Turn over on turnovers: Why risk aversion can no longer be the goal for Russell Wilson, other QBs
Interceptions are not the enemy; being afraid of interceptions is the real risk
These days, I think of Andrew Luck as being one of those people who give really annoying answers at a job interview.
“I work too hard.”
“I care too much.”
“I’m too nice.”
Except that in his case, they’re all fair and valid points. Ultimately it seems that Luck’s biggest red flag of all is that he’s perhaps too smart and too well-adjusted to fit into the modern day NFL landscape. Yes, injuries were probably the number one factor in pushing Luck into an early retirement. But it could have been just as easy for him to accept another $100-$200 million in overpay contracts from desperate NFL teams before actually calling it quits—as many of his peers would have, just look at Sam Bradford’s career earnings—not to mention all the money he walked away from in 2019 when he officially retired.
Remember, this is the same guy who chose more schooling over being the number one pick in the 2011 draft (sorry, Cam Newton and super sorry, Panthers), and this was well after the general public thought it was possible, or even sane, for an athlete to choose college over guaranteed money.
For far too long I was critical of Andrew Luck as a quarterback and I’ll never be able to truly separate what was a rational point of view on my part (that ultimately he was still overrated and winning an absolutely terrible division every year) from what was a bias of being scorned by the notion that he was “better than” 2012 class mate Russell Wilson.
Years later I can finally say what so many people wanted to say back then… “What does it even matter?”
The NFL was better when it had both quarterbacks.
Now, I think it would be safe to say that the NFL would be a lot better if it still had the pleasure of being able to employ Luck as a quarterback.
During his reign as the Colts quarterback from 2012-2018, Luck had the full display of strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps nothing held him back more than turnovers. He threw 18 interceptions in 16 games as a rookie (which would have led the NFL in 2021) and averaged 15 interceptions per season during his five “healthy” campaigns.
Andrew Luck also appeared in eight playoff games, completing just 56-percent of his passes for 2,254 yards, with 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions; Luck was picked off 11 times over a five-game postseason stretch from 2013-2014. He had seven interceptions in Indy’s four playoff losses with him at the helm.
This was always my biggest criticism of Luck, never mind his relatively low yards per attempt and fairly mediocre completion percentage. These days, I guarantee his completion rate would be a career-high, just because that’s the modern way of the passing world, and his Y/A would not be as important as how he came to that average.
But more than anything else, we’ve seen that interceptions aren’t just manageable for quarterbacks anymore… they’re practically acceptable.
In some cases, those risky throws are probably even encouraged.
Never is online decorum more at risk in the world of football than when a quarterback throws an interception. Even after having won the Lombardi trophy and leading the L.A. Rams to game-winning drives in the divisional round, NFC Championship, and Super Bowl, Matthew Stafford has been the subject of criticism and calls for being overrated not only based on interceptions he threw—but interceptions that he didn’t throw.
Stafford was picked off eight times in the Rams’ final four games of the season, then once in the NFC Championship game and twice in the Super Bowl; the Rams went 5-1 in those six games in which Stafford was picked and they were 3-1 in the games in which he was picked off at least twice.
But less talked about was the fact that Matthew Stafford scored 11 postseason touchdowns, was only sacked seven times (L.A. sacked Joe Burrow seven times in the Super Bowl alone), and he put his team in position to win when it was time to get into position to win.
Every quarterback makes mistakes and even the players you consider to be in the running for GOAT have made critical errors/been the victims of unlucky plays at the most critical moments:
Tom Brady threw three interceptions in the 2020 NFC Championship win over the Packers, two interceptions in the 2018 AFC Championship win over the Chiefs, had no touchdowns and one pick in that year’s Super Bowl win over the Rams, and he threw a pick in every postseason game en route to winning the Super Bowl over the Seahawks in 2014.
Peyton Manning threw at least one interceptions in every Colts postseason win in 2006 and his final stat line that year was three touchdowns and seven interceptions in the playoffs. But all anyone remembers now is that Manning “led Indianapolis to the Super Bowl championship in 2006.” Manning had no touchdowns, one pick when he won his second Super Bowl.
