NFLTR Review: Russell Wilson’s Seemingly Inevitable Divorce

Russell Wilson’s return hasn’t pulled the Seahawks out of their tailspin, and that’s ominous for his future in Seattle. In this issue:

  • Why a split could be coming between Wilson and the Seahawks
  • Wilson already signaled his discontent last offseason. What’s next?
  • What to make of the rumored updated trade wishlist?

The Big Picture: The Seahawks and Russell Wilson

Winning cures everything in the NFL, and the Seahawks’ 30-23 victory against the 49ers with their backs against the wall in Week 13 temporarily quieted the clamor from the prior week’s primetime debacle against the Washington Football Team. The bumbling Texans might help the 4-8 Seahawks keep the volume turned down for another week, and upcoming games against the Lions and Bears could smear a little more lipstick on this ugly hog of a season. 

But at some point in the next month or so, the odds overwhelmingly predict the Seahawks will be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. They have just a three percent chance to make the postseason and it’s hard to see them lasting past the wildcard round even if they do squeak in. When their season is over, the reckoning between Seattle and QB Russell Wilson will come due. 

Wilson has spent his entire career with the team that took a chance on him in the third round of the 2012 draft, and he’s had an incredible run that includes two Super Bowls and one title. The Seahawks haven’t advanced past the divisional round of the playoffs since 2014, though, and the drought has started to wear on Wilson in the past few seasons especially. He rocked the boat and made headlines last season following a 30-20 loss to the Rams in the wildcard round.

And things have obviously not improved this year.

That’s why there’s a real chance we could be watching the end of Wilson’s career in Seattle these next few weeks, with a divorce between him and the Seahawks finalized this offseason. 

How did we get here?

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, there’s a clear pattern of escalating discontent from Wilson. The Athletic has the best single work on the subject, cataloging how the rift between Wilson and the team began and grew over the past few years. Just like there’s usually not one single thing that dissolves a marriage, it’s not just one issue between the Seahawks and Wilson. But there appear to be flashpoints. 

In 2018, Seahawks GM John Schneider attended the Wyoming pro day to watch Josh Allen and had conversations with the Browns about a trade offer including the No. 1 pick for Wilson. Even if neither situation was more than Seattle doing its due diligence, Wilson’s camp was miffed. That bled into contract negotiations the following year which became contentious. Ultimately Wilson set a deadline in April for the team to sign him or he would play out his deal. The Seahawks met it at the last minute with an extension that made Wilson the NFL’s highest-paid player, locked him up through 2023 and gave him the added security of a no-trade clause. 

Wilson had the deal and reassurance of Seattle’s commitment to him as the franchise quarterback. But in 2019, he started pushing for more buy-in on the field than what Carroll’s infamously conservative scheme had allowed him. In the offseason between 2019 and 2020, Wilson took that push public. His brand is carefully manicured and there’s a reason behind everything he says, which is why it was notable to see him calling for Seattle to pass more and add more playmakers around him. He even leaned into the fanbase’s catchphrase “Let Russ Cook.” 

And for the first half of 2020, that’s exactly what happened. The Seahawks turned into one of the pass-happiest offenses in football and Wilson was an MVP candidate. But as the Athletic details, Carroll was never on board and at the first sign of trouble, he pulled back on the reins. Seattle couldn’t rediscover its groove and it led to an early playoff exit. It also ticked off Wilson. 

This past offseason, Wilson was even more direct and pointed in his public comments about the offense, Carroll’s philosophy and his displeasure at what he saw as a lack of investment along the offensive line. He wanted to be consulted with Seattle’s decision-making the same way Tom Brady was with the Buccaneers.

“I want to be involved,” Wilson said in an interview with the Dan Patrick Show, all of which is worth going back over. “At the end of the day, it’s your legacy, your team’s legacy. … It helps to be involved more. That dialogue should happen more often.”

The invocation of Brady is key. Wilson believes he can be one of the best to ever play and Brady represents the GOAT standard at the position. But he also needs the Seahawks to believe the same thing and act accordingly. At the age of 33, there’s a ticking clock for Wilson to catch up to Brady and his lengthy list of accomplishments, which is why he’s become more assertive with each passing year. He wants a team built around him and catered to his strengths from both a personnel and schematic standpoint. 

That hasn’t happened under Carroll, whose conservative style focuses on controlling the game with good defense and running the ball. It also relies on Wilson to consistently pull a rabbit out of his hat on third down and in clutch situations to win close games. Even when Wilson was “cooking” in 2020, there weren’t enough answers built into the offense to counter when defenses caught up to what they were doing, and Carroll didn’t stick with it. Wilson had a hand in the offense’s struggles to be sure but his camp probably feels like he wasn’t set up for sustained success. 

From the other side of things, the organization was caught off guard by Wilson’s media blitz. They were not happy and didn’t hide it. With blood in the water, a number of teams reached out to the Seahawks with trade inquiries. Wilson’s camp even released a passive-aggressive statement saying they hadn’t asked for a trade, but they would waive it for the Cowboys, Saints, Raiders or Bears. 

