Russell Wilson, Seahawks back on Super Bowl course
MINNEAPOLIS – Imagine it were September, just before the NFL season, and I told you this is about to happen to the Seattle Seahawks, the preseason Super Bowl favorites:
The Seahawks will lose their first two games -- including one to the lackluster St. Louis Rams -- and will be sitting at 2-4 come mid-October. There will be headlines like this: “The Seattle Seahawks are in deep playoff trouble.” More attention will be paid to quarterback Russell Wilson’s off-field image -- the television commercials, his relationship with his R&B singer girlfriend, Ciara, all of those so-called distractions -- than his development as a top-tier NFL quarterback. Their prized offseason acquisition, tight end Jimmy Graham, will go down with a torn patellar tendon after a disappointing and largely ineffective 11 games. The centerpiece of their offense, running back Marshawn Lynch, will have surgery for a sports hernia, miss half the season and be replaced by an undrafted rookie. Add to all this that the vaunted Seattle defense, the one that led the NFL in fewest points allowed the past three seasons (allowing 15.3 points per game in 2012, 14.4 in 2013 and 15.9 in 2014) will give up 27 points or more six times in the first 11 games. Compare that to the past three seasons, when the Seahawks allowed 27 or more points in only five games total -- including the playoffs.
If I had told you all this were about to happen, you would call it a disaster of a season. Missing the playoffs, certainly. Maybe much, much worse.
And yet here we are, at the beginning of Wilson’s favorite month of the year -- during his four-year career, Wilson owns a 13-2 December record after Sunday’s 38-7 blowout of the Minnesota Vikings -- and I’m going to tell you that something very different is now true:
You should now consider the 7-5 Seattle Seahawks the favorite to be the NFC representative at Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7, 2016.
Sorry, Cam Newton. My apologies, Carson Palmer. Ditto to you, Aaron Rodgers.
But if you saw the ease with which Russell Wilson and Seattle’s dominant defense dismantled the Vikings in Sunday afternoon’s Minnesota chill, you wouldn’t pick anyone other than Ciara’s boyfriend to be the NFC champ, making it three years in a row.
It’s because the defense seems to have finally found its rhythm. But more important, it’s because Wilson -- the guy who came into the NFL as a leader and a game manager for a defense-first team -- has finally gotten to the point where he should be considered in the elite tier of NFL quarterbacks.
“This is the best football of his life,” Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said in the locker room after beating the Vikings. “Quarterbacks come into their own. This is his growing point. This is his moving up into that elite tier.”
“There’s no ceiling for his game right now,” Sherman continued. “He’s blowing the ceiling off the building right now. He’s playing phenomenal. He’s doing it with his legs. He’s doing it with his arm. He’s making smart decisions. He’s getting out of the pocket. He’s eliminating negative plays. That’s what you need quarterbacks to do.”
The way Wilson’s game has exploded over the past month, just as the defense has found its footing, has been nothing short of remarkable.
Look at these stats during the Seahawks’ season-righting three-game winning streak: 879 passing yards with a 76.7 percent completion rate, 11 touchdown passes with zero interceptions, plus 95 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. And check out Wilson’s passer rating the past three games: 138.5, 147.9, 146.0.
That’s not just MVP-caliber; that’s Hall of Fame-worthy.
What I love most about these Seahawks is that their stars are generally just like Wilson: They come from the most unlikely of places. Wilson was drafted in the third round after being passed over by every NFL team. Until he signed a monster contract this offseason, Wilson’s salary cap figure during the Seahawks' back-to-back Super Bowl runs was about $750,000 a year -- which allowed the team to spend money on other complementary parts.
The rest of the no-hype team stood out on Sunday as well. How about undrafted wide receiver Doug Baldwin? Five receptions for 94 yards and two touchdowns. The defense that gave up 125 yards, zero touchdowns and only nine first downs to the Vikings? Well, there’s Sherman (a fifth-round pick), and Kam Chancellor (another fifth-rounder), and leading tackle K.J. Wright (fourth round).
The Seahawks steal of the moment -- the guy who has stepped in the past month with Lynch out -- has been Thomas Rawls. He’s the perfect Seattle story. Rawls was a tough kid from Flint, Mich., who was a linebacker and running back in high school. His grades weren’t great, but he finally got a high enough ACT score to get into the University of Michigan. At Michigan, though, he hardly played.
“He used to call me sometimes, and you could hear the emotion in his voice,” his high school coach, Fred Jackson, told me. “There was one time he was in tears. He just couldn’t get it, why he wasn’t playing.”
So last year he transferred to Central Michigan, where he ran for 1,103 yards and 10 touchdowns. The coaching staff there called him “Beast Mode” because his running style was just like Marshawn Lynch’s.
“I told all of those NFL scouts that if he doesn’t get drafted, you’re gonna get a steal of a deal as a free agent,” the running backs coach at Central Michigan, Gino Guidugli, told me. “It’s the physicality, the violentness with how he runs the ball. His ability to keep his feet and always fall forward, I’ve never seen that.”
NFL teams passed on him in the draft because he had pleaded guilty after a purse-snatching arrest. The Seahawks snapped him up, and he might go down as the biggest steal of the 2015 rookie class.
Rawls couldn’t have ended up in a better spot, where an overlooked third-round pick can become one of the faces of the NFL and where Rawls can go from undrafted free agent to a guy who ran for 101 yards and a touchdown Sunday, the fourth 100-yard game of his rookie season.
Nobody saw him coming. But the Seahawks saw something in him. Call it toughness; that’s what Rawls calls it, and that’s why he feels like he fits right in. Call it the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of a group of guys whose talents have often been overlooked. Or just call it a team that knows the types of players it’s looking for, and which brings those types into a culture that, as Sherman told me, “celebrates our uniqueness” to “unleash our talent.”
Whatever it is, it’s the reason we are seeing this team looking its best when it matters most.
Will the Seahawks make their third Super Bowl in a row? I have no idea. Weird things happen in the NFL. The team that looks unstoppable this week is a disaster the next. The best team doesn’t always win. Things happen.
But let’s just say this: If you went to Las Vegas last week, and saw that this year’s preseason Super Bowl favorite Seahawks were sitting at only 18-to-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, and you saw that eight other teams had better odds than the Seahawks, and you plunked down a few bucks on Wilson and his cast of cast-offs and undervalueds and overlookeds … well, you should be feeling pretty good right now.