Ric Tapia/AP
Ric Tapia/AP

‘The Will to Be Great—Day After Day After Day’

College quarterback-turned-NFL fullback Michael Robinson has a unique view of the man who lines up in front of him in the Seahawks’ backfield. And he says he’s never seen another player with Russell Wilson’s sheer drive to excel

By
Jenny Vrentas
· More from Jenny·

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Michael Robinson can think of dozens of examples. Here’s one: During the spring organized team activities at the Seahawks’ Renton, Wash., facility, the offense practiced a play that called for the veteran fullback to run a simple flat route. Robinson has probably run hundreds of flat routes during his eight-year NFL career. But after practice, Russell Wilson wanted to stay late to work on it again.

“It’s just a flat route,” Robinson said to the second-year quarterback.

Wilson told him he just wanted to make sure, so that if he got a blitz he could get the ball to Robinson. That this was one play they’d have no doubts about.

Robinson grinned. “Dude, it’s May,” he told Wilson. But the veteran obliged.

Robinson has a unique perspective on the emergence of Wilson, the 2012 third-round pick who has steered clear of a sophomore slump as nimbly as he scrambles around defensive linemen. Robinson is in the offensive huddle with Wilson and stands behind him in the backfield. But he’s also a former quarterback himself—just eight years ago he led Penn State to its first BCS bowl game, making plays with his arm, legs and uncommon leadership ability. Sound familiar?

russell-wilson-throw

(Rich Kane/Icon SMI : : David Bergman/Sports Illustrated)
Michael Robinson (bottom) can relate to Russell Wilson’s role with Seattle, having been a multiple-threat quarterback as a senior at Penn State. (Rich Kane/Icon SMI : : David Bergman/Sports Illustrated)

Robinson switched positions in the NFL (“I came like 10 years too early,” he kids, referring to the recent trend of young, mobile quarterbacks), but there are certain elements he still sees as a quarterback does—Wilson’s growth among them. So after the Seahawks’ 23-0 win over the Giants on Sunday, which lifted their record to a league-best 12-2, I asked Robinson for that viewpoint.

Quarterback on quarterback, teammate on teammate: What makes Wilson so good?

“That sophomore slump people talk about? Well, he worked even harder [after his first year],” Robinson says. “He had success as a rookie, and most rookies then kind of back off a little, say, ‘I made it.’ But he just works harder and harder and harder. I’ve never seen anybody work like that. He just never stops trying to be great. I’ve never seen the will to be great day after day after day—I’m talking about every day.”

“When he’s in the huddle you believe the play he calls is going to work. It’s not like that with every quarterback.”

It’s meaningful praise, because Robinson knows what it’s like to set an example as a quarterback. In college he played at tailback, receiver and backup quarterback before taking over as the starting QB his senior year, and spent informal players-only spring workouts coaching young receivers on route trees. Everything in the NFL is taken to another level, thus Wilson asking Robinson—a guy six years his senior, whom he used to watch in state playoff games in their shared hometown of Richmond, Va.—to stay after practice and work on the kind of play they rarely run. (Robinson has just two catches this season).

Carlos M. Saavedra/Sports Illustrated)
Wilson is just the third quarterback to reach 50 touchdown passes in his second NFL season; more importantly, he now has more wins in his first two years than any other QB in history. (Carlos M. Saavedra/Sports Illustrated)

Robinson has also been in a lot of NFL huddles, with several quarterbacks, including Matt Hasselbeck and Tarvaris Jackson in Seattle, and Alex Smith in San Francisco. That experience reinforces that the command Wilson has among his teammates, after starting just 32 NFL games, is rare.

“When he is talking in the huddle, you believe that the play he calls is going to work,” Robinson says. “I was with Alex Smith early in his career, and this is no slight to [Smith], but it was different. Obviously Alex grew, and he is a better quarterback now. But when Russell steps in that huddle, you don’t have to say anything; you’re just waiting to hear what he has to say, because you know he says it with conviction, and you trust what is coming out of his mouth. It’s not always like that with every quarterback.”

