A Tale of Two Halves – Russell Wilson’s Second-Half Surge

Photo by Keith Allison
Photo by Keith Allison

In many ways the Seattle Seahawks playoff loss in Carolina was a microcosm of their season as a whole, and felt familiar to anyone who watched their regular season games.

Throughout the first half of games they are often slow on both sides of the ball. They give up long, clock-eating drives. If the running game fails to materialize there is almost no offensive production. Then, almost as if they had meant it to be that way, halftime ends and they play like the powerhouse they are capable of being.

The Seahawks have looked out-of-sync in roughly half of their games in 2015, but still managed to piece together 10-wins and a playoff victory.

The second-half surge vs. Carolina was at the same time shocking and expected. The way the game played out certainly isn’t common in the NFL, but has become common to the Seattle Seahawks. It leaves you wondering. Why are they so consistently inconsistent?

Despite their erratic play, Wilson and his band of Pacific Northwest misfits are undoubtedly the most resilient team in the NFL now, and perhaps in the history of the league.  Outside of the fact that they actually secured a Super Bowl win, they are comparable in many ways to the 1990-1993 Bills teams who appeared in four straight Super Bowls. Filled with vitriol. An unmatched tenacity. The inexplicable ability to look like a bottom-barrel team one game, and the most feared team in the league the next.

Nothing puts this wide range of play on display better than their QB and leader Russell Wilson’s 2015 season. What started as a worrisome down year ended up being the best statistical season of his career, surpassing his career highs in touchdowns and yards while setting franchise records along the way.

Wilson’s second-half finish was nothing short of spectacular, earning him the elusive but meaningless “elite quarterback” title in the eyes of a good portion of the national media.

A Slow Start

If I had offered to bet you that this would happen during the Seahawks week 9 bye week, you’d have bet a full months salary that I’d be wrong. There just wasn’t any precedent. It went against everything we knew about the Seahawks’ ground-and-pound philosophy. There was no way Russell Wilson would throw 25 TDs in the final eight games of the regular season.

Less than two months ago that we were reading about how Wilson was regressing, while Seahawks fans called for offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s job. There were some small signs that the frat-like Seahawks locker room was once again having problems. The Seattle locker room is well-known for keeping their beefs in-house, so even the slightest cracks in the armor are often seen as tell-tale signs of issues.

“I don’t know what film they’re watching if they’re saying that Darrell Bevell is the problem because, like I said, there’s plays out there and we just have to get to them. We consistently have been inconsistent in getting to them,” Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin said following a 4th-quarter loss to the Arizona Cardinals in November.

“We consistently have been inconsistent in getting to them.” – Doug Baldwin

Many speculated that his cryptic messaging was a critique of Russell Wilson while being a simultaneous show of support for Bevell.  At that time, despite severe offensive line problems, it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder if Wilson truly had regressed.

We’re a far cry from there now.

The most shocking aspect of Russel Wilson’s turnaround isn’t that it happened, it’s how fast it happened. If you were to split Wilson’s season stats down the middle and blindly present them to any football analyst, they’d tell you that the first-half QB was likely a middling stop-gap solution, while the second-half QB was an absolute lock for a lucrative long-term contract. They might wonder if the stats were from two completely different quarterbacks.

The shift was almost immediate. One day he was the leader of a clearly out-of-sync offense, and the next he was hurling bombs and blowing out playoff teams.

See for yourself:

russwilhalf

An Impressive Finish

Wilson’s true turnaround didn’t come until week 11 of the regular season, when he threw for 260 yards and 3 touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers at home. At the time it was a welcome sign to Seattle fans, but not an indication of the historic run that Wilson would go on down the stretch.

In the first half of the season, Wilson threw for two or more touchdowns only one time. In the second half, he did that seven times.

He never threw for three or more touchdowns in their first eight games, but managed to do so six times in their final eight, including two games with five touchdown passes.

In the first half, he posted a QB rating above 100.0 only twice. The second half included six games with a QB rating of at least 120.0, helping him to finish the season with an astounding 110.1 QB rating.

As a team the Seahawks went 4-4 in the first half of the season, while going 6-2 in a second-half that included impressive wins against Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Arizona.

Perhaps the most intriguing note of his second-half heroics was his ability to turn his game around despite crucial injuries on offense.

