Despite the endorsement deals and the photo shoots and the guest appearances on the late-night television shows and the flattering things President Barack Obama said about him during the Super Bowl champions’ visit to the White House, Russell Wilson still has his eyes on the prize.
“I want to be the best one day,” Wilson said after practice last week, repeating an ambition so innocently idealistic it once drew smirks from those convinced the quarterback's highest upside was as a proficient game manager more inclined to avoid game-costing mistakes than execute game-winning plays.
Wilson’s determination to be the best — as in: best NFL quarterback ever — no longer finds skeptics rolling their eyes. Three months before his 26th birthday, he’s put together a two-season dossier that compares favorably with what the league’s all-time great quarterbacks accomplished at a similar age.
A recent NFL.com voting bracket ranked the 10 best quarterbacks like this: Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Otto Graham, Roger Staubach, John Elway, Brett Favre and Drew Brees.
You can quibble over the order and debate about some of the exclusions, but as a template measuring Wilson’s progress at the age of 25 years and 9 months, this version of a Top 10 works fine.
OK, let’s stack ’em up.
1. Wilson vs. Montana
Their basic passing numbers are not that different: In 800 attempts, Wilson has thrown 509 completions, for 6,475 yards. At the same age, Montana had thrown 500 completions in 784 attempts, for 5,456 yards.
Where Wilson has the edge is in touchdown-interception ratio, — 52-19 to Montana's 35-21. (Which reflects how the game has changed. Of Wilson’s “pedestrian” targets in 2013, only Golden Tate caught more than 50 passes. During Montana’s first Super Bowl season, his many weapons included a fullback – Earl Cooper – who caught 51 passes.)
In terms of the postseason, Wilson is 4-1 in the playoffs, with a Super Bowl title. The 25-year old Montana was 3-0 in the playoffs and not only had won a Super Bowl, but was named MVP.
We know, of course, what Montana went on to achieve, and all we know about Wilson’s future is that it’s rich with promise but contains no guarantees.
Still, the stats suggest Wilson’s career is on a trajectory similar to that of the best QB in NFL history.
2. Wilson vs. Brady
Wilson has made two more starts than the 25-year-old Brady did, throwing six more touchdowns with five fewer interceptions. Brady also took Super Bowl MVP honors for his 16-for-27 passing effort for 145 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ 20-17 victory over the Rams.
Wilson, who was 18-for-25 passing for 206 yards and two touchdowns in the Seahawks’ Super Bowl demolition of the Broncos, would have been a worthy recipient of the MVP award that went to linebacker Malcolm Smith.
Then again, about 20 Seahawks were candidates for that award.
3. Wilson vs. Unitas
Johnny U ascended to stardom during the late 1950s, when it was legal for defensive ends to regard the helmets of offensive tackles as punching bags, and legal for linebackers to render receivers into oblivion with clothesline hits, and legal for …
You get the idea: It was a different era, one demanding that 1950s passing stats be adjusted for reasonable comparisons with 2013 passing stats. And yet Unitas, at the age of 25 years and 9 months, still managed to throw 52 touchdown passes in his first 28 starts.
Unitas was all of 25 when he led the Colts to their sudden-death victory over the Giants for the 1958 NFL championship at Yankee Stadium. Recalled as “The Greatest Game” — it introduced pro football on TV to millions of Americans — Unitas’ throwing for 361 yards is what made the Greatest Game great.
Although Unitas put together several stellar seasons after 1958, winning the league championship in New York was the zenith of his career.
Something to think about.
4. Wilson vs. Manning
By the age of 25 years and 9 months, Peyton Manning had completed 1,357 passes for 16,418 yards and 111 touchdowns. Enough said.
Well, almost enough said.
All those gaudy regular-season stats translated into an 0-2 record in the playoffs. Wilson, it bears repeating, is 4-1.
5. Wilson vs. Marino
No quarterback broke into the NFL as ferociously as Marino, recognized as NFL Most Valuable Player at 23. By the time he was Wilson’s age, Marino had thrown 142 touchdown passes — and been named first-team All-Pro three times.
And then? Marino's career flat-lined. After taking the 1984 Dolphins to the Super Bowl — they lost to Montana’s 49ers — he never got another shot.
Among the 10 quarterbacks on the NFL.com’s list of all-time best, Marino is the only one who clearly outperformed Wilson at a similar age. But Marino was 0-1 in the Super Bowl, and Wilson is 1-0 (and counting).
6. Wilson vs. Graham
World War II delayed the pro football career of Navy vet Graham, who finally was able to make his debut, at age 24, with the 1946 Cleveland Browns. He started nine games, threw 17 touchdown passes, and generally resembled a future Hall of Fame quarterback during the Browns’ first championship season in the All-American Football Conference.
7. Wilson vs. Staubach
Like Graham, Staubach's career got off to a late start because of military obligations. The Naval Academy graduate didn’t become a full-time starter for the Dallas Cowboys until 1971, when he was 29.
Disregard the paucity of statistical comparisons. If there’s anybody on this list who resembled Wilson, it’s Staubach — an intelligent, widely admired athlete whose ability to deliver in the clutch made him the quintessential field leader.
8. Wilson vs. Elway
The ballyhooed Stanford quarterback remained a work in progress when he was Wilson’s age. The cannon arm was obvious, along with the runaway-train speed he used on broken plays, but there were a lot of broken plays.
Elway didn’t win a playoff game with the Broncos until he turned 26, and was 38 when he led Denver to the first of two consecutive Super Bowl victories.
9. Wilson vs. Favre
At Wilson’s age, Favre had thrown 70 touchdown passes — a number substantially mitigated by 53 interceptions. Favre was 26 when he earned the first of three consecutive NFL MVP honors for his breakout season with the 1995 Packers.
10. Wilson vs. Brees
Before he marched in with the Saints, Brees was named NFL comeback player of the year in 2004, when he was a 25-year-old quarterback for the San Diego Chargers. Brees wouldn’t win his first playoff game for two more years, after he hooked up with New Orleans.
Among the honors potentially awaiting Wilson, “comeback player of the year” is the one he least covets.
“There's always room to improve,” Wilson said last week. “It's just getting going. I always think about it, and it’s only the beginning of my third year. I’ve got a lot more room to grow and it’s a good thing. That’s why I come here early every day. That's why my focus is so alert right now.
“I want to try and be the best one day.”
He’s on track.