Wilson has earned his teammates’ trust in his voice. Third-round picks aren’t earmarked as rookie starters, especially not after the Seahawks had paid for Matt Flynn in the 2012 offseason. Wilson, who played baseball at N.C. State and was drafted by the Colorado Rockies, entered the NFL with an endearing lack of entitlement, and even when he started using his voice more toward the end of last season, he was conscious of how he came across to teammates.

“I don’t want to talk too much. I don’t want to seem inauthentic,” Wilson confided in Robinson during his rookie season.

“Talk. Speak up,” Robinson reassured him. “We need to hear from you.”

Robinson has always had a strong voice in his four seasons in Seattle. He’s been a past special-teams captain, and he called a critical offseason players meeting to address the growing list of Seahawks suspended for PED use. But after Robinson was away from the team for seven weeks (he was let go during final cuts, after the use of a prescription medication shut down his kidney and liver and caused him to lose 30 pounds, and re-signed in October when healthy) he returned to a team humming so smoothly that he willingly assumed a quieter role.

Robinson, himself a vocal leader, says Wilson has only grown in stature since his rookie season. (Richard Lipski/AP)
Robinson, himself a vocal leader, says Wilson has only grown in stature since his rookie season. (Richard Lipski/AP)

The strength of Wilson’s voice in his second year is evident even through the team motto: “Leave no doubt, 24/7.” Tom Cable, offensive line coach and assistant head coach, ran an offseason players workshop to coin the motto. It was Wilson who proposed “Leave no doubt,” Robinson says, and as when Wilson calls a play in the huddle, his teammates rallied behind it. Wilson’s brainstorm is now written on team T-shirts, and seen all over Seahawks headquarters.

The victory over the Giants showcased some of the ways in which Wilson succeeds. Beating a 5-9 team was not a signature win, not on par with the 34-7 statement victory against the Saints in Week 14. But it was the kind of game Seattle may have lost in years past: A 1 p.m. East Coast kickoff during which the offense got off to a slow start. But Wilson scurried around the field like a wind-up toy, looking to generate plays where it seemed none existed, turning what looked like a sure sack into a 16-yard scramble or scampering away from a Giants safety to find Marshawn Lynch on the sideline for a 22-yard gain.

Robinson, who rushed for 806 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior quarterback at Penn State, admits he’s envious of this part of Wilson’s game. Not his mobility alone, but his accuracy throwing while on the run, assisted by his famously large hands. “I’ve never seen anybody that accurate, running full speed and being able to control the ball,” Robinson says.

The Seahawks’ final score against the Giants, a 12-yard touchdown pass to receiver Doug Baldwin, earned Wilson a notable milestone: 50 career TD passes. He’s just the third quarterback to reach that benchmark in his first two professional seasons, joining Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. Held against the other three young QBs who took the NFL by storm last season—Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick—Wilson has been the most consistent, the most steady, in his follow-up effort.

“Maybe the guy’s wired different than all the other guys,” Robinson suggests. “I can’t put it into words. I think it’s a good thing we’re in the Pacific Northwest. He can just focus on football.”

russell-wilson-running3
The complete package—accurate in the pocket and on the run, and nimble enough to escape the rush and take off. (Elsa/Getty Images)

The more important statistic for Wilson is the 23 wins he’s been part of since his NFL career began. Sunday’s victory set a new league record for most wins in a quarterback’s first two seasons, surpassing Ben Roethlisberger’s 22. Afterward, the visitors’ locker room at MetLife Stadium was boisterous; hip-hop music blared from a speaker atop a row of lockers, and even Wilson admitted it’s only natural to visualize returning to this venue in seven weeks for the sport’s biggest stage.

Robinson grins when asked why Wilson is the right quarterback to take the Seahawks there—or, rather, back here, to this stadium in New Jersey, the site of Super Bowl XLVIII. “One day,” Robinson says, looking toward Wilson’s locker a few feet away, “he will be the MVP of this league.”

