There are few quarterbacks, if any, who are capable of turning what looks like a disastrous play into a very successful one the way Russell Wilson has throughout his career.
One play before Wilson looked like a prototypical pocket passer on a 24-yard touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin, Seattle's only touchdown in a 13-10 victory over the Lions, the Seahawks quarterback had to rely on athleticism and instinct to avoid two pass rushers before scrambling up field and to his left, then looking down field where he would eventually connect with Jermaine Kearse for a 34-yard gain on third-and-12.
It was the kind of play that makes opposing defenders slam their fists into the turf in frustration and keeps defensive coordinators up at night, but it was also the kind of play that comes with significant risk. Later in the game, rather than throw the ball away or take a sack, Wilson again tried to avoid a free rusher, but this time he was hit from behind by another blitzing defensive back who he didn't see, and the result was a fumble that was returned for a touchdown that helped Detroit get back in the game.
When Wilson evaluates both extremes of his game, he says the key is finding "a happy medium," while offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell calls it a balancing act.
"There's a happy medium to it," Wilson said. "It depends on where your hot (route) is, who's open quick, and all that kind of stuff. So every play is different, and every play you just kind of have to play that play, and trust the read and trust the timing of it, and then if something breaks down just try and make a smart decision with it, and continue that. And not playing scared, that's one thing I'm not going to do, I'm not going to play scared. The key is just playing smart."
And the Seahawks don't for a second want Wilson to start playing scared, because for three-plus seasons, he has usually played very smart. Yes, Wilson lost two fumbles last week, but for every turnover in Wilson's career, there have been many, many more big pass completions down field or long scramble runs.
"I think he's done phenomenal," Bevell said of Wilson's decision making. "He's a unique quarterback in his own right. There's nobody like him in terms of the throwing game, being able to make guys miss, being able to make plays with his legs, being able to make great decisions when he runs. He just does so many good things; we're not going to sit here and pick him apart and try to change the way he plays. We love the way he plays. He does a lot of great things for us, when we want the ball out, he usually gets the ball out. Is there going to be a time when something like that (fumble) happens? Sure there is, but that's the game we're going to play, and he's going to weigh on if he's going to make it or not."
Wilson hasn't be perfect this season—he'll be the first to point out his mistakes, whether it's the fumbles or the sacks he could have avoided by making quicker decisions—but what he has done through four games is complete a career best 71.7 percent of his passes and post a 100.5 passer rating while throwing at a higher frequency than he has in any other season. Wilson is doing that while being pressured at an alarming rate—he has been sacked 18 times, tied for the most in the NFL—and without Marshawn Lynch for the better part of two games. He is also Seattle's leading rusher with 177 yards on 34 carries.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll perfectly described Wilson's ability to improvise when he said Wilson and his receivers made plays that "just changed so drastically from what looked like was going to happen to what eventually happened," but what is perhaps even more important for Wilson's and the Seahawks' future is the growth he has shown in the pocket—at last when there has been a pocket long enough for him to throw.
"He's throwing from the pocket probably as well as he ever has," Bevell said. "I think that's something that kind of has stood out to us a little bit. He's making plays within the pocket. We know the special plays that he can make when he gets outside, but he's done a nice job of, for example the touchdown throw to Jimmy (Graham against Chicago), he does a great job of staying in the pocket, he just slid to his left, found him open down the middle and made the play."
Facing a dangerous Bengals pass rush Sunday. Wilson will likely have to continue being both a full-time quarterback and part-time escape artist, and he'll being doing so in a city that holds a special place in his heart. While Wilson was raised in Virginia, he was actually born in Cincinnati and made frequent trips there as a child to visit family and friends.
"I am excited to go back to 'Nasty 'Nati.'" Wilson said. "It's where obviously I grew up, I used to go back there every year. I loved it there, I used to love watching the Cincinnati Reds play. So many different players played there, the Bengals too as well. So it's going to be a cool experience. I used to go to White Castles and Skyline Chili all the time, I probably won't be getting that this week though. But looking forward to it, it should be fun."
If fun is avoiding opposing defensive linemen intent on hammering him, then Wilson should have a great time this weekend. And while nobody wants to see their quarterback get sacked or hit as he throws, Wilson says the occasional hit is part of the game.
"I should have played tennis otherwise," he joked when asked about getting hit. "I'm expecting to get hit every once in a while. So you go in there and mentally you have to be ready for a physical game and that's how we play football."
Wilson plays football unlike any quarterback in the NFL, and while that occasionally comes with negative plays, the Seahawks wouldn't have it any other way.