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

December 17, 2013 by Jenny Vrentas

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?

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(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.”

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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.”