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49 comments
Jazzaloha
Jazzaloha

Russell Wilson is my favorite player. To give you a sense of how I feel about him, the QB that comes to mind when I watch him is Joe Montana, and I tend to believe Montana was the greatest QB I ever saw play. Now, Wilson still has to accomplish more before he reaches that level, but I see similar qualities. 


Having said all that, I kind of understand the criticisms against the article. It would have been more interesting if you interviewed opponents or opposing coaches. 


The other thing is that while I have no doubt about Wilson's work ethic, I'm going to guess other elite QBs work hard, too (e.g., Peyton, Brady, Brees, etc.). So in some ways, the fact that he works so hard isn't so exceptional--at least not compared to the top QBs in the league. Now, if he works harder/smarter than those other QBs, that would be something worth reading. 


(But I must say, as a great fan of Wilson's I did enjoy the article--but I sort of understand the criticisms against it.) 

StepheninPortland
StepheninPortland

First, to all the doubters, I admit Wilson has the advantage of playing on a team with a top five running game and an outstanding defense, one that frequently stymies opposing offenses and gets the ball back into his hands often. But it is what Wilson does when he has the ball that is outstanding. Some people seem to forget that he continued to win this year, even with two and sometimes three second-string linemen blocking (or not) for him. Defensive linemen have often given him reluctant praise on how elusive he is when flushed out of the pocket.  


Wilson is good now, and certainly has the potential to be great. 


Also, in these days when it is all too common to see sports figures hanging out at strip clubs with their gun-packing entourage, you will never see such a headline with Wilson's name in the headlines. I find that refreshing. I am certainly glad Seattle landed him, and I wouldn't trade him for any QB in the league right now. 


101philosopha101
101philosopha101

As an Eagles fan, I'm glad we got Nick Foles at #88, but a part of me sort of wishes we got Russell Wilson at #74.  Though long-term, I think Foles is more durable, Wilson's accomplishments are very hard to ignore.  The guy is definitely one of the best out there.

BoRadley
BoRadley

Class shows...regardless of where you find it.  Wilson may have been a bit of a shell shocked rookie last season, but it's become increasingly evident what a class act he really is...and I agree...the man has MVP written all over him.

Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan
Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan

Greatness and humility often walk hand in hand—both on and off the gridiron.Can you imagine Russell Wilson wearing Superman or Batman cleats, or even a “No. 1” jersey?Can you imagine him imitating Superman—or even “Kaepernicking”—during a touchdown celebration?I can’t.To his credit, this Seattle Seahawks quarterback isn’t into imitating superheroes before he becomes one—as evidenced by a least one Super Bowl ring—on the football field.In Wilson’s case, that may well be just around the corner.

gary41
gary41

He is mobile and very accurate and his attitude is positive---all critically important characteristics.  Playing his last year at Wisconsin a lot of people thought he was just a running game manager, but his stats were not so shabby.  He was off a lot of draft boards, because of his size.  I recall reading him at the bottom or off the list among possibilities discussed by Seattle fans very close to the team, but Bevell, from Wisconsin scouted him.  It was quite remarkable going from 3rd to 1st team during the preseason--that just doesn't happen all that often.  He was the right player, for the right team at the right time.....             

DankCheese
DankCheese

Yikes not a flattering picture at the top - from that angle the white pants look like giant granny panties! 

JeffDee
JeffDee

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IbYoeSf6Gk


If you have the time to watch this then all this talk about Russell Wilson shouldn't come to you as a surprise. The kids for real, his knowledge of the game is impeccable and whats crazy is that he's always willing to learn more! Throughout his interview with Gruden he's constantly taking notes, constantly looking to not only self motivate himself but those around him. His receiving core this year was made up of two undrafted free agents and one second round pick in Golden Tate. Next to nobody until Wilson arrived and on top of that he has seven 4th quarter comebacks with 9 game winning drives in two years! I'm just as excited as anyone else is to see this kid grow and develop into one of the NFL greats. 

