GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy enjoys a good story as much as anybody, and he likes Russell Wilson just fine. In fact, the Green Bay Packers coach hasn’t forgotten how general manager Ted Thompson felt about Wilson the day he returned from his annual visit to the University of Wisconsin last fall. Who knows? Had ex-Packers personnel man John Schneider not been even more enamored with Wilson than Thompson was, the mature-beyond-his-years rookie might be backing up the NFL MVP on Monday night instead of starting for the Seattle Seahawks.
“I do remember … He was very impressed with Russell at practice and it was no surprise the type of year he had for the Badgers,” McCarthy recalled this week, as his Packers prepared for Wilson. “For him to be starting right away I think speaks volumes, especially because we have such a great appreciation and respect for Matt Flynn.”
Yes, Wilson beat out Flynn, the backup to Aaron Rodgers the past four years who’d signed with the Seahawks as a free agent in March, to win the starting job this summer. It’s another layer to a narrative that is compelling on so many levels: Wilson’s incredibly swift ascension in the Pacific Northwest; the fact that he spent only one season with the Badgers after giving up professional baseball and transferring from North Carolina State and by playing nearly flawless football led them to the Rose Bowl and became the state’s second-most popular adopted quarterbacking son; the undeniable charisma the guy has, a trait that first won over the Badgers’ coaches and players, then UW’s fervent fan base, and now the Seahawks’ locker room, too; and the way he’s in the process of rendering his most glaring shortcoming – his 5-foot-10 1/2 in height – meaningless.
All of which makes for phenomenal programming for ESPN’s Monday Night Football, even though one has to think the World Wide Leader In Sports was anticipating a Rodgers-versus-Flynn shootout when they picked this game for prime-time broadcast.
And yet, here’s the thing: While McCarthy has nothing against Wilson or his adoring supporters, he’s not convinced that Wilson should be his defense’s biggest concern.
“I understand the popularity of Russell Wilson in the state of Wisconsin. But he’s a quarterback playing in his third (NFL) game,” McCarthy said Thursday. “He’s an athletic player, he looks very comfortable for how young he is, he has command of the offense. But we’re looking at the big picture.
“They do an excellent job running the football, particularly their ‘wide zone’ scheme is a challenge. They have big splits with their offensive line. They have a premier back in Marshawn Lynch, which is definitely a focal point for any defense that plays against that guy. So their ability to stay balanced is definitely a strength, and I think it really fits Russell’s game because he plays very well in the pocket, plays well outside the pocket. So it’s important for us to recognize that. But I would have to say this group their offense starts with the run and the action passing game.”
McCarthy may be right about that, and Wilson certainly got ample help last week en route to his first NFL victory, a 27-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys. With an early Dallas turnover followed by a blocked punt for a touchdown by the Seahawks special teams allowing the Seahawks to jump out to a 10-0 lead, Wilson completed 15 of 20 passes for 151 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions (112.7 passer rating).
But that doesn’t mean the latest chapter of Wilson’s football tale isn’t almost as fascinating as the prior ones. Since ignoring the doubts about his stature and picking him in the third round of the NFL Draft, Schneider, the Seahawks’ GM, and coach Pete Carroll, who insisted on an open competition despite Flynn’s $10 million in guaranteed money, have looked awfully smart thusfar.
“I think everything that you guys saw,” Carroll replied Thursday when asked by Wisconsin reporters in a conference call what the Seahawks saw in Wilson. “He was a great football player. He led a terrific team and showed so many different strengths as a leader, as a player and a playmaker, as a guy that could finish games and keep you in the game forever.
“We put it all together and we didn’t care what size package that came in. We liked the kid and his playing ability so we went after it. … We really fell in love with the kid and are glad to have him.”
In his conference call, Wilson was his usual, engaging self, retelling stories about the influence his late father had on him (“My dad used to always tell me, ‘There’s a king in every crowd’”), explaining the importance of confidence (“I know that I have the talent to be a starter in this league and I have always believed that“) and proving the doubters wrong (“If I listened to everything that people told me I couldn't do, growing up from when I was a child all the way to now and throughout the whole drafting process and throughout college, I wouldn't be where I am today”).
He was at his best when he explained how his experience at Wisconsin, where he quickly learned the offense and so won over his new teammates that he was elected team captain, benefitted him in doing essentially the same thing with the Seahawks.
“The Lord couldn't have worked it out any better, to be honest with you,” Wilson said. “The fact that I went to Wisconsin, got there and called a team meeting and talked to all the players and just told them that I wanted to compete, I wanted to be a part of something special. I got there every morning, I worked hard, I studied tons of film and they noticed that about my preparation and just the way I was. That's who I always am. That's how my parents raised me. So coming here, it was a perfect situation because it was basically the exact same situation.
“I came into rookie minicamp just trying to learn the whole playbook. I believe I have a tremendous football knowledge and I transition really well because N.C. State's offense was West Coast and then going to Wisconsin it was a vertical play-action game, a strong running game just like here as well. A lot of the terminology was somewhat similar, so that transition made it a little bit easier for me. And I'd played professional sports and I've just gotten to know people. I just try to be myself. I don't try to be anybody else. I believe myself is a guy who is going to compete at the highest level, is going to be a tremendous leader just by the way that I work and also I'm a vocal leader as well and then just by my attention to detail. I think that's the biggest thing. I think guys feed off the fact that I love to learn. I love to be on a constant quest for knowledge and just try to strive for greatness."
While he obviously hasn’t achieved greatness just yet, he does have a better shot at it than some traditionalists may think because of his lack of height. And one guy who believes in him? McCarthy, who knows a thing or two about developing quarterbacks.
“I don’t want to act like some expert historian, but I would say just in my time in this league, today’s game definitely helps defeat that notion (of Wilson being too short),” McCarthy said. “It’s still important to run the ball and play-action and so forth but today, a lot of quarterbacks are making plays with their feet. That’s definitely a strength of Russell’s and something that we’re preparing for. So I think the openness of today’s game will definitely play to someone who’s under 6-foot but has everything else.”
We’ll see where the story goes from here, but Wilson already has a vision of what’s in store.
“I believe that God put me on this earth for several reasons, and I believe that’s honestly one of them, to prove that anything’s possible,” Wilson said. “And that it doesn’t matter how tall or how short I am or whatever – there’s no exact variable to being an elite quarterback. And I’m not saying I’m an elite one, I’m just working to get there. And I’m going to do everything I can in my power to keep working and to get there. It’s a process and I respect that process. My height doesn’t define my skill set, and I’m going to keep working and keep improving and keep trying to win games.
“I don’t really worry about what other people think or what they worry about or whatever. I just take one step at a time and don’t worry about it – try to be who I am. I’m not saying I’m perfect or anything like that, you know what I mean? It’s just one of those things that you surround yourself with good people and surround yourself with people who want to be great, that type of thing. I think that’s the biggest thing that helps me.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.