SEATTLE — As he has moved up the football ladder, the first reaction to Russell Wilson, even from teammates, is invariably one of skepticism. As in, can this guy be for real?
All those platitudes, like “the separation is in the preparation.” The work ethic that borders on maniacal. The no-nonsense approach that extends to every practice, every meeting, every study session. Surely, it must be an act.
“I thought he was full of crap for the first few weeks,” said wide receiver Golden Tate, laughing. “It was, like, man, it’s not that serious. It’s serious, but you can kind of relax. But that’s who he is, and that’s what’s gotten him to this point.”
Where it has gotten Wilson is a second go-round in the playoffs, and another opportunity to cement his reputation as one of the NFL’s clutch quarterbacks. His opposite number in Saturday’s game with the Saints, Drew Brees, has what Wilson aspires to: A Super Bowl championship.
So do Tom Brady (three, to be exact) and Peyton Manning. The rest of the quarterbacks in the NFL playoffs — Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Wilson — can rise to elite status if they complete the journey in the next three weeks.
Once they got over the initial suspicion of Wilson last year, teammates were gradually won over. The tide began to turn decisively in the Chicago Bears game in Week 12, when he led a game-tying touchdown drive at the end of regulation, then a winning drive in overtime.
“He played outside of his mind,” Richard Sherman said. “He managed the game, he ran it when he had to, he threw great passes when he had to and drove the ball down the field when he had to for the game-winner. I think that’s as clutch as you can get.”
But in the playoffs last year Wilson gave the strongest indication he doesn’t shrink in the spotlight. In the first round, he led the Seahawks past Robert Griffin III and Washington for a road postseason victory.
And then, in what ultimately was a heartbreaking loss to Atlanta, Wilson was the best player on the field, leading four touchdown drives in Seattle’s first five second-half possessions. He rallied the Seahawks from a 20-0 halftime deficit into a lead with 31 seconds remaining — one the Seahawks’ defense couldn’t hold.
The Seahawks, however, believe a precedent was established by Wilson — one that has been mostly upheld this season in leading Seattle to an NFC-best 13-3 record.
“He had great numbers in the postseason, and to us, he seems to rise up and always capture the moment,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
Wilson has said he rarely succumbs to nerves, which he ascribes to his renowned study regimen.
“I always say you’re never nervous when you’re prepared,” he said.
Again, it would sound like just corny words if Wilson didn’t exude a sense of calm beyond his years, one he hopes his teammates pick up on.
“His leadership is amazing,” wide receiver Jermaine Kearse said. “I’ve already felt like he was a 10-year vet when I first met him last year, so now I feel like he’s a 20-year vet. He is just getting better every day. He is never trying to stay complacent. He is always trying to get better, whether it’s film study or on the field.”
Wilson used the phrase “being the calm in the storm” more than once Wednesday in explaining his mindset in the critical junctures of the tensest games.
“The biggest thing is being able to slow the game down,” he said of the playoffs. “It’s no different.”
Well, maybe a little different, according to wide receiver Doug Baldwin.
“It’s just the energy is ramped up a little bit more,” Baldwin said. “The field is still the same size, but the atmosphere … the players just get up more for it. The energy is hard to explain. That’s what we learned from it (last year) and that’s what we took from it.”
For all of Wilson’s talk all season about each week being a championship game, he knows the stakes are raised now, and the margin for error narrowed. If that is indeed when he thrives, he’ll have to show it again Saturday, for this is a “what have you done lately” league.
“I think to be a big-time player, you have to play big-time in big games,” Wilson said. “Every big opportunity is a great opportunity to step up.”
Meanwhile, Tate long ago stopped questioning Wilson’s methods. If Wilson wants to arrive at the crack of dawn to watch film, Tate realized, it isn’t for show. It’s just Russell being Russell.
“That’s what’s helping us win,” Tate said. “So I’ll eat my words.”