Sometimes I see Y.A. Tittle.
Not him, actually, but a memory flash of the iconic black-and-white photo of the ’40s-’50s-’60s era quarterback in his last NFL season. You remember the one, Tittle on his knees, helmet torn off, blood streaming down his bald head and across his face.
It was a strikingly poignant image of a great quarterback, with seven Pro Bowls on his résumé, who had taken all the punishment he could handle.
He looked 80 in that picture. He was actually 37.
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Russell Wilson only recently turned 28. But the Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback has been under almost perpetual duress this season. And this time around, those hits have brought pain.
This season, his fifth with the Seahawks, is the first in which it’s been made evident that he’s not bionic. For four years, he never missed a play and was never even mentioned on the weekly injury reports.
This year, in the face of heavy defensive pressure, he’s rarely been off the injured list.
But while injuries to an ankle, a knee and a pectoral muscle have followed one after the other, he managed to do his part in keeping the Seahawks competitive.
So why, now that he’s alleged to be back at something near full health, has he struggled to such an historic level?
In the two most recent road losses, to Tampa Bay and Green Bay, Wilson threw seven interceptions and one touchdown. In the 11 games prior to the Tampa Bay defeat, most of them being hobbled to some extent, he’d thrown two interceptions.
The 38-10 disaster at Green Bay was, in many ways, the worst game of Wilson’s professional career. He was intercepted five times. The misfortune of having balls tipped toward defenders by his receivers played a role a couple times.
But even to discount those interceptions wouldn’t change the fact that Wilson was errant much of the night, missing open receivers on plays that might have changed the outcome. And his decision-making in recent weeks has been uncharacteristically questionable.
My opinion: I don’t seriously think that Wilson, after such a string of indisputable success, has suddenly forgotten how to play quarterback in the NFL.
But I do think the constant defensive pressure has made him skittish, uncomfortable, and eroded some of his sense of timing — and probably a bit of his confidence.
Yes, yes, obviously he had faced harassment before. The difference this season is that the hits have taken such a physical toll. There’s been a lot of pain. And maybe it’s created the first understanding of what eventually left Y.A. Tittle in the condition memorialized in that picture.
This kind of cumulative effect can get into a quarterback’s mind and create something of a post-traumatic sack effect.
The Seahawks’ pass protection against the Packers wasn’t the worst it’s been, but Wilson was sacked three times and hit nine times, including five hits by 285-pound defensive end Datone Jones.
Wilson was characteristically accountable afterward. This loss was on him, he said. And he’s correct. Winning games is the job of quarterbacks getting paid $20 million or more a season.
Ironic, then, that Wilson’s worst game so emphatically proves his enormous value. On those occasions when he’s awful, the otherwise elite Seahawks can get embarrassingly thumped.
Entering Sunday’s game, Wilson and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers were the only two active quarterbacks to have career passer ratings above 100. Rodgers came away enhancing his stats. Wilson dipped back into double-digits.
With this rocky stretch, questions will be fairly asked. Is there distraction in Wilson’s progression through the stages of man: husband, father, businessman with varied interests? He’s always seemed supremely dedicated to his craft, but who can really tell?
Seahawks management and staff were visionary in finding him from those hundreds of drafted college quarterbacks who haven’t panned out.
They developed him and then secured his presence financially. And now they’re at the point where they need to protect him. They need to surround him with sufficient offensive talent and blockers, and schemes that reduce his exposure.
Because nobody wants to see this guy on his knees in the end zone like a bloodied and forlorn Y.A. Tittle.
At least not for another decade or more.