Charlie P
Charlie P

So.. what, the secret to Wilson's success is a desire to be great according to one of his teammates?  Is he the only QB in the league with that quality in his teammate's eyes so as to warrant this article?

Starstruck
Starstruck

Just another hero worship article that has no further insight than any of the other bandwagon articles written about a QB with a killer defense. Wilson doesn't need to be exceptional in any particular area, and home field throughout the NFC playoffs should be a cakewalk that would also benefit almost every NFL QB. We won't really see him tested until the MetLife SB. 

EaglesPdx
EaglesPdx

What makes any QB great...a great team...killer defense....great offensive line. I'm sure Wilson's good but the QB's get too much credit and too much blame.  When Giants were good, Eli win Super Bowls, the same two time Super Bowl winner looks terrible when the TEAM has no offensive line, no defense.  Brady is great because even when the team is bad he can make them competitive. When Wilson, or any QB, can do that then e get's the GREAT moniker.

j7apple
j7apple

How in God's green earth did so many teams pass over him in the draft INCLUDING the Seahawks twice before taking him with their 3rd pick. 


I remember watching him fall further and further down the boards, knowing someone was going to get the steal of the draft in Wilson. Seattle did, and he will pay off for years to come.


I think some GM's ought to have their heads examined when thinking 2 inches in height will make or break a Quarterback in the league.

Fultonator
Fultonator

He may be MVP of the league this year.  Take Staubach's brains, Tarkenton's scramble and Bradshaw's raw talent and roll them up into one guy and that's Wilson.  My son is a junior at Wisconsin, so we've been watching him for three years.  The only surprise I've had was that he went in the third round.  I asked my son why he went so late, he said "He's short."  I didn't believe him until I looked it up.  He doesn't play short, he just wins.  'Hawks will be a great team for a long, long time.

ArnoldNewman
ArnoldNewman

Russell Wilson is the epitome of what a professional athlete should be.  I'm so glad he didn't end up in Philly. 

GrangerHodgson
GrangerHodgson

I wish young people would read this article and understand just what it takes to succeed.  It takes good old hard work, determination, persistence, leadership.  You have to want it.  Sitting at home with a bong and a pizza and the TV or Xbox on ain't gonna do it.  Get off the couch and go find your dream.  

RitaNorquist
RitaNorquist

I'm so glad that people are now understanding what a special human being Russell is. He just inspires anyone who is around him and it's genuine. I am in awe of him in everything he does, his QB abilities, his dedication to the kids whether it's with his camp or his Tuesday visits to Seattle Children's Hospital, his love of God & family. #GoHawks

jonny05isalive
jonny05isalive

Great piece!  With all the Russel Wilson has done this year I hope he can more MVP talk.  All he has done is lead his team to the BEST record in the NFL.  The amazing feat about being the 3rd quarterback to throw for 50+ touchdowns, is he does while only attempting 25-30 passes a game!!  The team is not a gun-slinging team that puts up 50 passes a game like Detroit or Indianapolis.  So to have that scoring effect without the attempt numbers I think is remarkable.  GO HAWKS!!

HawkAttack
HawkAttack

Nice piece. Robinson has occupied a leadership spot for this team for years now. Most fans were shocked that he was let go and loved that he got re-signed. Articles like this are good for people who are not around the Seahawks. They are learning what Seattle fans already know about Wilson. Every day is the Super Bowl for Wilson.

timtool
timtool

@Charlie PThe day before thanksgiving, some fans were allowed into the Seahawks facility, as it was an off-day for everyone.  Of all the coaches and players, the building was completely empty, except for one solitary person quietly watching tape that day.  Guess who it was?

Fedorg4s
Fedorg4s

I think you're missing the point. It's not about the desire to be great, it's about the amount of work he puts in to accomplish it. Anyone can desire to be great, but not everyone is up at 6AM on days off looking at film. Not everyone earns the respect of his team and coaches as a third round rookie.

timtool
timtool

@StarstruckClearly written by someone that doesn't regularly watch him play.

