The legion of those skeptical of Russell Wilson lost a coach Sunday.
With just under four minutes to play at Soldier Field in Chicago, Lovie Smith turned the game over to his vaunted but vulnerable Bears defense. Smith figured a rookie quarterback, whose team always seems to find a way to lose close games on the road, would be overwhelmed by the challenge of leading the Seattle Seahawks on a touchdown drive.
Smith was so convinced of Wilson’s inability to make crunch-time plays that he pulled the plug on his own veteran quarterback, Jay Cutler. Facing a third-and-21 situation at the Chicago 45-yard line, aware of a potential field-goal opportunity on fourth down, Smith called for a low-risk, low-reward handoff to running back Matt Forte.
It gained 7 yards, inside Seahawks territory but well beyond the range of kicker Robbie Gould. No matter, Smith reasoned. Better to punt and go to work on the runt.
Bad idea, Lovie. Wilson went into two-minute drill mode with a poise Seahawks coach Pete Carroll later would call “exquisite.” The rookie completed six passes for 80 yards. He picked up 19 more yards on a pair of scrambles. He hooked up with tight end Zach Miller on a fourth-and-3, move-the-chains-or-lose chance at midfield, and then he delivered the ball into the hands of playmakers Sidney Rice and Golden Tate.
Tate shredded three tacklers en route to the 14-yard touchdown that should have sealed a victory. Ah, but this was a road game, where anything can happen to the Seahawks. Anything did. The defense lost track of Brandon Marshall, the Bears main deep threat – actually, their only deep threat – putting Gould in range for the field goal that assured overtime.
The first possession in OT gave Wilson another chance to showcase his incalculable football acumen. He completed four passes for 38 yards, and gained 28 more yards on three keepers, and when the Bears defense finally put a knockout punch on Rice, it was too late. The ball had crossed the plane of the end zone. Game over.
Between Smith’s decision to play it smug on third-and-21 and Rice’s touchdown in overtime, Cutler threw one pass. It was a monster, and revealed why the dour-faced quarterback is such a valuable commodity in Chicago, but no quarterback can move an offense without the ball.
And the ball, of course, belonged to the Seahawks. The Bears defense, built around the dubious premise that it will force a turnover sooner or later, never rattled Wilson. It never came close to rattling Wilson.
He took his teammates on a 97-yard drive that concluded with an apparent game-winning touchdown, and then he took his teammates on an 80-yard drive that removed all doubt. Wilson did this against a team girding for the playoffs – a team whose coach had enough trust in his defense that he essentially told his offense to take a knee.
Three months ago, the book on the Seahawks was that if the kid QB is efficient, it will be sufficient: Give the ball to Marshawn Lynch, throw some high-percentage passes to receivers running slant routes. Otherwise? Kinda stay out of the way, R-Dub. Don’t go changing; we like you just the way you are.
Except there are times – Sunday in Chicago, for instance – when a quarterback must exude more than simple efficiency. There are times when a quarterback breaks a huddle at his team’s 3-yard line, late in the game, needing to score a touchdown because a field goal won’t cut it.
Wilson not only marched the Seahawks down the field during that gut-check drive, he marched them down the field after the Bears’ gut-wrenching field goal, and it’s not unreasonable to wonder: Was this the work of the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year?
Before Wilson broke down the Bears, the race appeared to between Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Washington’s Robert Griffin III. The quarterbacks accounted for the first two picks in the 2012 draft, and they’ve answered their great expectations.
Luck’s last-second scoring pass Sunday gave the Colts their eighth victory. He’s thrown for 3,205 yards, with 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His passer rating is 76.9.
Griffin had the afternoon off – the Redskins are home tonight against the Giants – but through 11 games, he’s put together stats worthy of an MVP: 2,497 yards, 16 touchdowns to only four interceptions. He’s got a 104.6 passer rating that doesn’t factor in the 642 rushing yards he’s gained on 100 carries.
And then there’s Wilson. His 2,051 passing yards are a few laps behind Luck, and his 227 rushing yards are a few laps behind Griffin. He straddles his rivals with a passer rating of 93.9.
If I were to plead Wilson’s case in front of a judge, I’d put it this way: He’s thrown four more touchdown passes – and five fewer interceptions – than Luck, and at 7-5, his team has a better record than Griffin’s 5-6 Redskins.
And then I’d stop reciting statistics and put in a video of Wilson’s game at Chicago, beginning with the snap he took at the Hawks 3-yard line, late in the fourth quarter, on the road. I’d point out that Lovie Smith had Wilson where he wanted him, 97 yards from a touchdown,
And then I’d rest my case, content to know that a rookie of the year award can’t begin to quantify a quarterbacking performance best remembered as exquisite.john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.