Russ’s Rookie Year,
A Re-Look At The Season The Seahawks Gained A Super Star
Head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider had a decision to make. Since taking over the Seattle Seahawks organization, the team had posted consecutive 7-9 seasons. The Seahawks were still rebuilding and had undoubtedly been adding talent, but without a quarterback, the prospect of another 7-9 season felt too great. The problem was they had already been looking for a quarterback. For the 2011 season, Carroll had chosen to hand over the reigns to Trevaris Jackson, a fifth-year reclamation project from the Minnesota Vikings. A fourteen game starter, Jackson’s mediocre play was interrupted by a short burst of excitement from Charlie Whitehurst, former back-up for the San Diego Charges. By the end of the season, both had fizzled out.
It was time to make another run at signal-caller, but who?
On March 18th, 2012, the organization signed Matt Flynn, long-time back-up to Aaron Rodgers, to a three-year, 26-million dollar contract. Flynn had been gaining traction as a free-agent, and his stock rose considerably after throwing six touchdown passes against the Detroit Lions during the final game of the 2011 regular season. It seemed like a score. Flynn was the guy. And yet, Schneider had his eye on another quarterback, a fifth-year college QB with a reputation for being unable to decide between being a football or a baseball player. He was also a little short.
His name was Russell Wilson.
A Slow Start
After being drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, Wilson seized the opportunity to be quarterback for the Seahawks and about out-shined Flynn in every way imaginable. By week 1, Wilson was named the starter, and while the excitement over Wilson was real, a greater desire demanded more attention. The Seahawks had not posted a winning record in four seasons. As much as the fans and the organization and Wilson himself wanted Russell Wilson to be the answer, everyone really wanted to start winning again, and to do it any way possible. Against the division-rival Arizona Cardinals, the Hawks brought an urgency and ferocity rarely displayed in early September.
On the opening kickoff, return specialist Leon Washington fielded the ball with space to get a head-of-steam. He ran vertically for twenty yards before getting underneath Anthony Sherman and powering forward for several more yards. After the whistle, Seahawk Heath Farwell came rushing in, pulling players off the pile, which initiated a shoving match. After the first play from scrimmage, Marshawn Lynch popped up from a short gain, putting hands into safety Adrian Wilson, sparking another round of shoving matches. With special teams and the offense mixing it up, it was time for the defense to get into their own scrum, except this time it would be a play that pushed the game in the Seahawks’ favor.
With the offense having four throwing targets on the field, the defense decided to pass on its base unit and go with five defensive-backs. It looked like a solid defensive call, but prior to the snap, tight end Todd Heap (83) crossed the formation and was no longer positioned as a receiver but as a lead blocker. This new wrinkle indicated the play would be a run, and with the Seahawks down a linebacker, the interior defensive lineman—Brandon Mebane (92) and Allen Branch (97)—would play a vital role in stopping the running back Ryan Williams (34). To give themselves an advantage, both established early position by shifting to the high-side of the field.
At the snap, center Lyle Sendlein (63) and left guard Daryn Colledge (71) double teamed Branch while right guard Adam Snyder (63) managed to get Mebane’s shoulders turned inward. A small lane was created, but it was soon plugged. When Mebane and Branch shifted, it was part of a greater movement within the defense. Safety Kam Chancellor (31), who had been playing deep, had crashed on the play. He got in the lane, discouraging Williams from proceeding. Williams turned away to follow Heap through the left tackle. Nothing was there. Williams again turned back right, running into Mebane.
Mebane got his bear claw in on the ball, attempting to pry it loose. Williams maintained the hold, though it was easy to see how this attack might’ve loosened William’s grip. As KJ Wright came from behind, Williams disappeared. The ball popped out along the ground, where Mebane and several Cardinals dove in for it. Around the pile, two or three shoving matches exploded, and then…
The turnover led to a 3-0 lead for the Seahawks.
Arizona responded. By the end of the quarter, their offense was on the goal line. Here, the interior defensive linemen made their presence felt again.
