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Russell Wilson sizzles with raw talent, but Seahawks need Matt Flynn to be starting QB
If I were to explain the Seahawks' three-man quarterback competition to someone from a planet with a Seattle blind spot (aka most everyone outside the Pacific Northwest), I would do it this way:
Incumbent Tarvaris Jackson is an insurance policy that probably won't be needed soon.
Rookie Russell Wilson is dynamic, often spectacular, talent who could be special with more grooming, but right now, having him as the starting quarterback amounts to a want.
Marquee free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn is solid, a nice quarterbacking complement to what the Seahawks are trying to do. And don't say that like it's a bad thing because, right now, he is just what the team needs in a starter.
Presumably, as long as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll keeps this quarterback derby open, there's time for each player to alter their status. But if nothing changes, the much-debated competition should result in Flynn being the man, Wilson being the backup and potential man-in-training, and Jackson being out of the mix and on another team before the season begins.
As I've said before, I think keeping Jackson on the roster and having three good quarterback options is a luxury that the Seahawks can afford. But Wilson is so good and promising that you can see why the Seahawks would want to clear a path for him to get as many reps and as much responsibility as possible this season. That's why there are reports out there that the Seahawks are trying to trade T-Jack for whatever crumbs they could get.
Here's the bigger picture in this battle: Though Flynn deserves to be the man, he will have to perform incredibly to stave off the popularity that Wilson is sure to have as the backup. All backup quarterbacks are popular -- remember the ridiculous Charlie Whitehurst love until he proved he was, um, Charlie Whitehurst -- when the starter isn't established, but in Wilson, you have a young quarterback who sizzles. And Flynn is similar to Matt Hasselbeck, a reliable but not flashy guy who will reflect the talent you put around him. Most of the time, he won't carry a team as much as he will complement it.
See the conflict here? Though Wilson is only 5-11, you see his speed, elusiveness, arm strength and knack for the big play, and you dream the biggest dreams. He could someday develop into a quarterback capable of carrying a team, even though Carroll doesn't require that of his QBs. Though Flynn came from the great Green Bay quarterback factory, he is more efficient than dazzling. He doesn't jump out at anyone. You have to add up his steadiness day after day before you realize how special he is. And if Flynn struggles while adjusting to his new team, that's when the desire to see what the Seahawks have in Wilson will grow stronger.
That's my primary concern with this quarterback competition. Whoever wins -- please, let it be Flynn -- could struggle to gain a majority support of the fan base, and in the worst-case scenario, the locker room. I still believe Carroll did Hasselbeck a disservice in 2010, which turned out to be his final season in Seattle, by pretending that Whitehurst was worthy competition during the preseason. It contributed to this myth that the Seahawks were better off with Whitehurst starting. It contributed to those embarrassing chants of "Char-LEE! Char-LEE! Char-LEE!" during a 34-18 loss to Atlanta on Dec. 19, 2010. Hasselbeck was scuffling at the time, but he deserved better because he was still the team's best option.
Now, when a legit competition ends, will the starter endure even worse? Not if he thrives. But if it's either Flynn or Wilson, how many times do first-time starters go an entire year without creating moments of doubt?
Most of us are wired to be enchanted with Wilson. He's unique. He has pizzazz. He's the kind of talent and personality who could make himself relevant to even non-sports fans. As a third-round pick standing under 6-feet tall, he has some odds stacked against him, but now that you've seen his raw ability, that only makes him more likeable and intriguing.
Wilson wears the quarterback position well, on and off the field. He's a natural. He looks the part, talks the part and even dresses the part. After the Seahawks' exhibition opener on Saturday, he wore a suit to his postgame media session. Flynn wore cowboy boots, a polo shirt and blue jeans. There's nothing wrong with what Flynn wore. The native Texan was country cool. But the contrast between the two was striking.
Wilson is an all-out kind of guy. Flynn is laid back. Both are fun to observe for different reasons. And regardless of which one you prefer, let's not lose sight of this: The Seahawks' quarterback situation is much healthier now than it was a year ago, and that's with two guys leading the way who have a combined two career NFL starts. It's even healthier if Jackson remains a part of the team. But I think the duo of Flynn and Wilson is enough and hope it's the right combination for several years.
It's quite odd what Carroll is doing with the three quarterbacks, especially the decision to allow Jackson to get some first-team reps in practice but not play in the games. Jackson didn't play last week against Tennessee, and from listening to Carroll, it didn't sound like Carroll will play him this week. He's going with the same preseason game setup against Denver: Flynn starts the first half, Wilson the second. Carroll says he needs to see more of those two, and because Jackson started last season, Carroll says he already has a good sense of what the quarterback can do. I wrote recently that I'm willing to keep an open mind because Carroll has often made the unconventional work in his favor. I'll stick with that for now. And I'll stick with my prediction that Flynn will be named the starter next week.
As eccentric as some of his coaching tactics may seem, Carroll always has a purpose. And it seems his purpose is to continue to put pressure on Flynn and make sure that he earns this job. Will the benefits of applying the pressure of competition outweigh the disadvantages of having limited reps? That's a fair question, and it's one we won't be able to answer until the regular season begins.
Carroll has been tight-lipped about his process, but he did offer his most telling comments on Tuesday when he said Flynn is ahead of Wilson and explained why.
"Matt has done a really good job of commanding all of this stuff," Carroll said. "He understands the game in great depth, he gives us a veteran presence, even though he hasn't had a lot of starting time. He recognizes the defense. ... It's still a challenge for Russell to catch up with that stuff. He's battling to get that done, and there's a difference right now."
At this point, Flynn has performed the best. He's the best man for this job, until Wilson can polish his game more and prove otherwise. Wilson will be given plenty of chances now and later, but the Seahawks are close to having to move forward and name a starter, and Flynn appears to be the guy. And though Flynn lacks the upside that Wilson has, he's higher on the ladder at this moment than the rookie.
Remember those remarks this week if Flynn struggles against Denver's well-regarded first-team defense, and Wilson enters the game and dazzles against the reserves. I'm impressed with Wilson, and clearly, Carroll and general manager John Schneider are enamored with how good he could be. But they love Flynn, too, and both have the charisma to command the locker room.
This has been a good competition because Wilson is ahead of where he should be, which bodes well for his future. But it's not an even competition. It very well might be in the future -- as early as next season -- but then Wilson will be contending with the fact that Flynn gained an entire season of starting experience. (Yes, I'm assuming that Flynn will keep the job for the whole year because, if he doesn't, the Seahawks could be in trouble. And why be such a downer when, to this point, I've seen little to be negative about?)
Wilson's sizzle demands that he won't be forgotten. But don't hold that against Flynn. He is understated, but on a team built around its defense and run game and expecting to make a playoff run, his efficient play is the right fit.
For now, Wilson's raw talent is a want.
Flynn's more refined skill is a need.