Russell Wilson: Spurned savior

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

One day people will learn not to doubt Russell Wilson.
Russell Wilson's been doubted every step of the way. (USATSI)

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NEW YORK -- If I were starting an NFL franchise right now, Russell Wilson would be one of the first five players I would pick. Despite that, it hasn't been all that easy for Wilson to latch onto a permanent football home.

Why is that? Wilson's a savior now -- but no one really seemed desperate to lock him down until the Seahawks came along. His path to the NFL's as remarkable as his constant enthusiasm. And even Seattle wasn't all in on him from day one.

"I think they want him now!" Elliott Avent, Wilson's baseball coach at North Carolina State joked on the phone last week. "I don't think the Seattle Seahawks will ever let him go. They probably can't wait to wrap him up with a big contract after next year. I think that's a thing of the past -- he's proven himself every step of the way. But the point of the matter is he always had to prove himself.

"There was never one day, even when he was here, that he didn't have to go out and prove himself. Russell doesn't have a grudge, he's not that type of guy. But I'm sure he used it for motivation that every day he had to go out and prove himself."

Avent doesn't get nearly enough credit for Wilson's journey. Avent's the guy who called then NC State coach Chuck Amato and told him about the "really interesting" high school shortstop in Virginia who was an even better quarterback. Wilson's height, which caused him to fall into the Seahawks lap in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, was an issue then as well.

"I picked up the phone and called Chuck and asked him what he knows about Russell Wilson and one of his recruiting guys said Russell's a really good player but everybody thinks he's a little short," Avent said. "So I immediately got a hold of Marc Trestman when I got back and I told Marc he needed to get this guy into camp. And Marc's the first guy I think to really notice Russell -- he compared him to [Rich] Gannon as one of the best throwing quarterbacks he's ever seen on the run.

"They got Russell into camp and then when you learn about Russell's discipline and his whole background and who he is, he's just so impressive. So it was very, very easy at that point to offer him a scholarship and they did."

Trestman, now the coach of the Bears, never got a chance to work with Wilson. He, along with the rest of Amato's staff, were fired before Wilson ever became the all-ACC quarterback and Wolfpack fan favorite who went undefeated against the Pack's hated in-state rival North Carolina.

Wilson almost never got a chance to do that, though. John Bunting, who coached the Tar Heels before Butch Davis' arrival in Chapel Hill, tossed on his hindsight goggles last week and told 99.9 the Fan in Raleigh that he believes Wilson would've ended up at Carolina.

"I really do believe he would have been a Tar Heel if we had not already made a commitment and a commitment made back to us by a guy that had a little more star power at that time," Bunting said. "A guy by the name of Mike Paulus."

How laughable does the notion of ditching Wilson for Mike Paulus -- who attempted 13 total passes for UNC in his career -- sound now? But it was a recurring thing then for people to use height as an excuse for ignoring Wilson. Bunting did the same thing.

"We knew that Russell Wilson was a good quarterback. We watched his tape. He had all the great mechanics that great quarterbacks have," Bunting said. "We brought him to our camp. His high school coach told me in 10th grade that we want to have this guy. And Frank Signeti worked him out and said 'That is the best workout I've ever, ever seen. He wants to come here, we've got to get him.' I said what do I do about Paulus? We had a little staff meeting. I take Russell Wilson and throw Michael Paulus under the bus? The 6-3, 6-4 star-power guy and bring in this two-star guy who's 5-11 and 200 pounds?"

Sound familiar? It should: Tom O'Brien, who replaced Amato in Raleigh, made a similar choice that resulted in Russell bolting NC State and finishing his college football career at Wisconsin.

That's a nearly impossible-to-explain situation that's not nearly as cut and dry as most people think it is. O'Brien recruited current Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon to Raleigh as his next-gen version of Matt Ryan.

Wilson turned into a superstar and when he was drafted by the Colorado Rockies with a year of football eligibility remaining, O'Brien had to make a call. If he stuck with Wilson, there was a good chance that Glennon -- who handled the situation with incredible aplomb -- would transfer. If he did and Wilson succeeded at baseball, O'Brien might be staring at a situation that involved having all of his eggs thrown out of the basket.

O'Brien, at Virginia now and made available via conference call, wouldn't specifically confirm that Glennon would've left if Wilson returned. But he didn't deny it either.

