Russell Wilson Is Playing Chess

The Super Bowl is now behind us, the 2020 NFL season is officially in the books. And when the final whistles blew, it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who earned the right to raise (or maybe toss from boat to boat) the Lombardi Trophy in celebration as this year’s NFL champions.

And as a result, the mythic legacy of Tom Brady, the Buccaneers quarterback, has been cemented for all time. GOAT status confirmed, debate over. Untouchable.

Before the game, I said if the Buccs (or more specifically, Brady himself) won the game, it would be considered the greatest walk-off career move in sports history. And it’s definitely a contender. After the game, Brady said he’s coming back next year, so we’ll have to wait and see on the totality of things.

Halfway through the Super Bowl, the broadcast cut to a shot of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Russell Wilson, and Ciara (R&B Singer, Wilson’s wife) watching the game from Goodell’s suite. Wilson was there to receive one the NFL’s most prestigious awards, the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, given to players whose work in their communities beyond football are truly extraordinary.

When they were on camera, the Commissioner was seen engaging in a lively conversation with Ciara while Wilson sat back, seemingly uninterested in anything but what was happening down on the field.

Screengrab of CBS broadcast

Now allow me to speculate, extensively, about Russell Wilson’s thinking in this moment.

I believe Wilson was looking down at the field and seeing his past and future in the forms of Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady respectively. Some sort of an NFL Christmas Carol experience, and I think he was considering his current place in life accordingly.

When Russell Wilson looked at Mahomes, he saw a reflection of his own entry into the league. Mahomes is a more accomplished quarterback in his first four years that Wilson was, but as overall elite QB figures, they’re often considered among the top few. And like Mahomes, Wilson was better than the competition right from the start.

In the Super Bowl, Wilson watched Mahomes run for his life from the Tampa Bay defense. Drive after drive, Mahomes was consumed by the ferocious pass rush. He scrambled for almost 500 yards behind the line of scrimmage while being pressured on 29 of his 56 dropbacks (52%). 

I’m sure it looked familiar to Wilson, who’s no stranger to scrambling under pressure. He was sacked 47 times in 2020, 3rd most in the NFL behind Carson Wentz (50) and Deshaun Watson (49).

But across the field he saw something entirely different.

When Wilson looked at Brady, he saw the goal for his eventual sunset from the league. Not the championships, that’s not remotely possible at this point in Wilson’s career, but a similar late-career strategy is possible, maybe even likely.

In the Super Bowl, Wilson watched Brady throw from an almost perfectly clean pocket and pick apart the Kansas City Chiefs defense to a 31-9 victory. He looked comfortable behind a stout offensive line, totally in command of his offense. And then he won his seventh Super Bowl at 43 years of age.

How could Wilson watch such clear representations of his own career playing out in front of him and not reflect upon his options. His younger, scramble and throw days are behind him, but his slice-and-dice behind a clean, comfortable pocket days haven’t yet arrived.

And I think in that moment, Wilson realized that the Seahawks may never be the team to deliver anything close to the clean, comfortable pocket he wants for his future self.

So, what does the 32-year-old superstar quarterback do? He starts throwing bombs in media interviews about all the hits he’s been taking and how that needs to change.

Initially, the NFL media world exploded in a frenzy of “Wilson Wants Out” and “Will the Seahawks Trade Wilson” rumors and headlines. I’ve read dozens of articles about why or why not a Wilson trade makes sense for each side, but in each one the genesis traces back to Wilson’s uncharacteristic and unexpected comments.

Historically, Wilson’s been a consummate franchise quarterback. Whether things are going good or bad for the Hawks, Wilson says the right things in the right ways, never throwing anyone under the bus, always taking accountability for mistakes and falling on the sword for others when required.

Plus, there’s Wilson’s decade-long tradition of ending every interview or press conference with his signature “Go Hawks” sign-off.

So, what should we make of all the trade rumors? Nothing.

Each of the 32 teams in the NFL are looking for a Russell Wilson—an elite quarterback to lead their team. Of those 32 teams, I’d estimate that all but about 5 would happily swap whoever their starting QB is for Wilson because he’s that good.

Trust me, Wilson isn’t going anywhere.

But that’s not why he did what he did. I think Wilson spoke out very specifically and purposefully. I believe he was planting seeds for the future.

I think Wilson looks at his career thus far and knows he’s close of a future Hall of Fame berth, but it’s not a certainty. He needs another Super Bowl championship and an MVP award to be a lock for Canton, Ohio honors.

But the HoF is just the beginning of Wilson’s aspirations. He stated on his podcast earlier this year an interest in one day owning the Seahawks franchise itself one day. He has shown himself to be a generational talent on the field, but I expect him to greatly exceed that off the field in the years that follow his NFL career.

But he knows that to earn those kinds of accolades and maybe even more, he’ll need the team around him to change.

Despite Wilson’s specific comments about the offensive line, it’s about a lot more the big fellas up front. The offensive coordinator, the coaching philosophy, and of course, Wilson himself all contribute to the overall outcome. His style of play, keeping the play alive and looking for the big down-field play, has caused plenty of his own headaches.

I think Wilson watched Brady spend two decades on the New England Patriots and then, when the world thought he was essentially done playing football, he picked a well-built team that was a QB away and made them champions.

The seeds Wilson planted in the weeks following the Super Bowl are meant to be harvested over the next few seasons. Either the Seahawks will make organizational adjustments to put the team around Wilson he wants, or they won’t. And in a few years, when his contract is up and he’s a free agent, he’ll leave for another team that will give him what he wants.

With Brady’s example for reference, Russell Wilson has realized that as an elite quarterback in the NFL, this is his power. Even while under contract with the Seahawks, Wilson can suggest just the idea of playing for another team and manufacture change around him.

And I think that’s his endgame: pressure the Hawks to win now, set the terms for his departure down the road, or maybe even both… Depending on the timing.

Now, having hypothesized all these theories about Wilson’s future in football, I want to be clear and say that I don’t want him to play for another team, ever.

To me, the potential value of a single-team-career legend is greater than any “what’s best for the franchise” rationale there could one day be for letting him walk. He’s truly special and makes the Seahawks, and dare I say the city of Seattle, better.

Any, and I do mean ANY, personnel investments needed to keep him in Seattle and playing at an elite level are well worth it.

But here we are. Wilson made his waves and now we’ll spend the offseason watching the Seahawks react to them. From the upcoming NFL draft to the roster moves and free-agent acquisitions leading us towards the 2021 season, we’ll have to wait and see how the team takes shape.

Russell Wilson has made his opening move, what’s unclear now is who he’s playing against, the Seahawks or the rest of the NFL. The only thing that’s clear to me now that that while other quarterbacks are playing checkers, Wilson is playing chess. Go Hawks!

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About Jon Aiken 80 Articles
Born and raised in Seattle, Jon developed a deep love for the Mariners and Seahawks and continues to watch, analyze, and discuss them on a daily basis. As a professional advertising copywriter, the blending of these two loves (sports/words) seemed like a natural creative evolution. He recently moved south to Tacoma, fully embracing his new hometeam, the Rainers.