At this point, it's pretty clear that Cam Newton is going to win his first MVP award, and deservedly so. The Panthers are 13-0 and have a 44.0 percent chance of finishing the regular season undefeated, per ESPN's Football Power Index. Newton has only gotten hotter as the season has progressed, having thrown 17 touchdowns against one interception in Carolina's past five games. With both Tom Brady and the Patriots slipping in recent weeks before Sunday night's victory over the Texans, it would take a dramatic collapse for Newton to give way in the MVP race.
Newton has been downright brilliant, and he may very well have been the best quarterback in football over the course of this season, but he's not the best one in the league right now. That title belongs to the king of the Pacific Northwest, and it might even be selling Russell Wilson short.
Seattle's star quarterback just put up what could be considered the best four-game stretch in modern NFL history.
Wilson was phenomenal during Sunday's blowout win over the Ravens, who managed to hold him to only five touchdown passes because tight end Luke Willson dropped what would have been Wilson's sixth while standing all alone in the end zone. Wilson's 97.2 QBR was one-tenth of one point behind Newton (97.3) for the best figure of the day and included 11 more pass attempts. It's also the fourth week in a row Wilson posted a QBR of 90 or more, the first time anybody has done that all season.
And even that undersells what Wilson is accomplishing. Since losing to the Cardinals in Week 10, Wilson's numbers are surreal. It would be unfair to call them video game numbers; they're video game numbers you might post against a particularly talented household pet. Over that four-game stretch, he has gone 89-for-118 for 1,171 passing yards. That's a staggering 75.4 percent completion percentage and an average of 9.9 yards per pass attempt. Even more impressively, he has thrown 16 touchdowns without a single interception.
It all adds up to a passer rating of 145.9. Pro-football-reference.com has game logs for quarterbacks going back through the 1960 season, 10 years before the AFL-NFL merger.
Do you know how many quarterbacks have thrown 100 or more attempts over a four-game stretch and posted a better passer rating over that span than Wilson? Zero. It has never happened before:
These numbers aren't adjusted for era, and so they're naturally biased toward recent years, when the rising tide of the modern game has helped inflate passing statistics. It is true that Wilson has faced a relatively easy slate of opponents during this run; the Ravens (26th in pass defense DVOA) are playing out the string, and the Steelers (14th), Vikings (16th) and 49ers (30th) are hardly dominant pass defenses. Even if those caveats cause you to push Wilson off of the loftiest pedestal, it's totally reasonable to say that Russell Wilson has just wrapped up one of the best quarter-seasons the league has ever seen.
And, of course, there are reasons to argue that Wilson has had it harder than most. He lost the guy who was nominally designed to be his top receiver, Jimmy Graham, to a season-ending injury halfway through this stretch. Wilson's top offensive weapon, Marshawn Lynch, hasn't been around for the entirety of this run, having last played against the Cardinals in Week 10. Wilson lost undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls to a broken ankle early Sunday. His receiving corps currently consists of two undrafted free-agent wide receivers, a rookie third-rounder who was the 10th wideout taken in this year's draft, a third-year tight end taken in the fifth round and a 34-year-old running back who was released in August. They're pedes ... they're adequate.
That's without getting to the offensive line, and when you want to understand why Wilson has turned the corner and played lights-out football for the past month, you can start there. The Seattle front five was, to put it charitably, a disaster for most of the campaign. That was a major disappointment for the Seahawks, who had high expectations for a unit that most expected to be a work in progress after the team traded star center Max Unger away in the Graham deal this offseason. Well-regarded offensive line coach Tom Cable suggested in August that this year's group could be the best unit he has had during his time with Seattle.
Wilson's style of play invariably lends itself to more hurries than most other passers, but a struggling offensive line simply didn't leave Wilson enough time to make it through his progressions and throw. After being pressured on a league-high 40.8 percent of his dropbacks during the 2014 season, Wilson remained under siege for most of the 2015 campaign. Through the loss to the Cardinals in Week 10, Wilson was being pressured on 40.9 percent of pass plays, the highest figure in the league by a notable margin, given that second-placed Colin Kaepernick was more than five percentage points away at 35.5 percent.
Despite Cable's preseason optimism, the need for change was clear. The Seahawks tried to make a shift at center by benching Drew Nowak for backup Patrick Lewis, but Lewis was injured during his first start in Week 6 and promptly missed the next two games. Once Lewis returned to health during Seattle's Week 9 bye, the franchise waived Nowak and returned the job to Lewis.
It's too simplistic to link Seattle's offensive success directly to Lewis, especially given that the line struggled during Lewis' return against Arizona in Week 10, but they've looked like a different unit from Week 11 on. Wilson has been pressured on just 24.8 percent of his dropbacks over that timespan, which is only 11th among starting quarterbacks. It's not exactly the turf cabana Andy Dalton enjoyed for most of this year, but it's a drastic change for the league's most-hurried passer.