BigSchtick
BigSchtick

@Starstruck

Hero worship?

It is amazing how many bitter people populate the internet. Wilson is a treasure as an individual. What he does on the football field is almost secondary. Anyone who has been around him tells the same story, great leader, great human being, hardest worker in the building.

I feel bad for you struck. Merry Christmas

NCKramerica
NCKramerica

@Starstruck  A great defense does help.  Why didn't it help 6 of the other top 9 defenses in the league that he has defeated this season (Carolina, San Fran, Houston, New Orleans, Arizona, and New York), 4 of which were on the road.  Oh yeah, and then there is also the fact that he has been missing half of his starting o-line for half of the season, but I suppose that isn't really a big deal either.  To say that his play has been anything other than exceptional is a joke.  You should try watching him play sometime, or at least read up on the details of his season before the next time you decide to make yourself look like you have no idea what you're talking about.   

Jazzaloha
Jazzaloha

@EaglesPdx The thing is, this OL isn't that great, and they were terrible (close to the Giant OL early in the season) when they didn't have three starters. Wilson has really been masking the problems with pass protection on this line. Indeed, I think pass protection might be one of things preventing them from going all the way, and in the off season, I think it should be one of their highest priorities to address. 

el80ne
el80ne

@EaglesPdx He might not be on the Peyton-Brady level yet, but this is just his 2nd year in the league and he's constantly improving. You might want to re-read the article because I think you missed the gist. It says that he STRIVES to be great, not that he's great right now. Big difference. No one is proclaiming him "great" before his time.

Biller123
Biller123

@j7apple An SI article from about a month ago said Carroll talked the GM out of the first and second round picks on Wilson thinking they could get him cheaper.  By the third round Carroll couldn't hold him off any longer and Wilson was picked.

timtool
timtool

@j7appleWell, Hawks took him later because he knew they didn't need to use a 1st rounder.  They almost pulled the trigger on him in the 2nd round, but decided he'd still probably be around when their 3rd round pick came up.  It wasn't that they didn't like him, or thought he wasn't worth a higher draft pick, there was just no need to use a higher pick on him.

JaeA
JaeA

@j7apple It's just not common for a 5-10 guy to be a QB in the NFL or in college for that matter, so you can sort of understand the hesistation. I don't think Russell's success will change that opinion. It's clear he's a unique dude. How many QBs are starting in the league that are less than 6'1. Two? That's not a coincidence.

flakfizer
flakfizer

@GrangerHodgson I half agree.  The last part is true, but the first part is not so true anymore.  Hard work might not get you very far in the current economy.  Not many are hiring full time and sooo many jobs are paying so little right now.  I got good grades in HS, graduated with honors from university with two majors, then worked overseas for 15 years.  Coming back to the States, I barely recognize this country.  The gap between the haves and have-nots is bigger than ever.  So many people looking for work that have decent resumes but can't find good jobs.  I've applied for almost every full time job imaginable, from custodial jobs, to university jobs, state and federal gov't jobs and everything in between.  It's tough out there right now-even if you work hard.

ga77white
ga77white

@jonny05isalive Indianapolis puts up 50 passes a game???  I don't know where you get your information, but the Colts only have attempted 36 passes per game for the season (16th in the league; Cleveland is 1st in the league at 42.86; Seattle is 31st at 26.43).  The Colts are working on developing a more balanced offensive attack by trying to develop their running game, but injuries and the need to develop the o-line, have hampered the effort this year.  Let's not forget what happened on October 6th.

RitaNorquist
RitaNorquist

@HawkAttackI, like most Seahawk fans were so very happy that Robinson was back. He is the heart of the Seahawks and Russell is the Soul. GoHawks!

