People of color generally take a rooting interest when other people of color reach a grand stage and strive for greatness. My heart was aflutter and my eyes dewy when Barack Obama gave us a Yes-We-Can moment, becoming the first black American to be elected President of the United States. Similarly, I’ve been captivated by the rapid, stereotype- and obstacle-bashing rise of Russell Wilson, a young black athlete, from third-round NFL draft pick to starting quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks.
However, though I have cheered every positive-modeling tale weaved about Wilson’s approach in Seattle, I have had grave doubts from the beginning about the wisdom of elevating a rookie to the sport’s most critical position on a team that otherwise seems poised for a major breakthrough. I am a longtime chronicler of sports, after all, as well as someone with more than casual interest in the Seahawks. I can’t help but also view Wilson’s story through those filters as well.
You wouldn’t name an intern as your CEO the week before your company’s IPO, would you?
Maybe Wilson is more the senior VP with Pete Carroll presumably serving as CEO of the Seahawks, but you hopefully get the point. Youth has its place in any successful organization, just not at the top, at least in sports, and especially when that youth is young youth.
And there’s also the obvious hesitation of Wilson’s height, 5-feet-10 3/8, which is not considered even close to optimal for an NFL quarterback. It’s a quality many already have declared that Wilson has overcome. Yet it’s obvious he has not.
All of this has been germinating in my skull for months and then, as I was grimacing through another borderline-acceptable performance by Wilson during a 16-12 Seahawk victory over Carolina on Sunday, a friend, who is black, posted this on Facebook: “And again I say (bring) in Flynn I’ve had enough of the black Doug Flutie!!!”
No, I don’t believe I’ve received a pass to knock Wilson because “even blacks are turning on one of their own.” I’ve never believed in racial crutches and the fact that, since people of color are just now earning baby-step opportunities, they should be beyond criticism. On the contrary, my friend’s Facebook post prompted me to wonder if some or much of Wilson’s support was rooted in a kind of reverse racial profiling.
Before we delve into the racial aspects of the situation, let’s first get this out of the way: Even on the heels of a 19-of-25, 220-yard passing performance by Wilson, I think it’s time for Carroll and the Seahawks to replace him with the erstwhile presumptive starter, Matt Flynn, to whom the team committed a moderate free-agent contract during the offseason. Yes, as a grizzled sportswriting veteran, I recognize that backups tend to enjoy inflated status in fandom. After all, it was just a season ago that some in Seattle were calling for the Seahawks to replace Tavaris Jackson with that imposter of a quarterback, Charlie Whitehurst.
I don’t believe the logic here is rooted in bring-in-someone-new syndrome. Flynn, after all, doesn’t make your heart skip a beat, the way a sauntering supermodel might. He may have prototypical height, at 6-2, but is light-armed and heavy-legged. In other words, Flynn is not going to flag football anyone, the way RGIII does, scampering around defenders like a sheep dog around its flock, then unleashing an 80-yard rocket when the defense gets tired of locking in.
Also, Flynn had two whiz-bang NFL starts, tossing for 254 yards in 2010 and a $26 million-generating 480 yards and six touchdowns, setting Green Bay team records, last season. But the sample size is too small to be taken seriously.
Flynn’s appeal lies in his superior experience, for which there is no substitute, especially in the NFL. With five regular-season starts, Wilson has surpassed Flynn’s two in a relatively superficial measure of experience. But, having been in the league since 2008, Flynn has been mentally executing his craft for far longer and earned his stripes in a Packers system with a clearly demonstrated track record of excellence at quarterback.
Athleticism and improvisation can carry the day in basketball, and baseball’s repetition orientation is somewhat singular (hitting a ball, throwing a ball, or fielding a ball). Football, particularly at the quarterback position, relies on repetition as preparation for a sport in which many things are being done, all at once, very quickly by very big men. To execute a completed pass, a quarterback must assess all those things, plus go down a lengthy checklist, in a matter of, often, three seconds or thereabouts.
And any computer, especially the human variety, will render a faster, more accurate result with more crunchable data at its disposal.
A lot of people understandably fell in love with Wilson’s ability to manufacture plays. But the way the Seahawks are constructed — Beast Mode on offense, collection of beasts on defense — it could suffice to have a quarterback who simply makes plays, quickly and competently.
It’s an outrage that the Seahawks had to survive such a high-wire act in Charlotte, N.C., despite producing one of the most defensively dominant performances in team history (190 total yards, no offensive touchdowns by the Panthers). Wilson may have statistically had the best game of his career, but the bar barely was limbo high and the numbers were a mirage. Wilson nearly cost Seattle the game by throwing a pick-six to Carolina’s Captain Mutterlyn and the Seahawks continued their maddening trend of playing like pansies in the red zone.