"Michael would have graduated that year," O'Brien said. "He could move on if he wanted to at the end of that year. That was all part of the decision making process that had to happen.

"You could have one quarterback, two quarterbacks or have no quarterbacks."

Going with Glennon didn't seal O'Brien's fate at N.C. State (he was probably gone after 2012 with anything less than an appearance in the ACC Championship Game). But it sure wasn't a good look for him when Wilson came a Kirk Cousins Hail Mary short of Wisconsin playing for a national title. And it definitely doesn't make him look smart with Wilson about to start for the Seahawks in a Super Bowl. Still, no regrets, etc.

"I'm not clairvoyant. I can't tell the future," O'Brien said. "The thing that you do and that you always do is you make decisions based on the facts that you have at that time. Certainly, with the facts and situation that it was [with baseball], we parted on great terms. Russell went his way."

Avent, Wilson's "other" coach, doesn't see it that way and called the decision to move on "a little personal."

"It's always easy to see it in the rearview mirror when you see how everything panned out. And Coach O'Brien had to do what he to do," Avent said. "For me ... it was a little personal to me."

Avent's point, too, is that Wilson -- known by all his teammates and the media as one of the nicest guys in football -- gave everything to the program and the program didn't give back.

"Russell Wilson, in a day and age when college athletics are full scandal and full cheating ... every day we sit here and talk about student athletes and what they do," Avent said. "A lot of college athletics is full of scandal and not very good things. And you get a guy to come along and he has all those [good] qualities? He's this, that and a third. He's everything. I just don't understand, no matter what the situation was ... this is a guy who tore his knee up and he's at every workout at 5 o'clock in the morning. Always the first guy to workout and the last one to leave. First guy in the film room, last one to leave. He's playing two sports. He graduates in three years. He's a great teammate. He has the committment to do everything at the highest quality. He was all these things and more. If you can get 25 percent of the college athletes to have the qualities that Russell Wilson has, college athletics would be much better.

"So to have that guy and not let him finish his career where it started, where he meant so much to the program and the fans ... I don't know all the things that went into the decision but I just think there had to be a way to keep Russell Wilson here and finish at NC State."

There are plenty of NC State fans who agree with Avent's passionate stance. (Although Brett Bielema probably appreciates O'Brien's decision.)

But letting Wilson get away isn't just a Wolfpack thing. Every single team in the NFL passed on Wilson -- at least twice -- and the Jaguars, desperate for a franchise quarterback, even took a punter instead of grabbing Wilson.

The Seahawks look smart for stealing him, and Pete Carroll and John Schneider look like geniuses for starting Wilson out of the gate. But, again, it wasn't always that cut-and-dry.

Wilson struggled out of the gate for the Seahawks. He completed 60 percent of his passes in the first four games of his career but he threw four interceptions against four touchdowns and only averaged 5.94 yards per attempt through the first four weeks of 2012.

Before the Seahawks played the Panthers in Week 5, Mike Lombardi -- then at the NFL Network and now the GM of the Cleveland Browns -- penned a column calling for the Seahawks to bench Wilson and start Matt Flynn.

Lombardi wasn't alone. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer asked a similar question of its readers ...

... and the readers responded pretty definitively:

And you wonder why Avent talked about Russell being doubted every step of the way.

For the Seahawks part, they say there wasn't any discussion of removing him. Darrell Bevell, Seattle's offensive coordinator, pointed to the slow evolution of Wilson in the Seattle offense as a reason for the start.

"There really wasn't. We saw the things we saw in Russell," Bevell said. "We were bringing him along slowly and we weren't throwing him to the wolves and letting things happen. So we kind of held things back. And the Chicago game you kind of see where we opened things up and finally we just pulled it all off and said let him play and it's worked out well from there."

We could also point to, you know, Wilson being a rookie. Being in the same class as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III doesn't really help manage expectations much.

Wilson was obviously never benched and threw for another 23 passing touchdowns, tying him with some guy named Peyton Manning for most passing touchdowns every by a rookie.

A year later the doubters are back again. Wilson didn't play particularly well down the stretch in 2013, paving the way for people to question whether or not he can succeed in the NFL.

Maybe one day people will follow the Seahawks lead and learn just how silly that second-guessing can make you look.

 
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