PBizzel
PBizzel

@Fedorg4s > Bingo was his Namo! Greatness can't be granted, it must be earned. RW's doing the work everyday to earn the label. #GoHawks

Iowa
Iowa

@NCKramerica@Starstruck It has been very good, but Michael Vick was even better a couple years ago too, and we know how he turned out. As soon as teams figure out how to defend him, he will level off. The 49ers know you need to keep him in the pocket, just like teams eventually figured out with Vick. When he can't run, he becomes mediocre. Unfortunately too many teams still let him run whenever he wants. He's a better passer than Vick, so he won't fall as far as Vick, but he's not going to get away with playing like he does now for the long term.

el80ne
el80ne

@JaeA @j7apple Wilson is 5'11". Not 5'10". That's one lousy inch shorter than Drew Brees and the consensus was that if he were an inch taller that he'd have gone in the first round. That's where the flawed group-think of all the GMs that passed on him comes in.

j7apple
j7apple

@JaeA @j7apple  Its that way because the Gm's make it that way. I have to believe there are others that have got passed by that may have done well in the league. To not look at intangibles as described of Wilson in this article, is just plain stupid.  


I'm not a Hawks fan, but am a Wilson fan from his Badgers days. I especially enjoy watching him stick it to teams that passed him over that really need a QB.. 

MarcusCroskey
MarcusCroskey

@ga77white @jonny05isalive It doesn't really matter if the Colts are throwing 36 or 50, it's still 10 more attempts per game than Wilson is doing and he is producing more TDs... That's the point.

Gary26
Gary26

@Iowa@NCKramerica@Starstruck   Lived in Atlanta during Vic's career there.  Now live in Portland.  You cannot find two more different guys.  Comparing them is comical if you know them.  Not even close.  RW is the real deal.  Michael Vic.  That's the funniest thing I have ever heard...........

el80ne
el80ne

@Iowa @NCKramerica @Starstruck  You have no idea what you're talking about. Wilson is ALWAYS looking to throw and only runs as a last resort. That's what distinguishes him from Vick and RG3 who would use their legs as a duo threat. Wilson only uses his legs to escape the pocket when it breaks down to buy time. You're peddling a myth about the "teams eventually will figure him out" since they had all of the offseason to do just that and never did, because his runs are spontaneous and not planned. That's why you won't hear anyone that knows anything try to peddle that nonsense anymore. Wilson is also very accurate out of the pocket, as he's one of the best deep ball passers in the league. 


http://regressing.deadspin.com/charts-who-are-the-best-deep-passers-in-the-nfl-1469917039


The 49ers haven't figured out how to contain him, as was obvious by his scrambles against them in week 14. If it wasn't for the D giving up the long run ton Gore at the last minute, the niners would have lost at home. That had nothing to do with Wilson.

unitcaptain11
unitcaptain11

@Iowa@NCKramerica@Starstruck  

"When he can't run, he becomes mediocre."

Ridiculous.  He always looks to throw first and only runs when he has to. If you think he is just a running QB you haven't seen him play.

timtool
timtool

@Charlie P@j7apple@JaeA  Being a shorter quarterback has its advantages also.  Better balance and change of direction, tighter throwing mechanics, more difficult for defenders to read eyes or find in the pocket, etc.  RW's other attributes largely overcome his lack of height, namely a quick over-the-top delivery, very large hands, long arms for his height, upright throwing position, etc.

Charlie P
Charlie P

@j7apple@JaeA Being a taller QB has its advantages.  When your typical OL these days checks in almost six and a half feet tall, even when they take the blocking stance and crouch down a little, they are probably still 6ft tall with helmets on, and the difference between someone like Peyton and someone like Wilson is seeing the whole field over the linemen and seeing the field between your linemen's heads and bodies.  It's only one of the many factors in judging a QB and not the most important one (just ask R. Leaf and J. Russell) as many shorter QBs have gone on to have great careers, but it is without a doubt a potential obstacle to be taken into consideration during the draft.  The bottomline is, when the shorter guys make it work, it's all the more amazing.

ArnoldNewman
ArnoldNewman

@ga77white  You not able to read?  The article is referencing Peyton Manning's 50 touchdowns.  The 2013 Colts have nothing to do with it.

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