossroads.
But whatever decision the team makes with Wilson needs to come with an understanding of why he has been off during the second half of the season. His accuracy has been spotty, particularly in his first three games after returning from the injury in Week 10, but also on some uncharacteristic misses since. He ranks 22nd with a 37.8 QBR since returning, through it was significantly better and much closer to his career average prior to the Week 5 injury when Wilson, in his words, was playing some of the best football of his career.
Wilson recently acknowledged that he "definitely" wasn't 100% when he came back, having pulled off a remarkably quick return from Oct. 8 surgery. But he has maintained that his finger is OK.
"He does not feel like he's hurt," Carroll said Monday on 710 ESPN Seattle. "... But the results are a little bit different, and the accuracy thing, maybe there's a couple plays a game and I think that there's a factor in there some that we have to deal with that we really don't have control of like we wish we did."
In the same radio interview, Carroll said he doesn't think first-year offensive coordinator Shane Waldron's scheme has been the problem "at all." Wilson remains fond of and confident in the first-year coordinator.
Wilson reiterated recently that he wants to remain in Seattle long term, but that comes with the unspoken, significant qualifier that it needs to be under the right circumstances.
There are so many questions pertaining to Wilson's situation. With the Seahawks officially eliminated from playoff contention and the focus now turning to its quarterback's future, here's an attempt at answering a few of them, starting with a look at one of the issues he voiced last offseason.
How has Wilson's pass protection been?
The Seahawks rank 17th in pass block win rate (60%) after finishing ninth last season (61.9%). The ESPN metric measures how frequently a team sustains blocks for at least 2.5 seconds, which helps differentiate pressure that's a result of faulty blocking versus a quarterback holding on to the ball.
Sunday's loss to the Chicago Bears was Seattle's third-worst game this season in terms of PBWR (45.5%). But the 13-yard sack Wilson took while trying to extend a third-down play in the fourth quarter -- which proved costly when Jason Myers missed a 39-yard field goal attempt -- was a pass-block win for Seattle.
The Seahawks made one offseason change to last year's starting line, trading for high-priced veteran right guard Gabe Jackson. He has been solid, ranking 16th in PBWR among guards while starting every game. They brought back Ethan Pocic at center, the other spot they could have upgraded.
"I think those guys have done fine during the season," Carroll told 710 ESPN Seattle of the team's O-line. "That's not been the problem of the season at all."
Regardless of how much Wilson's style contributes to his sack totals, "fine" probably won't be good enough to ease one of his biggest concerns.
How might his contract factor into everything?
After this season, Wilson will have two years and $51 million remaining on the four-year, $140 million extension he signed in 2019. That includes base salaries of $19 million and $22 million, with $5 million March roster bonuses in each year making up the remainder.
Any team that trades for Wilson would inherit that remaining total at the bargain average of $25.5 million.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks would incur $26 million in dead money, meaning he would count that much on their cap even though he'd be elsewhere. That's $13 million less than if they traded him last offseason, but still a total that would make general manager John Schneider and cap guru Matt Thomas cringe. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, that would be the second-most dead money a team has ever incurred, trailing the $33.8 million the Philadelphia Eagles ate in the Carson Wentz trade.
Then again, it would create $51 million in cash no longer committed to Wilson. That type of savings tends to appeal to owners.
If Wilson wants out, which teams could be in play?
Wilson has veto power over any potential deal thanks to his no-trade clause. His agent, Mark Rodgers, told ESPN's Adam Schefter last February that his client would waive it to play for four teams. But any such list would now look different, with the Dallas Cowboys extending Dak Prescott and the Bears drafting Justin Fields. Jon Gruden was one reason why the Las Vegas Raiders appealed to Wilson, but he's gone. The New Orleans Saints might be the only team of those four that he'd still want to play for, but they're in awful salary-cap shape.
Those four teams had two things in common: offensive-minded head coaches and recent history of spending big on their O-lines, neither of which Wilson has had in Seattle. Those clues could indicate which teams might intrigue him now.
What Wilson would want in his next team, and his ability to nix any deal, limits the number of potential trade partners. Any team that Wilson OKs would also need high-end draft capital and/or an intriguing quarterback to play ball with Seattle, which further narrows the field.
And here's something else to keep in mind: A team that might be a fit for Wilson could also have another top quarterback to choose from if Aaron Rodgers also becomes available.
Wilson dismissed a recent report that he would OK a trade to the New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Saints -- though he didn't outright say he wouldn't play for those teams. Wilson's personal QB coach, Jake Heaps, called the report "not real" on Twitter.
"That's not in my head right now at all," Wilson said. "I didn't say that, either. I'm focused on what we're doing here. Obviously I love Seattle ... so that's a non-story."
If the Seahawks trade Wilson, then what?
Here's what one talent evaluator from another team told ESPN when asked if the crop of quarterbacks in the 2022 NFL draft is as unimpressive as analysts have described it: "Yes and yes."
And here's how a different talent evaluator put it this past offseason while wondering if the Seahawks would really deal Wilson: "It's almost like trading Joe Montana. You better have Steve Young in your back pocket."
The Seahawks don't even have a Jordan Love in their back pocket -- i.e., a recent high draft pick waiting in the wings -- let alone a Young. They have 31-year-old Geno Smith, a capable backup who, at best, could serve as the bridge starter but isn't a long-term option. And of all the other current NFL quarterbacks who could become available this offseason, how many -- other than Rodgers -- wouldn't represent a significant downgrade from Wilson?
The Seahawks could conceivably acquire multiple firsts in a Wilson trade -- they don't currently have one because of the Jamal Adams trade -- and use that capital to take his potential replacement. But hitting on a young quarterback is far from a sure thing in any draft, especially the upcoming one.
A franchise quarterback is one of the hardest assets to find in sports. There might not be enough of a path to another one for the Seahawks to trade Wilson this offseason.
What about the rest of the organization?
Observers have also speculated on Carroll's future, though he signed a five-year extension in the fall of 2020 that puts him under contract through the 2025 season. Schneider also signed an extension after last season that runs through the 2027 draft. Those contracts are typically guaranteed.
Making the situation even tougher to predict is that the person signing those deals, de facto team owner Jody Allen, is such a mystery. She hasn't done a single media interview since assuming control of the Seahawks when her brother, Paul Allen, died in 2018.
Wilson doesn't have a line of communication with Jody Allen like he had to some extent with Paul Allen, meaning he doesn't have a great idea of what his future holds.
No one does.