If you want to see the impact of what that time in the pocket can do for Wilson, look no further than his five touchdown passes Sunday. Wilson had nearly four totally unmolested seconds in the pocket before finding a wide-open Tyler Lockett for his first touchdown. Later, he simply ignored a big blitz to find Lockett for a 49-yard score.
The offensive line's impact was even more obvious on Wilson's throws to Baldwin. After hitting the bottom of his dropback, Wilson required literally one step combined between his first, second and and third touchdown passes to Baldwin. It's incredible. Wilson barely budges and never has to even reset his eyes or feet. You know those 3-pointers where a guy is so wide-open that he gets to spin the ball onto his fingertips and take a deep breath before shooting? That was what Wilson got to do on these touchdown passes.
Watch the route combinations and you'll also see that this isn't especially complicated stuff from offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. The first two Baldwin touchdowns are combinations of crossing routes, and the third is a simple post route in which Baldwin juked Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb so badly that Webb might still be picking pieces of his ankles out of the grass in Baltimore as you read this. These touchdown passes are all throws that look easy because Wilson's receivers have time to break into their routes and Wilson himself has time to run through his progressions.
As SB Nation's Danny Kelly wrote in a story before the Ravens game, Bevell has done a better job of creating opportunities for his receivers elsewhere on the field by building route combinations and pre-snap looks designed to manufacture quick throws and separation. He has had success stacking his receivers in recent weeks, and one of the touchdowns came out of a diamond set with Fred Jackson motioned out alongside wide receivers. On Sunday, the Seahawks repeatedly lined up Baldwin alongside Jermaine Kearse and went with a slant/flat route combination designed to create a natural, legal pick on Baltimore's overworked cornerbacks, producing a few easy first downs.
It's tempting to note the absence of Graham and suggest that the Seahawks are being more creative without their star tight end, but I'm skeptical. Even if Graham is capable of beating tighter coverage in a way that Kearse or Cooper Helfet simply aren't, it's not as if the Seahawks couldn't have made Graham's life easier by stacking him alongside Baldwin or running pick plays to free him up against man coverage. They ran those plays earlier in the year, too, but they've been more successful lately -- it's the blocking.
The other stunning thing here is how Wilson looks as a conventional quarterback. The naive, shortsighted knock on Wilson -- as much as you can knock a guy who has two Super Bowl trips in three chances -- has always been that he's a quarterback who has to rely on various gimmicks (such as the read-option), wild improvisational scrambles and a dominant running game to serve as an effective quarterback. At 5-foot-11, even after having proved himself as an elite quarterback, Wilson wasn't the sort of prototypical pocket passer the league fetishizes as their platonic ideal of a quarterback.
Well, that's simply no longer the case. As Matt Bowen noted for ESPN Insider before the Ravens game, Wilson has been dominant in recent weeks without stepping foot outside the pocket. Those numbers are even more terrifying after adding the Ravens game to the mix. Inside the pocket over the past four weeks, Wilson is 81-for-96 (84.3 percent) for 1,094 yards with 15 touchdowns, zero interceptions and an absurd QBR of 98.5. He was 26th in QBR in the pocket (51.2) through the first 10 weeks of the year, in part out of sheer unfamiliarity, having thrown a league-high 22 percent of his passes outside of the pocket. That figure is now down to 16 percent after Week 10. Wilson is never going to be Drew Bledsoe, but he's finding the ideal balance of where to make his throws and ripping teams apart without needing to scramble into (or away from) danger.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Wilson managed to pull off another feat many thought him incapable of performing, given that it's basically his stock trade by now. The arguments suggesting he wasn't worth the massive contract he signed this offseason seem incredibly silly right now. As ESPN's Mina Kimes rightly noted on Twitter, the critics who suggested earlier in the year that Wilson was somehow being distracted by new girlfriend Ciara have mysteriously failed to comment on how Ciara's presence has helped Wilson during this hot streak, unsurprising for those who trotted out a tired, sexist trope.
What might be a surprise, though, is how this could be a Seahawks team whose strength is its offense. Seattle's remarkable second-half runs in recent years have been paced by its defense, notably last season, when Bobby Wagner returned in Week 12 and the Seahawks promptly allowed an average of 6.5 points per game the rest of the way.
This year, it's the offense that appears to be spiking for Seattle. The Seahawks have scored 29 points or more in each of their past five games. They've averaged 34.6 points per game over that stretch, the first time they've pulled that off since Wilson's rookie season in 2012, and that was a run that included four return touchdowns. Seattle has only one in the past five weeks. Wilson's offense is clicking better than it ever has, even without its two biggest weapons. Even if Seattle can't win the NFC West, that's going to make them a wild-card team nobody wants to see in January. And even though Wilson isn't going to be league MVP, he has been the best quarterback on the planet over the past month.