In Aaron Rodgers’ one and only conference championship game victory, he had no touchdowns and two interceptions. His second-closest NFC Championship game victory came against Seattle (as you likely remember) and in that game he had one touchdown and two interceptions. He lost to Russell Wilson’s Seahawks that day, most likely Wilson’s worst career game as a professional: four interceptions. Four interceptions and a trip to the Super Bowl, to be precise.
I am not going to argue that interceptions are good or that efficiency isn’t important, but is protecting the football overrated? When the quarterback holding the Lombardi trophy had the same INT% as Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson did last season, it’s time to assess if we are truly valuing the right numbers and skills.
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Russell Wilson’s efficient and disappointing 2021 campaign
Remember when Russell Wilson was atop the NFL world and standing toe-to-toe with the top-ranked quarterbacks in the league? I remember it like it was 145 days ago.
Week 1 of the 2021 season started with Stafford throwing three touchdowns in a 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears and leading the NFL in passer rating (156.1) after the first game of the year, a performance that doesn’t draw as many retweets and likes as a quality Stafford-bashing does.
Behind him in passer rating was Wilson, who had four touchdowns and a 152.3 in a 28-16 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Wilson threw as many touchdowns in Week 1 as MVP candidates Tom Brady and Kyler Murray, only trailing not-MVP candidate Jameis Winston (who opened with five touchdowns against the Green Bay Packers) at that very early point in the season.
Move ahead to the end of Week 4 and you’ll find that Wilson was leading the NFL in passer rating by a wide margin:
Wilson had not thrown an interception by the time the Seattle Seahawks were preparing for a Week 5 matchup against Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams. Wilson was also leading the NFL in yards per attempt at 9.58 and adjusted yards per attempt at 11.23, ahead of Stafford in second place at 10.01.
Let this trip down recent memory lane also serve as evidence that quarterback statistics and our perception of “Good”, “Bad”, and “Mediocre” needs to be seriously adjusted: Jimmy Garoppolo’s 96.9 passer rating—which would have ranked third as recently as 2008—is now outside of the top-16. Jared Goff and Sam Darnold were both over 95.0 after the first quarter of the season.
As was Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, Taylor Heinicke, Jalen Hurts (all over 100), and Daniel Jones.
It’s possible that all five of those quarterbacks, plus Goff, Darnold, and Garoppolo, will all be with new teams or potentially even out of the NFL before the end of 2022.
Yes, before the end of this year.
This is not to entirely excuse Russell Wilson’s statistical dominance as an exception either; Wilson’s 129.9 passer rating through four weeks is indicative of quality play at the position but I still argue that the Seattle quarterback is coming off of a massively disappointing campaign and that’s with or without the finger injury. Not throwing any interceptions through four weeks is a positive sign, but the Seahawks were only 2-2 after four games in part due to Wilson’s inability to move the chains at key moments of those losses.
Seattle had a 30-16 fourth quarter lead against the Tennessee Titans in Week 2, but Wilson went 2-of-4 for 10 yards on two fourth quarter drives, allowing the Titans to tie the score and force overtime. Wilson also couldn’t get the Seahawks into field goal range before time expired and even if there was only :24 seconds left when Seattle got the ball back… did you watch the NFL playoffs?
This is a “skill” now that elite quarterbacks must possess.
In overtime, Wilson went 0-of-2 with a sack taken to allow Tennessee to get the ball back and kick the game-winning field goal. Whether you want to push the blame on Wilson or the offense as a whole shouldn’t matter because they’re so tightly intertwined as to not be able to tell the difference when things are going well; if Russell Wilson is playing to his maximum ability, the offense will work and the Seahawks will score fourth quarter/overtime points.