Chicago apparently made a hard charge at getting a trade done for Wilson, but ultimately Carroll decided it would be better to try and mend fences than move on. (Reading between the lines, it seems like Schneider might have been more amenable to a deal). But with Carroll not keen on starting a rebuilding process at the age of 70 — and Wilson not necessarily ready to push his way out — they forged on for 2021. 

Now they’re staring down the barrel of a rebuild anyway. Wilson has had worse offensive lines but this unit isn’t necessarily a strength, either. Seattle’s draft history from the past five years is low on contributors, let alone starters or impact players. The deal of two first-round picks for S Jamal Adams has curdled like room-temperature milk. The defense hasn’t finished better than 16th in yards since 2018 after a run of six years in the top 10. 

They might have to add a quarterback to the shopping list, too. 

What’s next? 

Wilson never came out and asked for a trade publicly. But his “these are the four teams I’d accept a trade to” said plenty about how he felt. Former NFL WR Brandon Marshall, who was teammates with Wilson for a season, said he got the sense Wilson didn’t want to get his hands dirty in forcing an exit. The question is if that’s changed with another season of failing to reach his goals. 

Wilson’s wish list probably hasn’t changed. He still wants better protection, an offense built and designed with him in mind and to get back to winning Super Bowls again. The question is if he can find that in Seattle. 

How much appetite does Wilson have for a rebuild? This is a bad football team that has been deteriorating for some time now. Wilson’s finger injury meant he hasn’t been as capable of masking the flaws the past few weeks as we’re accustomed to seeing. They have a long list of needs to get back to contending. 

It’s also clear that philosophically, there will always be friction between Carroll and Wilson. The two have clashed over the team’s direction for years now, and we’re at the point where it could be an either/or situation going forward. Carroll is under contract through 2025 but even if Seattle decided to start fresh with a new coach, that doesn’t change the need for a rebuild that could sap precious years of Wilson’s remaining prime. The situation seems like it’s untenable going forward. Something has to give. 

Going into the offseason, there’s still a lot to play out. NFL Media’s Mike Garafolo poked around with folks in Seattle who pointed out Wilson is under contract in 2022. That report in particular seemed like the front office’s way of establishing leverage ahead of time. They’ll have to chart out a course for this coming offseason, whether it’s getting Wilson back on board with a pitch on how to return to contention, or figuring out how to move on to the next era of their franchise. 

Both Carroll and Wilson have kept their focus exclusively on the season and probably will until they are mathematically eliminated. That’s just how they’re wired. At some point, though, they’re going to have to confront the future. 

It looks more and more like it won’t involve Wilson staying in Seattle. 

