The last time the Seattle Seahawks played the Carolina Panthers, Doug Baldwin walked into the huddle for the game’s first play and confronted Russell Wilson.
Did the leading wide receiver tell his quarterback what route he wanted to run? How open he was going to be all day?
“Hey, what’s going on with that hair? You goin’ to grow it out this year, or what?” Baldwin asked Wilson, right there around the 10-yard line amid 74,000 fans yelling inside Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium on Oct. 26.
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See, last season Wilson went full-blown, 1970s Afro late in the year. He reasoned that as long as the Seahawks were winning he wasn’t cutting.
They won the Super Bowl.
On Wednesday Wilson began his weekly press conference with a neon green team cap pulled backward onto his head. About midway through he pulled it off. Out puffed a mushrooming mass of dark, curled hair.
“It’s out now,” Wilson said. “Same as last year.”
The Seahawks (12-4) sure hope so, beginning Saturday in the NFC divisional playoffs against Carolina (8-8-1) at CenturyLink Field.
Wilson went 3-0 with his lengthy locks last postseason. He completed 63.2 percent of his passes with three touchdowns as Seattle won two home playoff games then the Super Bowl over Denver. Coincidentally, he said by that February title game his hair was the longest it’s been in his 26 years on Earth.
“I did it in high school my junior year and we won the state championship — that was our best year,” Wilson said.
That was in the fall and winter of 2005 at Collegiate High in Richmond, Virginia. Wilson was all-state, all-region, all-everything while throwing for 3,287 yards and 40 touchdowns and running for 634 yards and 15 more scores that season.
That was the start of the long-haired version of Wilson being the one thing the very best — indeed, legendary — quarterbacks are this time of year.
“Their quarterback should seriously be considered for league MVP,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday. “All he’s done is win.”
Wilson enters these playoffs 16-3 in the NFL’s crucial months of December, January and February. That includes 4-0 this season. His 40 combined victories in the regular season and playoffs are the most in league history for a quarterback in his first three seasons.
“I attribute it to great preparation, first of all,” Wilson said Wednesday. “As I always say, the separation is the preparation. … And also the guys around me making big-time plays.
“Ultimately it comes down to just trying to be clutch when the game’s on the line. When there’s two minutes left in the game, I want the ball in my hands.
“It’s one of those things where I believe in myself. And I believe in the teammates around me.”
Wilson said the Seahawks’ recent experience of winning the sport’s biggest games provides them with a tangible advantage on the field: belief. Previously endangered Seattle steamrolled to six wins in a row to end the regular season and seize the NFC’s top playoff seed for the second straight January.
“I definitely think there’s a correlation to the success of our offense and the success we’ve been able to (have) the last three years when the game is on the line,” Wilson said. “It’s that conscious confidence, believing in what you are going to do and also just being really engaged when those moments happen. That’s what you prepare for. That’s what you waited for when you were a little kid.
“You get in those situations, you use those experiences … and you have a clear mind. And go for it.”
Saturday, Wilson will be opposite another quarterback who goes for it, sometimes at the risk of body and ball.
Carolina’s Cam Newton is 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds. One of the Seahawks who will be chasing him most on Saturday, linebacker Bruce Irvin, says the Panthers’ quarterback has an upper body bigger than his.
Newton, like Wilson, often runs on bootlegs and option keeps. Unlike Wilson, Newton does so more like a fullback: head and shoulders down, pointing forward through defenders rather than zooming or looping around them.
The effects are as different as the style.
Newton missed two games to injury this regular season while rushing 105 times for 539 yards. Both were lows for his four-season career. He’s playing with two fractures in his lower back from a two-car accident early last month in which his truck landed on its side and sustained a flattened roof.
Wednesday, Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, from Lacey’s Timberline High School, called Newton’s surviving the wreck and playing on “actually incredible.”
Last weekend Newton was dragging a sore ankle through Carolina’s 27-16 win over Arizona in the wild card round.
Wilson, meanwhile, has remained as unscathed as his ballooning hair. He has yet to miss a practice — let alone a game — in his three NFL seasons since he led Wisconsin to the 2012 Rose Bowl.
His signature, improvisational scrambles and spins past befuddled defenders have produced career highs this season of 849 yards rushing and six touchdowns on the ground. He also has endured 42 sacks, and escaped from at least twice as many more behind Seattle’s offensive line that has had trouble consistently protecting him for two seasons.
Rivera marveled that through all his film study while facing the Seahawks for what will be the fourth time in three seasons he has never seen Wilson take a big hit while running.
Wilson takes pride in his self-preservation and judgment on when to run, when to slide and when to throw.
Rivera said that is different from Newton.
“Russell has this innate ability to pull back at the last second and throw the ball,” Rivera said, “where our guy, when he commits he’s going to run.”
Not surprisingly, the notoriously calculated Wilson said it’s all by his own design.
“I try to be selective,” he said of running. “The game dictates the situation. … Is it third down and 3? Can you get there? If not, do everything you can. I try to keep my eyes downfield the whole time. I’m not trying to run the football, you know, ever. I try to make something happen.
“That’s a great way to salvage the play, too. … I’ve always tried to do a great job with that. I try to make sure I get down and slide; I think (my) baseball (experience) helps a little bit. I’m able to kind of get away from people and get down. That’s always a good thing.”
Yes, life is a great thing for Seattle’s beloved No. 3. The only thing bigger than his hair right now: his success and his popularity.
And not just for his football. It’s well-known around town that he spends one day each week visiting inpatients at Seattle Children’s hospital. The staff there now wears Seahawks gear and Wilson jerseys on Tuesdays in eager anticipation of his arrival.
“A lot of those kids look up to me for whatever reason,” Wilson said. “And I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve got the best job in the world. I get to play quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. And I just turned 26!’
“I can’t complain. I’m grateful.”