Marshawn Lynch only carried the ball 8-times in the second half of the season before undergoing sports hernia surgery that kept him out throughout the rest of the regular season. His 6 carries against Carolina in the divisional round may well be the last carries of his career, and almost surely his last as a Seahawk.

Jimmy Graham went down in week 12, suffering a patellar tendon tear that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Despite the national narrative that the Seahawks had failed to use his skills correctly within their scheme, Graham was on pace to set franchise records in receiving yards for a tight end, with an outside shot at reaching the 1,000 yard mark. Graham didn’t settle in to his new role immediately, but once him and Wilson found their rhythm, he became a vital threat in Seattle’s offense.

There aren’t many 8 game stretches that can be compared to Wilson’s in the history of the NFL. Manning’s entire 2013 season certainly warrants a comparison, as does Brady’s first-half of his record-setting 2007 season. Aaron Rodgers’ first-half of 2011 is another. That’s excellent company for a young player to be mentioned with.

Beyond that there aren’t many examples of 8 games of dominance on the level that Wilson displayed this year.

So What Changed?

The strange thing about Wilson’s second half play is that it is hard to pinpoint what caused this 180 degree turn. There were some changes, but mostly there was just a higher level of execution on all fronts. Still, a few key changes helped to propel Wilson.

Offensive Line Play

It’s no coincidence that Wilson’s sharp rebound at the mid-way point of the season perfectly aligned with the offensive line doing the same. During the first half of the season Seattle’s offensive line was the worst in the league, and was in danger of being remembered as one of the worst units of all time. Seahawks Offensive Line Coach Tom Cable boasted about their potential throughout the pre-season and defended their play throughout the rough start.

Wilson was sacked 31 times in the first half the season and was on pace to land squarely in the top-10 for most times sacked in a single season. After their week 9 bye, Wilson was only sacked 14 times, making them one of the most effective units in the NFL throughout the second half.

Still, the offensive line showed worrisome holes down the stretch with poor showings against the Rams in week 16 and Carolina in the divisional round.

Quick Decisions on Offense

In addition to the improved offensive line play, Darrell Bevell altered his early schemes and began focusing on quick decision-making and spreading things out post-snap. There was a noticeable increase in 4 receiver sets (often stacked) with an empty backfield. They often used short crossing routes to open up deeper pass plays.

This allowed Wilson to make quick timing throws, rather than waiting for routes to develop behind his shoddy offensive line. They also utilized Wilson’s mobility by returning to the bootlegs and roll-out passes that they had heavily used in years past, when Wilson’s pocket presence wasn’t so great.

Improved Pocket Play from Wilson

If there was one area where Wilson’s game has lacked throughout his career, it’s been his ability to step up into the pocket and deliver a throw under heavy pressure.

Wilson was always a threat with a clean pocket, but when the pressure came he typically opted to use his scrambling ability rather than maneuvering to find space in the pocket and deliver the ball. Bevell wanted Wilson to use his scrambling ability as a tool in his arsenal, rather than his go-to weapon under pressure.

At one point during their Week 11 home win against the 49ers, Wilson and Bevell sat on the bench discussing a missed opportunity on a deep pass to a wide open Tyler Lockett (seen here at the 2:48 mark), when Bevell imparted some wisdom that Wilson seemingly took to heart.

“I just needed a split second,” Wilson said.

“You could have created it,” Bevell replies, encouraging him to step up into the pocket.

“That should have been a touchdown man,” Wilson said.

“Yes. Yes it should have been.”

From that point forward, Wilson looked like a new man. His scrambling ability was as potent as ever, but he was stepping up into the pocket and delivering balls on a dime. Who knows if something finally clicked, or if it could have been there all season with a more consistent offensive line.

A Corner Turned?

The narrative around the NFL is that Russell Wilson turned a corner and suddenly earned the “elite QB” label that had fueled arguments for years when applied to him.

I tend to think the situation is a little less dramatic.

Yes, Wilson did turn a corner. His decision making and ability to step up in the pocket have definitely improved. But, the execution of his line has improved to such a degree that it leads me to believe that Wilson was always capable of playing much better than his first-half stats show.

If the Seahawks can continue to give Wilson enough time to be comfortable in the pocket in the years ahead, the NFC West can look forward to facing this Wilson for years to come.

 

By Ryan Bozeman