Now that he’s finally healthy, Russell Wilson can get back to playing like he has before.
For the Tri-City Dust Devils and the Asheville Tourists, that is.
Seattle’s franchise quarterback enters Sunday’s game between the NFC West-leading Seahawks (7-2-1) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5) looking like his wondrous, improvisational self again. Last weekend against Philadelphia, Wilson showed that his sprained right ankle, sprained left knee and right pectoral injury were in the past.
On a jaw-dropping play, he scrambled left, ran up to the line of scrimmage, twisted his body back to the right and zipped an off-balance pass to Jimmy Graham for a 15-yard touchdown. Seattle took the lead for good in a 26-15 win.
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“It’s an amazing play. It’s a very unusual throw to make, with all the momentum he had going to his left and to flick it back in,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
“A beautiful play.”
One that had Wilson back looking like a second baseman for one of the first times in an injury-filled season.
“I think that a lot of that comes from baseball, playing middle infield and all of that. Being able to throw at different angles,” he said. “I think it’s also practice, too. ‘Tater,’ (quarterbacks) coach Carl Smith, we always practice on our game. And you have to find ways in this game to make throws and make completions and give guys chances, like Jimmy the other day.”
The Seahawks’ top receiver, Doug Baldwin, marveled at how much — or little — core strength Wilson must have to make such throws.
“He has a fantastic base. You can’t tell by looking at him, but he also has a pretty strong core,” Baldwin said.
“We always joke around about his ab routine — or lack thereof.”
About a decade ago, Wilson was about to graduate from The Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia. He was a shortstop with a .467 batting average and a quarterback with 3,009 yards, 34 touchdowns and seven touchdown passes as a senior. North Carolina State offered him scholarships in football and baseball.
The Baltimore Orioles drafted Wilson out of high school in the 41th round of baseball’s draft, but he chose to play three seasons of football and baseball at N.C. State. In that time the Colorado Rockies drafted Wilson in the fourth round in 2010. That summer Wilson played infield for the Northwest League’s Tri-City Dust Devils in Pasco, then returned to N.C. State for his junior season of football.
After he graduated from N.C. State with one season of football eligibility remaining, Wilson played another season of pro baseball for the Class-A Asheville Tourists in North Carolina. He gave up baseball in June 2011 after hitting .229 with 118 strikeouts in 315 at-bats, then played his fifth-year senior season of football at Wisconsin.
Wilson quarterbacked the Badgers to the 2012 Rose Bowl. The Seahawks drafted him a few months later in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. And that was the end of Wilson’s baseball career — aside from a couple of one-day visits to the Texas Rangers spring-training camp as a uniformed “guest” in recent years. Wilson occasionally wears a Rangers team hoodie around Seahawks headquarters.
Wilson, 28, says his wild, across-the-body flicks like an infielder started way before his competitive baseball career began.
“I’ve done that ever since I was little,” he said. “I think about when I was young, playing in the snow in Virginia, playing at my friends’ houses and stuff like that. Playing at recess, doing all that stuff, you practice all those kinds of things. Also, like I said from baseball, fielding different balls from all different angles, having to throw it to first, second, whatever. I think also the early mornings with my dad, early in the morning just practicing the game.
“Like I said, I attribute a lot of that to coach Carl Smith, too. It’s how we practice, and we do a lot of different things, especially in training camp and the beginning of practices, just to throw different balls.”
The problem for the Buccaneers’ 26th-ranked defense, which allows 26 points per game, and for the Carolina Panthers the following week and the rest of Seattle’s opponents this season is that a healthy Wilson means he can get back to being his improvisational best. His 2,714 yards passing — with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions — has him on pace to break by more than 300 yards the Seahawks franchise passing record for a single season of 4,024. He set that last season.
He’s often most accurate when his throws are most unconventional. When protection breaks down. When defenses don’t know if he’s going to run or pass.
“Savvy, instincts, confidence, timing, all of those things come into play,” Carroll said. “The quarterback position is such a difficult spot to play, but the way he does it, and there are a few guys who play like this, they just call on marvelous sense and timing and feel and all that.”