In Week 3 against the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle took a 17-7 lead in the second quarter but went scoreless over the final 40 minutes of the game. In his prime, Wilson would never be held scoreless for 40 minutes. In the second half, Wilson went 5-of-10 for 41 yards and was sacked twice prior to the final drive, at which point the Vikings’ 30-17 lead was well out of reach before Wilson tacked on some meaningless completions and yards that Minnesota was happy to give him.
This may seem nitpicky to a quarterback who was leading the NFL in efficiency after four weeks, but nobody is arguing whether or not Russell Wilson should be starting or benched. The argument for a player of his caliber is simply whether or not he’s someone that a team can build a Super Bowl-winning team around and when you get to that level, you have to nitpick every loss.
Even before Wilson messed up his finger against the Rams—at a point in the game when the Seahawks had scored seven points through three quarters of football—there were viable questions to be asked about Seattle’s ability to contend for a Super Bowl in 2022. The relationship between Russell Wilson having “good stats” and the Seahawks winning football games in 2021 was not a strong one.
The Seahawks started 2-3 when Wilson was leading or near-leading the NFL in many major passing categories. The wins came against the Colts and 49ers.
Then from Week 12-Week 16, a period of five games and after he had two games to return from his injury, Wilson threw eight touchdowns and two interceptions with a passer rating of 97.2. In those five contests, Seattle was again 2-3, with one win over the 49ers and one win over the Houston Texans.
So if you take just those 10 games, the Seahawks went 4-6 but Wilson threw 18 touchdowns against three interceptions and half of those wins came against one team. The other two wins came against teams that missed the playoffs and the Texans were perhaps the least-talented team in the NFL.
Did you ever think it was possible for the Seattle Seahawks to be a bad team when the starting quarterback—no matter who it was—had an 18:3 TD:INT ratio? This is modern football. The accumulation of touchdown passes and the aversion to turnovers was once held up as a worthy path towards greatness and wins, even as simplistic as TD:INT ratio really is.
Yet Stafford led the NFL in interceptions and won the Super Bowl, while Kirk Cousins (33/7), Carson Wentz (27/7), Wilson (25/6), Aaron Rodgers (37/4) all fell short of expectations last season and could all be with new teams in 2022. Throw in Jameis Winston (surprising 14/3 ratio) and Trevor Siemian (11/3) and you can really see how this measure has become rather useless in assessing whether a team can win regular season or postseason games.
Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, and Patrick Mahomes all had an INT ratio above 2.0%, while Cousins, Wentz, and Wilson (2nd, 3rd, and 4th in INT% at 1.5 or lower) all missed the playoffs. Allen then had 9 TD/0 INT and 134 rushing yards in two playoff games and still ended up watching the Super Bowl from home.
Throwing interceptions was of course bad for Trevor Lawrence (tied with Stafford at 17) and Taylor Heinicke (20 TD/15 INT), and Ryan Tannehill (21/14), and Baker Mayfield (17/13), and Sam Darnold (9/13), and Lamar Jackson (16/13), and Zach Wilson (9/11). But that sin is not nearly as bad as the first half of those ratios…
Matthew Stafford had 41 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Trevor Lawrence had 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
The difference couldn’t be more obvious.
Meanwhile, compare the 38/15 TD/INT ratio for Justin Herbert to the 37/4 for Aaron Rodgers: Did Herbert’s additional 11 interceptions really hurt the Chargers to a massive degree as compared to the Packers? The real advantage for Rodgers is not the difference in interception ratio (2% for Herbert compared to 0.8% for Rodgers) but in the rate of touchdowns.
Rodgers threw a touchdown once every 14.3 attempts, compared to one every 17.6 attempts for Herbert. As Herbert’s game progresses, his focus needs to be on how he can help his team score more points not on how he can stop the other team from scoring points based on his mistakes.
That should be the number one job of every quarterback. Let the defense worry about the number of points allowed.
Through his first 10 seasons, Russell Wilson has posted an interception rate above 2-percent on three occasions: 2012, 2013, and 2020. The Seahawks have an average record of 12-4 in those campaigns.