This Week In Football

  • Wilson’s trade list this offseason included three teams (Bears, Cowboys, Raiders) who already appear to have answers at the position. So a report that came out about an updated list for Wilson that added the Giants and Broncos to the Saints among the teams he’d waive his no-trade clause for caught some eyes. All three have somewhat unsettled quarterback situations in 2022. Wilson has been rumored to be eyeing a big market like New York for a while, while Saints HC Sean Payton is an offensive wizard and the Broncos are widely seen as having a strong team that just needs a quarterback upgrade to be scary. 
  • That said, Wilson distanced himself from the report, calling it a non-story and saying it didn’t come from him. I’m inclined to believe him, as noted above he’s maintained a scrupulous focus on the present and not the future. The reporter, Jordan Schultz, has more of a history as an NBA reporter – his father is Howard Schultz, former Starbucks CEO and Seattle SuperSonics owner. But he has dabbled in NFL reporting and has some solid scoops in the past under his belt. I’m not disputing the veracity of Schultz’s report, but there’s a difference between him relaying dots other league sources have connected and someone specifically from Wilson’s camp highlighting those three teams. 
  • The quarterback dominoes for 2022 will continue to be set up in the coming weeks, and one that seems poised to fall is in Pittsburgh. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has reportedly told former teammates and some people currently with the team that this is his final year in Pittsburgh. It’s not entirely unforeseen, as the Steelers cut Roethlisberger’s pay and made 2021 a contract year to be able to bring the 39-year-old back this season. He’s battled a series of injuries all season and has generally looked his age too. All indications seem to point toward these last few games being the end of what is a Hall of Fame career for Roethlisberger. 
  • Panthers HC Matt Rhule got the week started off with a bang with the news that he was axing OC Joe Brady, who was viewed as a rising coaching star as recently as September. In hindsight, the number of questions by Panthers beat reporters about Brady and Rhule’s thoughts on his performance and their relationship should have been a red flag that something was amiss. Still, it’s hard to realistically point to the play-calling as the biggest problem with this offense. It’s not even the end of Year 2 of a seven-year contract and it already seems like Rhule is hitting the panic buttons with a few of his recent moves. The good news for Rhule is it seems like he has a golden parachute back to the college coaching ranks whenever he wants to take it. 
  • Cardinals HC Kliff Kingsbury also reportedly found himself in the crosshairs of Oklahoma before they settled on Brent Venables. Kingsbury has made huge strides in firming up his job status that was somewhat tenuous entering the season, though, and he appears to be a priority for Arizona to lock up for the long haul after leading the team to what is the NFC’s best record so far. 
  • I feel like a broken record every week talking about injuries and their impact. But every week there are big names we’re losing to the injury monster:
    • The Ravens might be as snakebit as any team in the NFL and took another huge hit in Sunday’s loss to the Steelers, with CB Marlon Humphrey tearing his pectoral muscle. It will knock him out for the rest of the season and put even more stress on a beleaguered Ravens secondary. The silver lining is there shouldn’t be any complications for 2022. 
    • Seahawks S Jamal Adams injured the same shoulder he hurt last year. He played through it in 2020 but in 2021 the injury is severe enough that it will need season-ending surgery to fix. It’s extra sting as that trade has not aged well. Adams hasn’t had the same on-field impact this season and it’s looking like that second first-round pick Seattle is sending to the Jets might be a high one. 
    • Washington TE Logan Thomas appeared to tear his ACL on a low hit Sunday. Further scans showed the damage wasn’t that bad but it’s still enough to subtract Thomas from Washington’s lineup for the rest of the year.
    • Jets WR Corey Davis’ first year in New York hasn’t gone as smoothly as both parties would have hoped. Davis has battled injuries most of the season and a core muscle injury Sunday finally proved serious enough to require surgery and end his season.
    • Raiders RB Kenyan Drake fractured his ankle on a nasty tackle where he was wrapped up and bent backward. It’s season-ending and the hope is obviously Drake makes a full recovery for 2022.   
    • The details on Giants QB Daniel Jones’ neck injury are sparse so far. It doesn’t appear to be a structural issue but it’s enough to where the team won’t clear their quarterback for contact. What is clear is that it’s set to cause Jones to miss multiple weeks at a time where he could really use the chance to set himself up going into an offseason where the Giants will experience significant organizational change and have to make a decision on his fifth-year option. 
  • Last year right before the start of the season, the Texans handed LB Zach Cunningham an extension that made him one of the highest-paid off-ball linebackers in the NFL. This week, they waived him after a rocky season. Cunningham wasn’t a good fit in DC Lovie Smith’s scheme and saw his role reduced for a multi-week stretch. He was shopped at the trade deadline and there were also multiple disciplinary suspensions for tardiness, including this past week. It was clear a fresh start was needed and both sides are probably happy to be rid of each other. Cunningham stays in the AFC South after being claimed by the Titans, returning to where he played his college ball and filling a need for Tennessee. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out: Cunningham is due $10 million in 2022 that doesn’t become guaranteed until the fifth day of the league year unless he’s hurt. This is essentially an audition to convince the Titans not to cut him. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…

As the fantasy football regular season wraps up this week, this is a good illustration of why I like a modified Zero RB approach. There are some hits but it’s mostly a whole lot of bleh on this list…

Free agency isn’t typically kind to running backs. But I wonder if this year could be different with bigger backs making a resurgence? Guys like Leonard Fournette and James Conner had cold markets last year but have had great seasons. And there are a number of teams who could use help at the position…

The boom in fourth-down aggressiveness around the league has been awesome to see. What I would love to see as the next step is for these decisions to be more integrated into the game plan to avoid delayed decisions that lead to rushed plays, miscommunications, penalties and timeouts. Coaches should know on third down what the plan is for fourth down, and you’re already seeing this on some of the better staffs…

Everyone in Seattle, from Wilson to Carroll, etc, has said Wilson’s finger isn’t an issue. It’s hard to look at this and think otherwise, though…

Mac Jones was a big debate topic this week after he attempted just three passes in the Patriots’ victory over the Bills in the Wind Game. The entire region of New England took umbrage with the idea that Bill Belichick was hiding Jones, who doesn’t have the strongest arm. Frankly though, that’s been the Patriots’ plan this entire season. Jones is having a great rookie season precisely because New England isn’t asking too much from him and has pieces in place around him to enable success…

Jones’ arm strength is a real question mark, too, especially as it relates to figuring out what his upside is long-term. There’s no reason to think it can’t improve with a year in an NFL weight program, but teammates literally talk about him throwing it like a pillow. They just spin it as Jones throwing a “historically catchable” ball…

Sean Payton’s plan to try and turn random NFL players into starters continues to be exposed as hubris…

This gets more and more fascinating the longer you look at it. Some person favorites are Charles Harris randomly wrecking double teams for the Lions and Ravens first-rounder Odafe Oweh already getting tons of attention…

Last week I wrote about how WR Chase Claypool seemed like a bad culture fit in Pittsburgh. Thursday night was not the best night for the young Steelers receiver. He picked up a taunting foul early and had a fumble reversed by inches on review. He cost Pittsburgh valuable seconds on their final drive by celebrating a first-down catch instead of hustling the ball to the referee to spot it for the spike. Claypool had a few impressive snags, but I maintain he eventually is going to wear out his welcome…

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