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Fran Tarkenton: ‘Russell Wilson is Rookie of the Year’
ATLANTA – Russell Wilson and Fran Tarkenton were born in Richmond, Va., and share comparable skills that have prompted season-long comparisons between the Seahawks’ rookie quarterback and the Hall of Fame quarterback.
But they never had met, until Saturday.
Prior to the team’s walkthrough at the Georgia Tech indoor practice facility, the Seahawks’ final on-field session before Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome, Wilson spent several minutes talking – yes, eye-to-eye – with Tarkenton.
“I’d never met him before, but I’ve watched some film on him and watched him a lot in the past,” Wilson said after the walkthrough. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks to ever play, and he opened doors for me.”
That’s because the 6-foot Tarkenton also was deemed “too short” to play in this league when the Minnesota Vikings selected him in the third round of the 1961 NFL Draft – just like Wilson, who was drafted in the third round by the Seahawks last April.
All Tarkenton did was end up in the Class of 1986 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after being voted to nine Pro Bowls during his 18-season career with the Vikings (1961-66, 1972-78) and New York Giants (1967-71). The “too-short” QB passed for 47,003 yards and 342 touchdowns, and was named league MVP in 1975.
While Wilson was on the field, Tarkenton shared his thoughts about the rookie QB, including this: “I think he’s Rookie of the Year. I don’t think there’s any question about it. And I have great respect for what Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III did, but I think this kid has had the best year of any rookie quarterback out there. It’s been pretty amazing.”
And Tarkenton loves the fact that Wilson has done all that he’s done – including leading his team into the second round of the playoffs – after being drafted in the third round.
“Russell didn’t come in with the job,” he said. “It was Matt Flynn’s job, so he had to earn his place. RGIII and Andrew Luck, they walked in and it was given to them, and they deserved it. But this kid earned it by the way he played in the preseason. That’s what makes it different.”
Tarkenton is no Russell-come-lately. He started following Wilson’s career when he was at North Carolina State, before he went to the University of Wisconsin and long before what he’s accomplished this season.
“I’m a big fan. I follow it,” said Tarkenton, who went to Athens (Ga.) High School and then the University of Georgia. “I like the guys that are my height.”
When Tarkenton entered the league, running as a quarterback was “frowned on,” as he put it. “It was pocket, pocket, pocket. If you ran, it was scandalous. So I kind of broke the barrier.”
After Tarkenton finally called it a career, the mantle of the quarterback who could run – not a running quarterback – was passed to Roger Staubach, and then Bob Griese, and then Steve Young. Now there’s Wilson, among others. And while he did run for 489 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season, Wilson also passed for 26 touchdowns to tie the NFL rookie record that was set by Peyton Manning in 1998 – and threw his 27th TD pass in last week’s wild-card victory over RGIII and the Washington Redskins. Oh, and Wilson also completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,118 yards.
“The important this is, you’ve got to be able to throw the ball at an NFL level first,” Tarkenton said. “That’s what Russell can do. He’s a thrower first. Then if you’ve got mobility to extend the play, to give your receivers more time to get position or to pick up a first down, that’s good.”
Wilson has done it, because he has it.
“They call get the ‘It’ factor,” Tarkenton said. “There is an ‘It’ factor with Russell, and you see it right away.”
As for the other thing most saw right away in Wilson and Tarkenton, he said, “We’ve had a prejudice against anybody who’s not 6-4. I was 6 feet, played at that height and it didn’t bother me. Russell looks as tall as I am. You find yourself places to throw in between. Nobody throws over a defensive lineman. A defensive lineman is 6-5 and then he’s got his arms up. How do you throw over a 7-footer? You don’t. You’ve got to find the alleys to throw in, and Russell instinctively does that. You cannot coach that. You have it, or you don’t. And he has it.”
About those comparisons to Tarkenton, Wilson said, “Oh, I definitely take it as a compliment. A guy that was one of the best to ever play the game, and changed the game, hopefully I can do the same. And hopefully I get to continue to open doors for more people down the road.”
Tarkenton also has been flattered to have his name – and playing style – resurface as Wilson has been compared to him.
“I’m very proud of it,” he said. “To think the last game I played was 35 years ago and they’re comparing someone to the way I played, that’s a pretty neat thing.”