Don't Just Blame Russell Wilson - Pacific Standard

Don't Just Blame Russell Wilson

Yes, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw a damning interception late in the game. But research suggests his coach never should have called that play anyway.
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Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. (Photo: vivi1867/Flickr)

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. (Photo: vivi1867/Flickr)

The Seahawks won't forget that loss anytime soon. Less than 24 hours after Super Bowl XLIX came to a close in Glendale, Arizona, talking heads and fans alike have deemed Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s late-game decision to pass the ball on the one yard line—as opposed to handing it off to arguably the game's best running back, Marshawn Lynch—the worst play call in Super Bowl history. The throw was, of course, picked off by New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, halting any potential Seahawks "dynasty" talk.

“That's my fault, totally,” Carroll said in a post-game interview with NBC. While the call certainty baffled anyone with a shred of knowledge on football strategy, Carroll shouldn't shoulder all the blame; Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson still threw the interception. We’ve seen the young star complete countless short passes like the one he attempted Sunday night, but he failed when it counted the most. Wilson choked, you could say. But to say that Wilson's simply not "clutch"—to use a phrase analysts so love—would be unfair, and untrue. This is still the guy who, at just 26 years old, already has 15 game-winning drives, not to mention an easy victory in last year’s Super Bowl.

When given implicit instructions under pressure, participants performed far beyond subjects who were given explicit instructions—that is, those who were allowed freedom to improvise with strategy, mechanics, and the like kept improving under pressure, while those who were told exactly how to perform the task hit a wall.

So what was different this time? What stopped Wilson from his usual display of last-minute heroics?

Creativity, as it turns out—or a lack thereof. Wilson’s moments of brilliance come while he’s scrambling, dodging, or improvising. While these feats of improbable athletic prowess have given him the reputation of a miracle worker, the science says that perhaps it isn’t that unusual.

A 1996 study by Lew Hardy, of Bangor University, showed that when given implicit instructions under pressure, participants performed far beyond subjects who were given explicit instructions—that is, those who were allowed freedom to improvise with strategy, mechanics, and the like kept improving under pressure, while those who were told exactly how to perform the task—in this case, putting a golf ball—hit a wall. (Interestingly, those in the implicit group were actually required to call out random letters while putting to further distract them. That's not so dissimilar from a quarterback at the line of scrimmage.)

In 2001, Michigan State University researchers Sian L. Beilock and Thomas H. Carr built upon Hardy’s work and explored the theory of choking under pressure. They found that pressure raises anxiety about performing correctly, and consequently increases the attention that an athlete pays to his or her exact skill processes, or the step-by-step procedure. Conversely, if an athlete has implicit knowledge of a skill—he or she has perceived control over the situation and is able to perform organically—focus will be diverted from the actual mechanics of the task, leading to increased success under pressure.

Wilson has thrown more passes outside of the pocket than any other quarterback during each of his three seasons, according to Football Outsiders. Specifically, 24.7 percent of his passes come from outside of the pocket—the league average is about 13.5 percent. Football Outsiders also notes that, in 2014, Wilson scrambled more than any other quarterback—that is, he tucked the ball and charged downfield when things didn't go according to plan. Both scrambling and throwing outside of the pocket, almost by definition, require improvisation.

This is all to say that last night we saw Russell Wilson out of his element. “Just an easy slant pass,” Pete Carroll likely radioed into his ear. It was the mechanical nature of the play that likely threw Wilson off. As we’ve seen, he needs time, room, and confusion to thrive—and the science says that’s not unusual.

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