Worst of all, Wilson doesn’t have requisite pocket presence, bails out of plays too quickly, locks onto options too frequently, and his much ballyhooed arm is on too short of a leash. There’s a difference between playing conservatively and playing scared. With Wilson at quarterback, the Seahawks too often appear to be the latter on offense. How can the Seahawks be “going for it” when the reigns on its most important position are so tight?
Scary on defense, scared on offense does not equate to a playoff team.
Flynn’s experience trumps Wilson’s athletic prowess and intangibles because it speaks to Wilson’s major deficiency, which is height. No matter what anyone says, Wilson’s height is an issue for which a workaround must be developed. In basketball, where I admit to having way more hands-on experience, coaches will say that shorter point guards can have their pluses, passing lanes, lower-to-the-floor ballhandling and such, but always will opt for size at the position. Why? Superior sightlines and passing lanes, for starters.
Wilson certainly misses receivers, but does he miss more than quarterbacks 3-4 inches taller? Some analysts say he does. I think Wilson clearly both hits and misses receivers high because, at his height, he is forced the throw different trajectory ball. People fell in love with Wilson’s ability to “create passing lanes” and play an exciting brand of football, but too easily forgot the environments (college, preseason NFL) in which he excelled do not measure up to an NFL regular season game. Wilson seems to have the wherewithal to adapt, but the process requires time and Seattle was not a candidate for on-the-job training as were other NFL teams with rookie starting quarterbacks — Cleveland (Brandon Weedin), Indianapolis (Andrew Luck), Miami (Ryan Tannehill) and even Washington (Robert Griffin III).
There is some quarterback controversy in Seattle, but it’s a wonder that it’s not more vociferous, given Wilson’s experience and height deficiencies, which seem as obvious as the Space Needle in the city’s skyline. To be sure, there is some ego driving some of the support. Jon Gruden wants the instant I’m-a-genius payoff for touting something so off the wall, so early. And maybe Carroll and Seahawk general manager John Schneider are a little too eager to eradicate the stench of trotting out the likes of Jackson and Whitehurst as viable quarterbacking options.
Or maybe it’s all been an elaborate ruse to provide cover as Flynn recovers from an injury to the elbow in his throwing (right) arm.
Circling back to the racial aspect in all of this, I think race plays a role only in perception, which maybe entrenches Wilson’s support somewhat. Last week, Warren Moon offered up a hardy defense of Wilson and concurrently nasty critique of Seattle’s playcalling. Moon last season carried on a prolonged sympathy campaign for Jackson, offering up the absurd notion that the tough but creatively limited quarterback was poised to come into his own based on the number of snaps he had reached in his career. Moon is accorded credibility because he played quarterback well enough to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but his commentary with regard to other black quarterbacks seldom seems objective and smacks of knee-jerk, defend-our-own-ism.
The other profiling takes place in the constant trumpeting of Wilson’s work ethic. I’ve reached a place in life, and my career, where I assume most people have worked hard for their success. In my recent past life covering girls’ basketball, I used to chuckle when, after victory, coaches and players would declare, almost without fail, “We worked hard for this.” Does this mean all failure is rooted in absence of effort? Hardly. Maybe Wilson does spend more time than most in preparation, but with just 24 hours in each day, how much more can it be? I’m more interested in hearing about the level of insights he derives from all of his film study.
We used to catch flack for writing about the time Larry Bird used to put into his jumper because it fed the stereotype that white athletes worked for their accomplishments while black players were “naturally gifted.” The criticism grated because Bird’s work ethic was palpable. Back before the days of multiple, pre-game work stations at NBA arenas, we sportswriters used to arrive at Boston Garden hours before a game to behold a sweat-drenched Bird launching shot after shot with no one else on the floor but a coach acting as rebounding machine.
That’s why I want to know what positive changes, week to week, have flowed from all of Wilson’s hard work. All I see is a team that continues to teeter every week on the brink of defeat in spite of excelling in two-thirds of every game (defense and special teams). Recently my daughter expressed some concern about her standing in graduate school classes despite “studying all the time.” My advice: spend less time studying, which will lead to at least a perception of less pressure to perform. Sometimes too much pressure stifles spontaneity, thereby limiting production.
All the gushing about Wilson’s work ethic is starting to sound like media making the point that he breaks the “black-athlete mold.” Stop already. You know the game of inserting “in bed” at the end of fortune-cookie fortunes? Try appending “for a black athlete” to the end of the Wilson platitudes and hear them the way people of color might. All the work Wilson put in over a sustained period of time should be an inextricable part of his narrative when he emerges as a productive (and winning) starting NFL quarterback in, say, two or three years.
In the meantime, give us someone who has put in the time and has a track record, and stop risking an opportunity that is not guaranteed to persist beyond this season. That guy’s name is Matt Flynn, and he just happens to be white.