CHARLOTTE, N.C. – He was the reason Seattle wound up one touchdown short of an odds-defying, awe-inspiring playoff comeback.
Of course, he was also a big part of the reason why the Seahawks were in that deficit to begin with.
Those facts show the singular importance of Russell Wilson’s role on this team.
Seattle will be seen as a team on the decline now. A team that went from winning the Super Bowl to losing the Super Bowl to losing in the divisional playoffs. The regular-season wins have declined in that time, too, but to paint that picture is to miss the larger point about what Seattle’s quarterback demonstrated first during the regular season and reinforced in a seven-point loss to the Panthers.
Wilson is Seattle’s engine now. That reality became clear over the second half of the season, and it was reinforced on Sunday when running back Marshawn Lynch wound up an afterthought in his return to the team. That’s not a criticism of Lynch. He never had a chance to get going. Not on the first play from scrimmage when there was penetration in the backfield. Not in the game when he carried only six times.
Wilson is Seattle’s franchise quarterback for better and very rarely for worse, and every Seahawks fan should be as excited about the future as they were after his rookie year when he pulled the team out of that 20-point halftime deficit in Atlanta.
That performance was a revelation. It showed he could throw his way out of a double-digit deficit, something that had remained a question hanging over the entirety of his rookie season.
Sunday in Charlotte was a confirmation of sorts, reinforcing just how much Seattle’s quarterback can do for this team when he passed for 366 yards – 255 in the second half – and led the team with 32 yards rushing.
“I don’t know how much more you could expect of him,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He ran. He threw it. He managed the game the whole time. He knew every situation we were going through. He was right on point with it. He gave us chances throughout.”
Wilson wasn’t perfect. He overthrew Doug Baldwin in the third quarter. But he was the reason Seattle had a chance.
“All in all, he gave us a shot to do it,” Carroll said.
That responsibility cuts both ways, though.
His two interceptions helped plant Seattle in that 31-point hole at halftime. One interception was returned for a touchdown. The other led to a Panthers’ field goal. Both came when he was under pressure. Neither can be dismissed outright.
Wilson is now the single biggest factor in determining the outcome of a Seattle game. Not the only factor, but the single biggest. Not the running game, which is more like the bedrock Seattle’s offense is built upon. Not the defense, which has allowed the fewest points in the league for four consecutive years.
His importance is due in part to the salary cap. After being the biggest bargain in NFL history over his first three seasons, he will begin to take up the biggest individual footprint in terms of salary. Part of it is because the nucleus that carried Seattle to the top has aged and will be changed.
Wilson is now going to provide the horsepower for this offense.
It used to be that Wilson was the guy Seattle counted on to put the team over the top in a close game. He was a trump card played when Seattle found itself in nip-and-tuck games. Need a game-winning touchdown drive in Chicago in December 2012? Wilson will get you two of them. The offense sputtering Week 4 in Houston in 2013? Turn it over to Wilson and watch him wiggle to a first down.
The reality of Wilson’s role on the team is best underscored by the fact that entering this season Seattle had not won a game he started if the opponent scored 27 or more points.
That changed with that victory over Pittsburgh back in November when Wilson threw three touchdown passes and the Seahawks won a game in which Ben Roethlisberger threw for more yards than any opponent in Seattle’s franchise history.
What happened in the second half of the regular season can’t be diminished. At the exact moment that some people wondered if he had hit his ceiling, Wilson showed that he could not only play from the pocket within the confines of a traditional, timing-based passing system, but he could do it at a historically proficient level.
What happened in the first half of Sunday’s playoff game didn’t undermine that. It did, however, serve as a reminder that Wilson’s importance now cuts both ways.
He has been so good about avoiding turnovers, so conscientious about protecting the ball, that it’s hard to remember the last time his play put his team in the hole. Sure, he’s lost fumbles like the one Detroit returned for a touchdown back in Week 4 or that play early in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco two years ago.
But that first-quarter interception Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly returned for a touchdown Sunday was the first time Wilson had an interception ran back for a touchdown since Week 5 of his rookie season.
Wilson has come a long way since then. So have the Seahawks. And as disappointing as Sunday’s loss was, the second half showed how much farther Wilson will be able to take them.