Even way back, the full appreciation of Russell Wilson required an initial suspension of disbelief.
The easiest converts always were his teammates, the guys who saw the work he put in every day, and the way he prepared for the game — and everything else in his life.
Those things are real and tangible, and teammates are acutely adept at sniffing out posturing and pretense.
As the Seahawks readied for a divisional playoff against Carolina, which could add further testimony to the growing Wilson legacy, guard J.R. Sweezy was asked of the changes he has seen in Wilson since they arrived together at North Carolina State in 2008.
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Sweezy squinted and tilted his head as a warning that his answer might be hard to believe.
“None … from the day I met him, he’s been the same guy,” remembered Sweezy, who was won over by the undersized and moderately recruited quarterback out of Virginia. “We showed up and we were all like, ‘There’s no way this guy is really like this, there’s no way this guy can be this special.’ ”
No one, Sweezy said, had time to quibble about Wilson’s substandard height (5-foot-11) or ability to play at a high level.
“He came in and he knew the whole playbook and just took over the job, just like he did here (with the Seahawks),” Sweezy said. “He’s been that guy since I met him, and he’s never wavered from that. It’s been pretty cool to watch.”
The signs of Wilson’s rise seemed clear that early: As a Wolfpack freshman, he passed for 17 touchdowns and only one interception. And the span between his first interception and second stretched 379 pass attempts, well into his sophomore season.
Wilson has been pretty cool to watch in four seasons with the Seahawks, too, especially after overcoming the typical initial cynicism.
On Sunday, his play once again will be judged against the best in the game, as the Seahawks meet the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers in Charlotte for the right to advance to the NFC title game for the third consecutive season.
No quarterback since Buffalo’s Jim Kelly in the early 1990s has led his team to as many as three consecutive Super Bowls. It would require road victories in two more games, but Wilson has proven himself up to such challenges.
The Seahawks are 7-2 in the postseason since Wilson’s arrival. No quarterback in NFL history has had more wins in the first four seasons (46), and none has thrown for 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and also rushed for 500 yards in a season as Wilson has this year.
Wilson’s game can’t be appreciated by numbers without some kind of multiplier for degree-of-difficulty. Even when struggling, Wilson relies on indefinable powers of athletic alchemy that can transform disaster and imminent dismemberment into a highlight-reel play.
In the wild card win against the Vikings last weekend at Minnesota, Wilson had problems with the frozen conditions and a slippery football. In the fourth quarter, he was caught unprepared for a shotgun snap that whizzed past his head.
He retreated in a rush, and as he retrieved the ball, five Vikings closed in on him. Rabbiting away from the coursing pack, he fired a pass to rookie Tyler Lockett that turned a 15-yard loss into a 35-yard gain.
“Absolutely unbelievable,” television commentator Cris Collinsworth yelled.
Sweezy knows better. It was absolutely Wilson.
“I’ve been watching him do that stuff a long time; whenever he has the ball in his hands, he has the ability to make a big play,” Sweezy said. “In my opinion, he’s the best in the league. Nobody is a threat like he is, the way he controls the game and can take it over all by himself when he needs to. When he’s really on, it’s like he can do whatever he wants.”
But Wilson and the Seahawks were far from “on” in the early part of the season. Yet when the pass protection improved around midseason, and the passing scheme sharpened up, Wilson constructed an MVP-quality second half.
“It felt like we just couldn’t get our rhythm early; we kept searching, but it wasn’t clicking,” backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said. “What happened was maybe it took time to bring the other guys up along with (Wilson) to where it is now.”
What about Wilson’s continued growth as a quarterback, a passer, a team leader? … Is that still on the upswing?
Jackson had a simple answer: “He gets it. He just wants to win. You get the win, that speaks for itself. He gets that.”
Wilson acknowledged this week his understanding that the postseason is when players’ legacies are more clearly shaped. “You don’t care about all the statistics, you don’t care about how hard the journey or how easy the journey was. Ultimately, it’s the finish, it’s how you find ways to win.”
But his preparation and motivation are all the same, postseason or not, Wilson said.
Really? Can that be true?
Sweezy thinks so. “Honestly, he can’t do extra. He’s already the first one here and the last one to leave. He’s already such a playmaker when he is just himself and doing the things he can do. He really is at his best when he’s just being himself.”
Wilson usually offers his answers and comments in the context of the team. And heading into this game, he pointed to the value of the Seahawks’ playoff experience.
He called it their “winning pedigree.”
But that applies to Wilson, individually, too. And it stretches back to those early days in North Carolina, when he started changing the things teammates thought could be possible from a quarterback.
“It’s a scary thing, in a good way, to think that he just continues to get better and better and better,” Sweezy said. “I don’t know if that ever ends. … I hope not.”