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Big game features matchup of “too-small” quarterbacks
Russell Wilson’s first introduction to Drew Brees, as it turns out, came from his late father.
And it was delivered long before all the hoopla surrounding Monday night’s matchup at CenturyLink Field between Wilson, the second-year quarterback of the 10-1 Seahawks, and Brees, the Super Bowl MVP quarterback of the 9-2 New Orleans Saints.
“My dad always used to tell me, ‘Man, you’ve got watch this guy Drew Brees for Purdue,’ ” Wilson said Friday, unable to hold back a smile. “I was like, ‘Who’s Drew Brees? Where’s Purdue?’ ”
When the laughter subsided, Wilson added, “I didn’t know where Purdue was. I’m from Virginia. I didn’t know where Purdue was.”
Flash forward 13 years and Wilson obviously knows where Purdue is, after playing his final season in college at Wisconsin; and definitely knows who Drew Brees is, after studying the game of the Saints’ seven-time Pro Bowl passer and even more importantly how he approaches the game.
But Harrison Wilson III, who passed away in 2010 before his son had transferred from North Carolina State to Wisconsin, definitely gets an assist for his part in this process that began in 1999.
And read. In fact, Wilson had read Brees’ book, “Coming Back Stronger,” twice before ever meeting him. “I really got to know him through that,” Wilson said. “Really watched tons of film on him. Watched a lot of interviews. But when you meet him, he’s just so poised. He’s so patient. He’s so understanding. But he also has a sense of urgency about himself. About everything that he does. He’s very disciplined in his approach.”
Sound familiar? It should, because that could be Seahawks coach Pete Carroll talking about Wilson.
It was at the Pro Bowl in January where Wilson’s relationship with Brees moved to the next level. Brees was the starter for the NFC squad; Wilson the No. 3 QB as an injury replacement, and a rookie.
“One of the things I had to ask was, ‘What separated yourself from Year One to Year Two and then from Year Two to the rest of your career? What really made you accelerate your process of being a great football player?’ ” Wilson said. “The biggest thing he said was, ‘My approach every day.’ He said, ‘It’s one of those things where every day I walk into the locker room, every day that I wake up, it’s a constant grind to improve. Whether it’s in the weight room. Whether it’s my flexibility. Whether it’s my reads. No matter what it is, I have a purpose for the day.’
“It’s the same philosophy I’ve always thought, but it’s also good to hear it from a guy that’s going to be a Hall of Famer, that’s one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. So you have a lot of respect for that.”
But Brees demanded Wilson’s attention even before that conversation. And it wasn’t by anything Brees said, but in his actions. It was during the first Pro Bowl practice, when the NFC huddle also included wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Vincent Jackson and Julio Jones, tight end Jason Witten, running back Adrian Peterson and center Jeff Saturday – who have 30 Pro Bowls between them.
“Like I’ve always said, ‘I think great quarterbacks have great leadership, great attention to detail and they have a relentless competitive nature.’ So those three things he brings to the table. So you respect that for sure.”
Brees’ take on this QB version of “American Idol”? He also had an advance scout in this relationship: Saints’ second-year wide receiver Nick Toon, who played with Wilson at Wisconsin.
“Nick had told me when he got here that Russell was a fan of mine when he was at Wisconsin,” Brees said this week during a conference-call interview. “He followed me when he was there and he kind of carried that into the NFL.
“I was kind of waiting for an opportunity to meet him, and sure enough we had that week together at the Pro Bowl. I couldn’t have been more impressed. You can tell the guy loves football. We talked a lot of football. We talked a lot of other stuff, too. But he’s a student of the game. He wants to be great. And I think he was just soaking it all up.”
While they might play in a copycat league, Wilson didn’t so much try to copy what Brees was doing – and continues to do.
“I don’t think (it’s) mechanically what I’ve mirrored from him,” Wilson said. “I think we’re very similar, actually. Just ironically. I’ve never really tried to study his mechanics exactly. I think everybody throws the ball a little bit different, for whatever reason. But we actually throw the ball very similar.”
That’s because they have similar backgrounds. Each played baseball – Brees as a shortstop, Wilson as a second baseman. Brees has a quick release – one of the elements Wilson has studied in Brees’ ample game while trying to improve that aspect of his still-developing game. Their footwork also is similar.
Then there’s the most obvious similarity. As Richard Sherman, the Seahawks’ All-Pro cornerback, put it, “They’re not particularly tall.”
Brees is listed as 6 feet, Wilson at 5-11. So they’ve always been quarterbacks with less than prototypical height, but that also has made being able to move in the pocket to buy time and find passing lanes a second-nature aspect of their impressive games.
“I never looked at it as an issue for myself. I’m sure Russell has never looked at it as an issue for him,” Brees said. “There are no excuses. There are so many other important things about playing the quarterback position besides your height. There’s a leadership ability. There’s a playmaking ability. There’s instinctive things that you can’t teach.”
And in those areas, Wilson and Brees measure up and then some.