If words had legs, Russell Wilson would speak with a swagger.
“I refuse to be average,” the quarterback said at the start of Seahawks’ training camp. “I refuse to be good.”
Wilson exudes a humility befitting somebody who has yet to prove himself in an NFL regular-season game – when the rookie talks trash, he’s referring to the recycling bin – but he’s got a hunger to be regarded among the ranks of the elite, and he’s not bashful to talk about it.
“My goal,” he said a few days ago, repeating a theme, “is to be great.”
Wilson’s determination to stretch his potential beyond the limits of reasonable expectations is admirable. He’s daring to dream, daring to think big. Why settle for a grade of B-plus if the A is out there?
But the quarterback who yearns to be spectacular leaves himself as vulnerable as the boxer, well ahead on points, who attempts a late-round knockout when the more prudent tactic is to avoid a debilitating punch.
In other words, less can be preferable to more.
The baseball cleanup hitter who drives in a run by going with the pitch and taking it the other way almost always is more useful than the cleanup hitter who swings from his heels in an attempt to pull the ball for a 450-foot homer. The point guard who bounces a pass to an open man along the baseline is more effective than the point guard clamoring to blow past his defender and drive in for a dunk.
The upper-deck homer and the glass-rattling dunk are celebrated on SportsCenter, but an athlete’s pursuit of greatness often is not as valuable to a team as the more nuanced discipline of settling for, well, goodness.
This holds especially true for a quarterback playing for the 2012 Seahawks.
Average will work on this offense. Good will be just fine. An average-to-good quarterback who avoids turnovers is a better fit for Pete Carroll’s system than a great quarterback prone to the occasional, inevitable mistake.
Take last season’s road upset of the New York Giants. The Hawks beat the eventual Super Bowl champions because Charlie Whitehurst, relieving the injured Tarvaris Jackson in the third quarter, didn’t try to out-Eli Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
Whitehurst completed only 11 passes in the second half, for 149 yards and a touchdown, but none of his 19 attempts ended up in the hands of the defense. Manning, meanwhile, finished the day with gaudy stats – 24-of-39 for 420 yards and three touchdowns – but undermined by three interceptions. On the best day of Whitehurst’s life – and helping the Seahawks to that 39-26 victory qualifies for the short list – he is not half the quarterback that Manning is. But again, sometimes less can be preferable to more.
Even the most talented quarterback ever born, during the playoff game that defined his career, did not try to do too much. The 98-yard, game-tying drive Denver quarterback John Elway executed at Cleveland – the drive that enabled the Broncos win the 1986 AFC championship and certified Elway as a living legend – began, with 5:30 remaining and Denver trailing by a touchdown, on a play-action swing pass for a 5-yard gain. On second down, Elway handed the ball off to Sammy Winder for 3 yards.
Third-and-two, what to do? Another off-tackle run by Winder for 3 yards and a first down.
The trend was established: Jab and stab the defense instead of throwing hay-makers. Elway would complete five more passes during the drive, none longer than 22 yards. He scrambled for two other key gains, but no single play is remembered as a wow-moment highlight.
Elway moved his offense 98 yards not because he was intent on a huge gain, but because he was content to settle for smaller gains, one at a time. A great drive – maybe the greatest ever – was built upon a succession of good plays.
The lesson for Russell Wilson? Concentrate on developing into a consistently dependable quarterback. If he’s consistently dependable week after week, year after year, the legacy will take care of itself.
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