The Cardinals were in a short yardage formation, with three tight ends, one bookmarking either end of the offensive line, and the third in the backfield. The Cardinals intended to smash it into the end zone, but when center Sendlein whiffed on Clint McDonald (69), the play fell apart. At the snap, McDonald’s powerful arms brushed Sendlein aside. McDonald’s path delivered him at the knees of Williams. He clasped at William’s ankles, tripping him up.
Thus far, the defensive was doing its job. The offense was not.
In the first half, the unit managed only 113 total yards. The Cardinals were keying in on running back Marshawn Lynch, the engine of the Seahawks’ offense, in hope offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell would put the game in the hands of Wilson. The rookie had not backed away from the challenge, keeping the defense honest with reliable production from the passing game. Still, it was his first NFL game, and the chances he would make a mistake were high. Eventually, he obliged. Wilson made the ill-advised throw that, because of a Cardinal defender, had to be released backward. The loose ball slid along the turf and was recovered by Arizona.
Arizona picked up a field goal. The Hawks were down 13-3.
On the pursuing kickoff, Cardinals’ place-kicker Jay Feely booted one that landed seven yards in the end zone. Like the opening kickoff, Leon Washington took off in a vertical burst of speed, heading toward his three lead blockers—JR Sweezy, Lemuel Jeanpierre, and Ben Obomanu.
Sweezy and Jeanpierre teamed up to take out a Cardinal pursuer while Obomanu looped behind them, eliminating another defender. With a mess of bodies to Washington’s left, it was up to Michael Robinson to seal the edge toward the right. Avoiding a shoe-string tackle, Washington went off-step to escape Feely, narrowly inserting himself between Feely and fellow-Seahawk Chris Maragos, who nearly knocked Washington down. Past Feely and Maragos, Washington survived an arm tackle, finally hitting open field. Off the to the races, he made for the sidelines, three Cardinals at his tail. Washington almost pulled away, but was instead knocked down by a push in the back.
The return was eighty-three yards, setting up the offense on the Cardinals’ 24-yard line. Five plays later, Russell Wilson threw the first touchdown pass of his professional career. Washington was not finished. With eleven minutes remaining in the fourth, and the game now tied at 13-13, punter Dave Zastudil’s 53-yard kick landed between the hash marks, giving Washington the opportunity to pick which portion of the field he wanted to attack.
Washington (33) chose to go high, away from Justin Bethel. In the path of several Cardinals, Washington outflanked them but taking the longer route around and away from them. He caught some fortune when Earl Thomas (29) incidentally obstructed Stewart Bradley (55), leading to bodies spilling on the field like bowling pins. Once again, Washington went off-speed on a tackler, turning inside on Mike Leach (82). Free, he took another wide route to circumvent three Cardinals and the kicker, Zastudil. Three-fourths of the way through the giant “S” he had run, he avoided two attempts to tackle him at his feet before being tracked down from behind.
The punt return was for fifty-two yards, setting up the offense on the Cardinals’ 16-yard line. Five plays later, placekicker Steven Hauschka hit a field goal to give the Seahawks the lead, 16-13.
Player Profile: Leon Washington Sr.
5’8″, 200-pound Leon Washington Sr was a fourth-round draft pick who became a nine-year veteran, primarily for the New York Jets and then the Seattle Seahawks. Often compared to Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren Sproles, Washington struggled to find a permanent home and a stable role in the NFL. His difficulties were partially due to being an early example of having a smaller, more versatile running back who was not seen as a traditional between-the-tackles runner, but as a compliment back. Despite several solid seasons in New York, in which on average he was statistically the better runner and catcher out of the backfield, Washington was a back-up to Thomas Jones.
After sustaining compound fractures of both his right tibia and fibula, Washington was traded to the Seahawks before the 2010 season. It was originally intended for Washington to have a shot at being the starting tailback, but he fell on the depth chart after the team acquired embattled running back Marshawn Lynch. From then on, Washington was first and foremost a return specialist, where he was an elite contributor and Pro Bowler.
