Russell Wilson is only 26 years old, but the third-year pro already has a mighty impressive resume, one buoyed by the Seahawks’ Super Bowl title last season.
That said, it’s tempting to wonder where he stacks up with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, his counterpart in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, or even the two gunslingers facing off on the AFC side, New England’s Tom Brady and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck.
But when asked this week if he thinks much about his place in the hierarchy of that elite quartet, Wilson made it clear that he prefers to let others contemplate his place.
“The only thing I care about is winning,” Wilson said this week. “A lot of people talk about who’s the best quarterback and all that kind of stuff. I really don’t pay attention to it.”
Astute observers of the league, however, can’t help it. The NFL is a quarterbacks league, and it’s generally accepted as fact that having an elite signal-caller simply makes the path to the mountaintop much easier.
“There’s a first tier of quarterbacks in the NFL,” said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
“Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and you can probably put Russell Wilson in that elite group, too. They’re not the only ones, I’m just citing some examples.”
Interestingly, a disproportionate amount of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have been drafted by the team they won the title with; all four of the quarterbacks squaring off Sunday are homegrown.
In fact, since 1995, only six of the 20 Super Bowl champions have done so without a quarterback they drafted, and of those six, four — San Francisco’s Steve Young (1995), Green Bay’s Brett Favre (1997), St. Louis’ Kurt Warner and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (2010) — are either already in the Hall of Fame or likely ticketed to make it.
That leaves Baltimore’s Trent Dilfer in 2001 and Tampa Bay’s Brad Johnson in 2003 as the only “regular” quarterbacks, so to speak, to win a Super Bowl, even though one could argue that the overall resumes of other Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in recent memory — like Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (2013) and New York’s Eli Manning (2008 and 2012) — are in that second tier of quarterbacks.
Mayock didn’t comment on that — again, he said the list of elite quarterbacks is longer than the ones he named — but he did agree that the Chiefs’ starter, Alex Smith, seems to fall somewhere in that second tier.
“You have a second-tier that you can win Super Bowls with, and in that second tier, I think, is Alex Smith,” Mayock said. “Coupled with Andy Reid and what they do offensively, if you support him, you can win a Super Bowl.”
Smith’s stats were solid this season, his second at the helm for the Chiefs. He completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 3,265 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions, and it’s worth noting his completion percentage rose nearly 5 percent over last year, too.
But his habit for playing super-conservative football continued — he occasionally missed guys downfield in favor of making the safe play — and for this (like most quarterbacks), he was the target of criticism from some fans on social media who think he didn’t push the ball downfield enough.
Both Chiefs coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey praised Smith’s performance this season, however, with Dorsey noting that they need to put more pieces around him.
“Are some of the pieces in place? Yeah,” Mayock said. “You’ve got a great tailback, you’ve got an exciting young tight end. But A., you have to protect him a little bit, and B., get a lot more production out of that wide receiver position.”
The Chiefs’ receivers, rather famously, failed to score a touchdown all season, becoming the first team since 1950 to do so. And the offensive line, as a whole, went from negative-7.4 in the pass-blocking department to negative-37.4, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked 23rd in the league.
But Reid pointed out that while Smith performed to his satisfaction, there is room to improve.
“Yeah, I think Alex really had a good year, I think he made more progress than what he had made throughout last year,” Reid said. “I think, like any player, it really doesn’t matter how good they are. It would be no different in your profession; you can always work to be better. He’ll continue to do that. That’s where we’re at.”
Both publicly and privately, the Chiefs speak highly of Smith’s professionalism and ability to process Reid’s voluminous playbook. In fact, they speak about him in a similar way Seattle coach Pete Carroll speaks about Wilson and, in general, what he seeks in a quarterback in his West Coast system.
“I think it’s a guy that you’ve come to count on — you know how he serves the program, you know what kind of person he is, and what kind of leader he is,” Carroll said this week. “It’s a big job to be a quarterback in the NFL, and it’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that.
“When you find a guy that takes hold of it and embraces all of those responsibilities and can do it successfully, then you got the real deal and you’re fortunate when you have that. It’s what we all cherished when we got him and they’re hard to find and hard to get.”
That’s why Seattle is surely set to pony up big bucks to Wilson sooner rather than later, and that’s why the Chiefs opted to do the same after surrendering two second-round picks to San Francisco for Smith, whose four-year, $68 million extension kicks in this season.
“Supported correctly, Alex Smith to me is a potential Super Bowl-winning quarterback,” Mayock said. “And that’s really the only question that needs to be asked and answered in today’s NFL. Can your quarterback, with proper support, win a Super Bowl? There aren’t many out there, and I think Alex Smith is one of them.”
Still, there’s a reason Mayock stated that there is a clear distinction between Wilson and Smith, even though their passing stats are surprisingly similar. Smith has a higher completion percentage and one fewer interception but threw two fewer touchdowns and accumulated 805 fewer yards.
Quarterbacks are judged on Super Bowls, and both Wilson and Rodgers have proved they can come up big in both the regular season and in the playoffs and lead their team to victories. To that end, games like Sunday’s showdown between the Seahawks and Packers help define a quarterback’s legacy.
While Wilson can solidify his status as the league’s top young gun with a win (and a Andrew Luck loss), Rodgers could have his own Willis Reed-type moment by guiding the Packers to a win on a gimpy calf.
Rodgers was asked this week if he ever thinks about the opportunity to win his second Super Bowl, and he was surprisingly candid about what it would mean for his legacy.
“Yeah it is,” Rodgers said. “It’s something you think about in the offseason, especially. You know, this season thinking about half of my career potentially being done, and liking to play another seven, eight, nine years, you’d like to win a couple more because that’s when you really kind of cement your legacy and do something really special.
“If you look at some of the stuff we’ve done this fall, re-signed (general manager) Ted (Thompson), re-signed (head coach) Mike (McCarthy), it’s set up to really do something special … the three of us working together the majority of our careers together, and it would be great to add a couple more trophies.”