Last Monday, Andrew Luck was set to lead the Colts to a championship, and Robert Griffin III was a sad, concussed public service announcement for the perils of hybrid quarterbacking. Seven days later, Luck sucks, and RG3 is, in the words of his Redskins teammate Fred Davis, “Black Jesus.” Next week, no doubt, Luck will throw four touchdown passes and run for four more, Griffin will hurt himself throwing a game-losing interception, and Fred Davis will decree that RG3 is “Black Ryan Leaf.”
The message: Beware, all ye who attempt to forecast a rookie’s career path based on a handful of games. Given the assignment by Slate readers (as part of our Reader Takeover) to write about Russell Wilson, I won’t embarrass myself by trying to divine the measurements of the Seattle rookie’s future trophy case. Yes, the Seahawks are 4-2 (albeit with a Space-Needle-sized asterisk), and Wilson played his best game yet in pulling out a come-from-behind, one-point victory against the mighty Patriots. And yes, as we’ve read in laudatory profiles and seen in TV spots, the rookie is smart, studious, humble, and looks fantastic in denim. But the smartest player isn’t always the best one—Ryan “that guy with the beard who went to Harvard” Fitzpatrick would be a lot more valuable if close games were decided by quarterback-on-quarterback Boggle.
Though Wilson’s brain won’t guarantee his long-term success, it did probably win him the Seahawks’ starting job, and the chance to show he deserves to keep it. And that’s the most interesting thing about the 5-foot-10-and-5/8-inches African-American quarterback: He is proof that, in the NFL circa 2012, looking the part isn’t about being a certain height or a certain race. In the post-JaMarcus Russell era, when talent evaluators don’t just give lip service to caring about character, Russell Wilson character-ed his way into one of the most exclusive gigs in sports.
Off the field, Wilson is Tim Tebow without the proselytizing. (Or without as much proselytizing—he does regularly tweet Bible verses.) As ESPN.com’s Elizabeth Merrill explained last month: “Wilson almost seems too good to be true. The first time he did an interview at Wisconsin, he asked to borrow a shirt with a collar from the equipment manager because he doesn’t do interviews in T-shirts and shorts. The interview wasn’t even on-camera.” At North Carolina State, the story tells us, an uncomplaining Wilson would “wake up at 4:30 in the morning, lift with the football team, go to class, then practice baseball in the afternoon.” When he transferred to Wisconsin, he drove for 17 hours “just to get a copy of the playbook so he could become one with it over the Fourth of July weekend.” (Just wait until he discovers email!) He took his Seahawks’ playbook on his honeymoon. He works tirelessly owing to the example of his father, a successful lawyer who died in 2010. “There’s just something about what he stands for and how he handles himself,” the Seahawks’ Golden Tate told Merrill. “You get a feeling that someone’s just very, very special.”
It’s not just feature writers and wide receivers who’ve fallen under Wilson’s spell. Merrill also quotes Gil Brandt, the longtime Cowboys player personnel man and the personification of NFL conventional wisdom. “For every guy that you draft that’s three inches and four inches below the accepted minimum, 99 of 100 are going to fail. He’s a real exception,” Brandt told ESPN.com. “Have you ever talked to him personally? He’s the most dynamic guy you’ll ever be around. He has such an unusual flair. I mean, this guy wins you over with two minutes’ talk. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a quarterback that’s undersized like he is that has been so dynamic.”
Irrespective of his work ethic and his height, Wilson’s college numbers suggest he deserved a shot in the NFL. As a senior at Wisconsin, he led the NCAA in passing efficiency, throwing 33 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. If he stood six-foot-five, Wilson would have been picked in the first round. Instead, he fell to Seattle in the third, a position that reflects Wilson’s position at the midpoint between the bias and generalization that keeps talented, atypical quarterbacks from getting an opportunity and the magical thinking about work ethic and winning attitudes that led the Denver Broncos to talk themselves into Tebow.
Wilson, who beat out free agent signee Matt Flynn by posting a 110.3 passer rating in the preseason, will get the chance to succeed that many others never do. Boise State’s adorably tiny, hyper-efficient Kellen Moore, one of the best college quarterbacks ever, went undrafted this year. (He’s now the third-stringer for the Detroit Lions.) And in 2006, Ohio State senior Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy, throwing 30 touchdowns and six interceptions. The six-foot, supposedly character-deficient Smith—he was suspended in college for taking money from a booster, which counts as a character issue in a world that reckons Mel Kiper a moral authority—wasn’t taken until the fifth round of the NFL Draft, and he’s accrued only 145 pass attempts as a pro. He was last seen as the quarterback for the UFL’s Omaha Nighthawks, where he battled for playing time with Eric Crouch and Jeremiah Masoli.
But Wilson, at least, will have the opportunity to fail or succeed on his own merits, just like the last rookie quarterback who was supposed to be the Seahawks’ savior. In 1993, the Seahawks started 3-2 behind the stellar play of … Rick Mirer. Take it away, Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Art Thiel:
Seahawk fans … haven’t seen a three-game win streak in three seasons. Then again, they have not seen a Seahawk quarterback like Rick Mirer in 18 years.
Charger cornerback Donald Frank has seen somebody like him.
“It’s hard when a quarterback can scramble like that,” he said. “Right now Steve Young stands out, and the guy who’s moving up is Mirer. I think he made all the difference.”
Five games into his rookie season, Mirer indeed is a difference-maker, not just a snap-taker. The analogy to the eminent San Francisco quarterback is as flattering as it is premature, yet it is not too soon to say Mirer is on the verge of one of the great rookie-quarterback seasons in NFL history.
Nineteen years later, Seahawks fans are hoping they’re not seeing another quarterback like Rick Mirer. The 6-foot-3 Notre Dame star, who was drafted second overall in 1993—and who did not go on to have one of the great rookie-quarterback seasons in history—was the Jake Locker of his day: a guy with a bad college completion percentage and an “NFL body.” The only thing that Mirer and Russell Wilson have in common is that they were both touted for their leadership skills. In the NFL, Mirer led his teams to oblivion, compiling a 24-44 overall record because of an errant arm. By all appearances, Wilson is not that kind of quarterback. The difference between untested rookie Rick Mirer and untested rookie Russell Wilson suggests that the NFL has been doing its homework, too.