Around the Atlanta Falcons’ headquarters, the player to whom coaches most compare Seattle Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson is Pro Football Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, another quarterback smaller in stature.
With the Falcons gunning for their first playoff win on Sunday in their fourth try during head coach Mike Smith’s five seasons, defensive players say that controlling Wilson is the key to victory — even though running back Marshawn Lynch ranked third in the league in rushing during the regular season.
“The quarterback opens up the door for everything on the offense,” Falcons safety William Moore said, “so if we can contain him, we’ll be all right.”
The story of Wilson is the story of the Seahawks’ season. Seattle already had spent big free-agent dollars on quarterback Matt Flynn to lure him away from Green Bay, but the third-round pick who played his college ball at NC State and Wisconsin won the starting job in training camp.
The Seahawks (12-5) have won six straight games and eight out of nine, including last Sunday’s 24-14 victory over Washington in the wild-card round. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the only thing holding his team back was Wilson’s need to learn the offense.
“We’ve grown up at the quarterback is really what it is,” Carroll said. “. . . Early on, we were just raising a young quarterback.”
Not unlike quarterback Matt Ryan’s rookie year of 2008, when the Falcons played conservatively and ran the ball with Michael Turner to go 11-5, the Seahawks brought Wilson along slowly, running the ball behind Lynch.
“Where we are now is we have a quarterback that we know and that we trust and that we believe in, and he’s made tons of good things happen for us,” Carroll said.
While he was mostly overshadowed in the rookie of the year race by the two quarterbacks drafted first and second overall — Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Washington’s Robert Griffin III — Wilson passed for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He’s also the last of that trio still playing. He posted a 100.0 rating on the season, which is higher than Ryan’s 99.1.
In making the comparison to Tarkenton — a university of Georgia product who went on to a TV career as a host of the variety show “That’s Incredible” in the 1980s — Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said that Wilson is an elusive runner but looks to pass first.
“He’s a playmaker; like I said, he’s as close to Fran Tarkenton — now that goes way back for many people,” said Nolan, whose father Dick, as the coach for San Francisco and New Orleans, coached against Tarkenton in the NFL. “Fran was as elusive as could be. I mean, you never knew where Fran would be. . . .
“If you stay alive to pass, that means you’ve got to keep covering guys on the back end. That’s hard to do. It’s one of the tougher things about him. You better stay with your man.”
Wilson, who is listed at 5 feet 11, said he learned that style by watching film of other smaller quarterbacks, including — yes — Tarkenton, but also Doug Flutie and Drew Brees.
“Well, the biggest thing is they never cared or never worried about what anybody had to say about them in terms of their play,” said Wilson, 24. “They just went out there and trusted their reads, trusted the way they played. For me, I’ve been this height my whole life — well the past six or seven years — so I’ve learned how to play the game the right way. I trust my ability. I have long arms, big hands; it allows me to throw the ball the way I do.
“And just their ability to move. They always are able to move. Obviously, I think that’s a plus to my game. In terms of being able to move and step back or step up, slide to the right, spin out of things, try to make something happen. Obviously, you watch guys like Drew Brees, he keeps his eyes downfield all the time. That’s what I try to do when I scramble; I’m never really looking just to run it. I really don’t like running, to be honest with you. I’d rather throw the ball all day and get the ball to the true playmakers.”
When quarterbacks such as Wilson use their feet to extend the play, it puts plenty of pressure on defensive backs — as Nolan noted earlier — to stay with their receivers. Cornerback Dunta Robinson said the Falcons defensive backs relish that opportunity.
“It does (challenge you), but that’s what we get paid for,” Robinson said. “This game presents all the challenges you dream about. We’re getting a very hot football team coming in, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. We know this journey’s going to be tough, but we’re expecting that and we think that’s going to bring the best out of us as a team.”
They might need to be at their best to defeat Wilson and the Seahawks.