September 5, 2013 in Sports

Wise, athletic Wilson looks to avoid sophomore slump

Dave Boling News Tribune of Tacoma
 
Associated Press photo

Russell Wilson’s 26 TD passes as a rookie was second to Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 28.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

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Trying to research comparables in an attempt to project how Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will progress in his second season, a major obstacle appears.

There are no comparable rookie seasons. The only other rookie quarterback in NFL history to compile a passer efficiency rating as high as Wilson’s 100.0 was another rookie last season, Robert Griffin III (102.4).

What about touchdown passes?

The only other rookie to pass for as many touchdowns as Wilson’s 26 was Peyton Manning in 1998, but Manning had nearly three times as many interceptions (28) as did Wilson (10), and took 182 more attempts (575-393).

No quarterback operates in a vacuum, so Wilson’s production will depend on other factors, not the least of which is health.

But the Seahawks are built on a strong rushing attack and a ball-hawking defense, and that might make the best comparison of his situation to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger improved his 2004 rookie passer rating (98.1) by a small margin (98.6) to lead the Steelers to a win over the Seahawks in the Super Bowl after the 2005 season. As Seattle fans will recall, he barely needed to show up (nine completions, two interceptions) when Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL.

Not surprisingly, given his famed work habits, Wilson dedicated the offseason to refining his game, particularly paying attention to the small details.

And the difference that’s made?

“It’s just miles of difference for me emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically compared to last year,” Wilson said. “I knew that my rookie year was going to be a journey, and that I was going to learn some, go backwards some, and hopefully not go backwards too much. I wanted to keep taking steps forward, and I’ve done that so far, so the main thing is if I can continue to do that day in and day out.”

The so-called “Sophomore Slump” does not seem to be a factor for the recent generation of quarterbacks who are coming out of college better equipped to meet the challenges of the NFL.

In the past five seasons, nine quarterbacks have been regular starters both their rookie and second seasons. And seven of the nine improved their passer rating the second year (Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford had lower ratings). And six led their teams to better records the second year (Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder, Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman).

Of those, like Wilson, four led their teams to the playoffs as rookies (Dalton, Sanchez, Joe Flacco and Ryan). But only two of the nine, Dalton and Flacco, followed up with another playoff appearance their second season.

Hall of Fame quarterback and Seahawks broadcaster Warren Moon has seen every game Wilson has played as a pro, and he sees clear improvements already in his second preseason.

“There is a big learning curve between the first and second seasons because you’ve been through it once and you understand what it takes, how to take care of yourself, how to deal with everything, your health, the media,” Moon said.

“I think the decision-making is a lot better, recognizing what the defense is in at the line of scrimmage, getting into the right plays. They’re giving him more command of the offense, which is a big thing. And he’s getting the ball out faster and anticipating better because he’s been with the guys a full season.”

Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said Wilson’s overall improved performance represents his better understanding of the position, learning the strengths of his receivers and the weak spots in different defenses.

“He went from just trying to function (to where) he can start to absorb other stuff,” Bevell said.

But Bevell pointed out that Wilson stopped being just a functional rookie about halfway through the 2012 season. Statistics support Bevell. In his final nine games, Wilson completed 67.9 percent of his passes with 18 touchdown throws and three interceptions. His passer rating of 116 over that span would have led the league by a wide margin if sustained over the full season.

“He did so well, you kind of assume … OK, he’s kind of arrived,” Bevell said. “There’s so much now that he has the opportunity to learn. He has 16 games of tape that he can look at.”

Backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who also was with the team in the 2012 preseason and has watched Wilson progress, said there’s a flip side to having 16 game recordings to watch. Opponents also have those to study.

“You have to work harder and prepare even more because now you know your weaknesses and defensive coordinators have had a long offseason to study you and figure out ways to play you better,” Jackson said.

Jackson spent last regular season as a backup in Buffalo, but closely watched the Seahawks ride Wilson’s burgeoning talents into the second round of the playoffs.

“I was in awe,” Jackson said. “He was playing so great; he just kept growing and getting better all season. You could see all the time how he would learn from his mistakes.”

As a rookie, Wilson benefited from having been exposed to two types of offenses in college at North Carolina State and Wisconsin. But Brady Quinn, another backup for the Seahawks this preseason before he was waived, pointed to another factor in Wilson’s quick adjustment to the NFL.

“I think his experience in (minor league) professional baseball really helped him adapt to the realm of professional football,” Quinn said. “You can see it the way he carries himself, the way he conducts himself. He’s got an amazing amount of savvy for a guy who’s just going into his second season.”

Quinn added that Wilson seems “wise beyond his years.”

But receiver Golden Tate sees Wilson, now with a Pro Bowl, 16 regular-season games and two playoff games under his belt, as very much the same man who scored an upset by winning the starter’s job last year as a third-round draft pick.

“He has been the same person from the moment that he walked in the door,” Tate said. “He’s a hard worker, very passionate about football and wants to do well and wants to see all of us do well.

“I just think that now, he knows more. He understands the offense more and he understands NFL football more.”

And most importantly, Tate said, “he knows what it takes to win.”

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