By Chris Cluff
When the Seahawks finished the 2011 season a disappointing 7-9 despite a monster running game and stout defense, everyone knew the one place they really needed to upgrade was quarterback.
Tarvaris Jackson had gone 0-5 in fourth-quarter comeback attempts, and the Hawks needed to find a guy who could win close games and rally the offense.
When they signed Matt Flynn in March, most people thought they had found the man. But then they drafted Russell Wilson in the third round in April.
When the 5-foot-11 Wilson won it with some dynamic play in the preseason, plenty of us questioned the wisdom of handing an otherwise playoff-ready team to a rookie quarterback.
In the first month, the Hawks took their expected lumps with the rookie, losing close games to Arizona and St. Louis. But Wilson developed quickly, taking a giant stride when he engineered a fourth-quarter comeback win over New England.
The Hawks played a lot of close games this season, and Wilson was 4-4 in fourth-quarter comeback attempts. He and the offense failed in close losses at Arizona, at St. Louis, at San Francisco and at Miami. But he pulled out big comebacks against Green Bay, New England and Chicago and finished with a 90-yard drive to beat the Rams on Sunday.
“We have so much more confidence in our ability to finish on offense now,” coach Pete Carroll told 710 ESPN. “Russell’s growth has just been instrumental in all that.”
Wilson is a big reason the Hawks won 11 games. If not for the defense’s fade in Detroit, it would have been 12.
“Russell has played like a quarterback that plays on an 11-5 or 12-4 team,” Carroll said.
Early in the season, pressure got to Wilson — as you would expect of a rookie quarterback. In the first four games, Wilson completed just 44.7 percent of his passes against blitzing defenses (five rushers or more), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Wilson had no touchdown passes against pressure, but he also threw no interceptions and averaged just 3.3 yards per attempt — obviously checking down a lot.
After the first month, he seemed to figure it out. From Week 5 to Week 16, his numbers against blitzing defenses were 62.2 percent, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. His yards per pass were a robust 8.5, and his rating was at 109.7.
He saved some of his best for last. In the finale against the Rams, he completed 15 of 19 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown — despite being sacked six times. His passer rating of 136.3 was his highest of the season — topping a 133.7 in the fourth-quarter comeback win over New England and a 131.0 in a 28-7 blowout of the Jets.
Wilson tied Peyton Manning’s NFL rookie record, set in 1998, of 26 touchdown passes. And the Seattle rookie set a team record for passing efficiency, with a rating of 100 that ranked fourth in the NFL — behind Aaron Rodgers (108), Manning (105.8) and Seattle’s first playoff opponent, Washington rookie Robert Griffin III (102.4).
Wilson was at his best at home, throwing 17 TD passes against just two picks. But he has been excellent in his last four road games, completing 68 percent for seven touchdowns and one interception.
At Chicago, he took the Hawks on long touchdown drives on successive possessions at the end of regulation and in overtime to win the game. In a 50-17 win vs. Buffalo in Toronto, he rushed for 92 yards and three touchdowns.
The entire key to this season was the development of a quarterback who could win. Little did anyone know it would not be Flynn, but a 5-11 rookie dynamo.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Carroll said. “He kind of proved it to us.”
Now he has a chance to prove it to everyone who thinks Griffin should be the rookie of the year.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.