Washington finished his Seahawks’ career with four kickoff returns for touchdowns, the most in franchise history, and finished his NFL career with eight kickoff returns, to tie Josh Cribbs for the most in NFL history. As of February 2017, he is married and has three sons. He stays active in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida where he runs football camps for local youths and was recently a coaching intern for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Sandwiched between Washington’s returns was this gem by cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman later became known as one of the best cornerbacks in the game, but in 2012, this was only his sophomore campaign and this was just his fifth interception.
It led to a 47-yard field goal.
The First Start
Russell Wilson was not the only rookie quarterback to be starting on this particular Sunday.
The Washington Redskins had traded the baby with the bathwater to obtain Robert Griffin III, and the gamble had initially paid off. Griffin had gone 19/26 for 320-yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Wheedon had all thrown multiple interceptions in their first starts. Wilson was having a steady day, with a touchdown pass as a high and one terrible backward pass as a low. When the Cardinals scored a touchdown with 4:59 left in the game, going up 20-16, Wilson was 12/20 for 98-yards. With Washington only able to obtain a touchback, it was up to the offense to drive the field for the victory.
Wilson responded by going 6/8 for 55 yards in route to the Cardinals 13-yard line.
The explosion in production was spurred by a quick passing game that prioritized fast routes to the sidelines. Wilson delivered the ball accurately and on-time, leading to chunks of yards-after-the-catch, and twice saved the drive from ending.
Stuck on the Hawks’ 27-yard line, it was third and fourteen, a terrifying situation for any young quarterback. The Cardinals were talented along the defensive line, and they had been using that line to confuse and attack Wilson, and this time would be no different.
The Cardinals showed Wilson a four-man rush, but prior to the snap, they abandoned the look, with linebackers Paris Lenon (51) and Quentin Groves (54) approaching either side of center Max Unger (60), representing a double-blitz to the “A” gap. For Wilson, this was a tricky situation. Unger would be unable to pick up both linebackers. If Wilson hung onto the ball too long, the result could be a sack, and yet, if he didn’t wait for a deep route to develop, the offense would not obtain a first down and it would be a punt.
At the snap, both Lenon and Groves rushed forward, but Lenon gave up his rush to spy on Wilson. Groves continued his pursuit, but Unger got into him, negating the blitz. Nevertheless, this double-blitz was effective. To assist Unger, right guard JR Sweezy gave up his original assignment on defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (90). Dockett side-stepped past Sweezy and then overpowered right tackle Breno Giacomini (68). With a clear path to Wilson, Dockett charged, hitting Wilson, but being unable to alter the throw. Wilson had released the ball at the back of his drop, to his primary read.
The ball reached wide receiver Charly Martin (14) for a first down.
On another third down, the Cardinals once again showed Wilson pressure, hoping to psychologically force him into a mistake. Linebackers Daryl Washington (58) and Lenon, accompanied by safety Kerry Rhodes (25), approach the bottom side of the formation in an overload blitz. Fortunately, the play called for Wilson to roll away from the blitz. Still, the Cardinals had seven men committed to the pass rush, meaning Wilson had to make a quick decision. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin (89) was unable to separate from cornerback Michael Adams (27), so the first down throw was an impossibility. Instantly, Wilson tucked the ball and got low, intending to drive forward for the first down. By putting in a last second step, he completed a half twirl and fell forward for the first.
Thanks to two Cardinals pass interference penalties, and the officials granting the Seahawks a time out they did not have, the offense was given eight opportunities to score. Wilson had seven straight incompletions, including two potential touchdown catches that were dropped. The worst being a pass that hit Doug Baldwin in the mitts. The victory was right there, and Wilson had driven the Seahawks right to its doorstep, but the ball was ultimately turned over on downs.
The Seahawks were 0-1, on the wrong end of a violent match-up where they were arguably the better team. A lot could be said about the potential this young squad showed on the field, and all the big plays they produced, but it was hard to remove the taste of seeing the game-winning drive slip away after so many opportunities.
The whole season wasn’t going to be like this, was it?