As if his baseball background and crazy throws weren’t enough to prove his unique athletic skills, Wilson ran out of the left side of the formation last weekend and became the first Seahawks quarterback to catch a touchdown pass. That throw was from Baldwin in the second half against the Eagles.
“He’s an extraordinary and natural athlete. He can do everything,” Carroll said of Wilson. “He can throw and catch, and I’m sure he can hit a golf ball and can shoot some hoops. He can just do everything.
“There was a comment I heard about some baseball stuff, in reference to the kinds of throws you have to make as a second baseman, where you catch the ball and have to throw the ball over here, that kind of action and ability to separate your lower body from your upper body and do that. It was kind of what that throw was all about. He’s running this way and he throws the ball back in here with accuracy and finesse and all of that.
“A lot of those things, you can’t coach those and teach those.
“The guys can either do it. Or they can’t.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-2-1) AT TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (5-5)
Sunday at 1:05 p.m., Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
The series: The Seahawks have won eight of the 12 games between the expansion partners from 1976. Seattle won the last meeting, 27-24, in overtime on Nov. 3, 2013, overcoming an early deficit at CenturyLink Field. The Buccaneers won the last time these teams played in Tampa, 38-15 on Dec. 26, 2010. The Seahawks have played at Tampa Bay twice in the previous 10 seasons.
Line: Seahawks by 6.
Turn No. 3 loose: Russell Wilson has proven in the last two weeks — in wins at the Patriots and over the Eagles — that he is as healthy as he’s been since his first leg injury in the third quarter of the opener on Sept. 11. Lead runner Thomas Rawls is banged up, but will start after playing 40 snaps, more than expected, last weekend in his first game in two months. Fellow running backs C.J. Prosise (broken shoulder blade) and Troymaine Pope (high-ankle sprain) are out. Expect Wilson to run more read options and carry more of the running load than he has all season — or to throw it all over Raymond James Stadium to keep Rawls from getting further damaged. And as the last three weeks and wins have showed, turning Wilson loose to make most of the plays is Seattle’s best way to advance and score on offense.
Avril, Clark, Wagner and pals getting after Winston: Buccaneers second-year QB Jameis Winston threw eight interceptions in his first four games. But he’s hot, with 12 touchdown throws and two interceptions in the last six games. He enters confident but with a history of making risky throws under pressure. As Richard Sherman noted this past week: “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Without Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett, out again following arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks ago, end Cliff Avril (10 sacks), Bennett’s fill-in, Frank Clark, and blitzing linebacker Bobby Wagner have the task to pressure Winston out of his present and back to his mistake-filled past.
Adjust without Thomas: This will be the first time in the 119 game weeks that Earl Thomas has been a Seahawk that the defense won’t have the three-time All-Pro at free safety. It’s going to be Steve Terrell in the middle of the field because Thomas is out with a strained hamstring. The Buccaneers will be targeting Terrell. Fellow safety Kam Chancellor has an added responsibility in pass coverage and communication that he’s not used to doing. Not when Thomas is (just about) always back there with him.
The Bucs are 25th in the league against the pass. The Seahawks running backs are either out or, in Rawls’ case, banged up. Wilson throws it all over Tampa Bay in one of the best passing days of his career. Seahawks 35, Buccaneers 17.
3 — Russell Wilson, QB (5-11, 215, fifth season): Safeguards against his injuries, and the injuries themselves, are long gone. Time for more sandlot, improv fun.
23 — Steven Terrell, FS (5-10, 197, fourth season): Seattle’s most underused backup must fill its largest shoes: those of three-time All-Pro Earl Thomas in the middle.
53 — Joey Hunt, C (6-2, 299, rookie): Justin Britt didn’t practice all week (ankle). Looks like Hunt makes his first start. Communication will be the key.
3 — Jameis Winston, QB (6-5, 237, second season): Hot in the past six games: 12 TD passes, two INTs. He will test Seattle — especially Terrell — deep.
13 — Mike Evans, WR (6-5, 231, third season): Big, physical star is second in NFL in TD catches, third in catches and yards. Richard Sherman is likely to shadow him.
22 — Doug Martin, RB (5-9, 223, fifth season): Third game back after six weeks out. Had 24 carries last week at Kansas City. Needs to run to help Winston.
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle