Russell Wilson had the worst season of his career in 2016. A bevy of injuries muddied the waters for Wilson and forced him to adjust his playing style. Being the talented passer he is, Wilson still made do, but he was never able to get his feet under him.
Just three quarters into a Week 1 game versus the Miami Dolphins, Wilson suffered an ankle injury. He then tweaked his knee two weeks later in a win over the San Francisco 49ers. The injury should have kept him on the sideline for a few weeks, but Wilson opted to keep playing.
Finally, Wilson tore his right pectoral in a grueling 6-6 overtime tie versus the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7. Wilson again chose to play through the pain. Not even halfway through the season, Wilson’s mobility had been neutered and throwing the ball became increasingly uncomfortable. It was clear Wilson was not himself.
Where It All Went Wrong
Wilson’s hampered mobility altered his play style entirely. As a passer, Wilson predicates his play around being able to buy time and create chaos. He plays outside of the pocket better than anyone else in the league. Seattle also likes to use Wilson as a designed runner, often on option plays. The combination of injuries mitigated both elements of Wilson’s game.
Through the first four years of his career, Wilson averaged 103 rushing attempts for 608 yards per season. That put Wilson at a per-game rate of 6.4 attempts for 5.9 yards per carry. A quarterback of that presence is a threat to defenses.
Wilson couldn’t replicate that success on the ground last year though. He recorded only 72 rushing attempts for 259 yards, making his 3.6 yards per carry easily the worst mark of his career. He still had enough mobility to scamper away from defenses occasionally, but he was more often forced to beat defenses strictly from the pocket.
In any other year, the difference may have seemed marginal, but Wilson was not the only rushing threat Seattle lost. Starting running back Thomas Rawls struggled to stay on the field, and wasn’t completely healthy when he was. Rookie C.J. Prosise looked excellent early on, but suffered an injury in late November and never returned. Alex Collins was their only other option, but he was hardly serviceable.
Paired with their poor offensive line, a diminished running back corps left Seattle with one option: throw quick passes. Rather than run hopelessly into a wall of wet cardboard, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell opted to lean on the quick passing game. Their passing offense normally relies on vertical stems, play-action, and Wilson scrambling to make plays on his own. Last year was a more toned-down approach, favoring slants, snag concepts, and quick screens.
The increase in quick passing concepts allowed Wilson to buoy his completion percentage, but overall, he was not as accurate as he’s been in the past. Wilson found himself fitting fewer tight windows than before, and he especially struggled throwing sharp timing routes. He still made plenty of outstanding throws, but his normal consistency wasn’t there.
Wilson didn’t look like he was in his right mind, either. Wilson is normally a sharp, precise passer. Part of his excellence is always being on time in the quick game. Last year, Wilson didn’t always have that sharpness. Be it slower footwork or uncertainty in his reads, Wilson had too many plays last season that simply weren’t executed well.
So, not only was Wilson injured and incapable of playing in his comfort zone, but he was given a larger workload and his margin of error shrunk because the offense didn’t have a running game to turn to. It was a disastrous combination. Wilson handled it well and still played better than a good portion of quarterbacks around the league, but he posted career-lows across the board.
In 2016, Wilson posted the worst touchdown rate of his career at 3.8 percent. Wilson had a 6.1 percent average touchdown rate through his previous four seasons, never having sunk below 4.4 percent until last year. Career-lows in yards per completion, quarterback rating, and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) also popped up in 2016. Wilson was both less efficient and less explosive than he’d been in years past.
Returning To Prominence
When he is fully functional, Wilson is the most creative and mesmerizing quarterback that the NFL has to offer. He dazzles with long-winded scrambles and deep bombs down the field, yet his hectic play rarely leads to mistakes. In the same way Aaron Rodgers does, Wilson marries efficiency and ball security with chaos and play-making. He is an amoeba quarterback who adapts to whatever the situation calls for.
The above throw is from 2015. Wilson’s velocity was considerably better in 2015 and it allowed him to fit tighter windows. In the play above, Wilson rifles a ball down the seam to Doug Baldwin for a touchdown. Wilson is able to summon intense velocity with a lightning-quick release. The quickness of Wilson’s release and velocity of the pass did not allow any time for the hash defender to undercut the route. Neither the wide cornerback or centerfielding safety were able to click-and-close on the ball, either. Wilson made this window appear much wider than it was because of how fast he got the ball out of his hand and to his target.
Wilson didn’t have that ease of velocity in 2016. His arm strength was still quality, but he couldn’t generate elite velocity with a hobbled lower body and a torn pectoral.
Wilson wasn’t able to move quite like this in 2016. Like the last play, this heroic third-down scramble is from 2015.
The immediate presence of a defender leads Wilson to abandon any hopes of throwing the ball. As the defender gets in Wilson’s proximity, Wilson stops dead in his tracks. He initially turns around toward the middle of the field, but quickly pulls off one of his signature spin moves. The spin move frees Wilson to run for a first down, later enabling the Seahawks to score a touchdown.
A healthy Russell Wilson will be able to regularly make these throws and scrambles in 2017. As he gains the juice back in his legs and pop back in his arm, we’ll again see the best of Wilson. Seattle’s offense will open up and return to normal, which will be devastating with pass catchers like Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham, and Jermaine Kearse.
One down year should not be held against Wilson. For one reason or another, every quarterback is bound to have occasional seasons in which they do not produce up to their usual standard. Wilson fell below many of his career averages in 2016, lending to probable regression back to the productive and efficient player he normally is.
Wilson’s injuries and Seattle’s loss of identity in the run game were both anomalies, and there is more than enough reason to bet on Wilson rebounding. He has been too good for too long to believe that last year was the start of a trend. The Russell Wilson that we all know and love will be back in 2017.