Wilson has posted an INT rate below 2-percent on five occasions: 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019, and 2021. The Seahawks averaged 10 wins per season during his heathy campaigns, and went 6-8 with Wilson as the starter in 2021.
This is not causation, don’t get me twisted. It’s simply acceptable and notable correlation: Wilson being risk averse has not lined up with Seattle being more successful even though we know that historically losing the turnover battle is a tough pill to swallow.
Therefore, I think it is important for Russell Wilson, Shane Waldron, and the Seattle Seahawks offense to not be so concerned with turnovers in 2022. The Seahawks ranked first in turnovers in 2021 and yet Pete Carroll had his worst season as an NFL head coach since 1994 with the New York Jets.
The Rams were an average team when it came to protecting the football and well below the average in throwing interceptions. The Bengals were an OK team, ranking 12th in turnovers and seeing Joe Burrow throw 14 picks in year two. The Chiefs ranked 30th in fumbles lost but fourth in points scored. The 49ers were 20th in turnovers and 23rd in fumbles lost. Brady had a stretch of seasons where he didn’t turn the ball over but most of those weren’t as successful as his final two years with the Bucs; Brady threw 12 interceptions in each of the last two seasons and won a Super Bowl the first year, then led the league in passing yards and touchdowns the second.
It’s more important to have a complete team than completions
If there is any one flaw in my arguments today to make a fuss about, it’s that Matthew Stafford has won zero Super Bowls without Sean McVay, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, Jalen Ramsey, Von Miller, Odell Beckham Jr., etc., and that the Rams very nearly did lose in the NFC Championship game and Super Bowl. One wrong move and there’s no argument to be made for leading the NFL in interceptions and winning the Super Bowl, which Stafford just became the first quarterback in league history to do so.
Burrow was surrounded by three receivers who could make an argument as WR1 on many teams, and he too nearly didn’t have the playoff run that he had to upgrade the narrative around his value as a quarterback.
Patrick Mahomes has a receiver and a tight end who seem bound for the Hall of Fame. But has found that winning a second Super Bowl is much harder than it looks when you’re an MVP quarterback with multiple elite weapons.
Find a great quarterback and you’ll find a great team. The biggest issue for the Seahawks is not that Russell Wilson hasn’t taken enough risks, but the fact that Seattle’s own risks with roster management haven’t paid off. If only Jamal Adams paid off as well as Jalen Ramsey; if only Dee Eskridge has paid off as well as in the second round as DK Metcalf; if only Rashaad Penny had shown up three months sooner.
Maybe Wilson will start taking more risks again when he feels he has more players around him that make those opportunities more apparent and abundant. Tyler Lockett and Metcalf are a starting point better than the majority of NFL offenses, with Eskridge still a long ways off from being labeled as a bust, yet the work of building around the quarterback never ends: the Rams drafted Van Jefferson in the second round in 2020, then Tutu Atwell in the second round in 2021, signed DeSean Jackson last offseason, then replaced him with Odell Beckham Jr. at the midpoint.
By the middle of the Super Bowl, Stafford wasn’t throwing to any of those players but Jefferson. Only Kupp was left, alongside 2021 seventh rounder Ben Skowronek.
Fans were already writing Stafford off after he threw an interception on his first throw of the second half, helping Cincinnati extend their lead to 20-13 early in the third quarter. With only one starting receiver left, Stafford battled through a few forgettable drives to eventually come to his final drive of the 2021-22 season: Stafford went 7-of-11 and L.A. went 79 yards down the field to win the game on a touchdown throw to Kupp.
THAT’S the play that matters most. Not the ones that gives Twitter an opportunity to dunk on a quarterback who they decided long ago: “We don’t hate him, but we haven’t been given the APPROVAL to love him yet either.”
Liking Andrew Luck was something that people never had to really decide to do, it just happens when a prospect comes along who gets compared to Peyton Manning, then seemingly fulfills his destiny, then shows respect and care to all those who cross his path along the journey. Luck was a great college quarterback, a number one pick, a literal replacement for Manning, and a regular on the highlight stage and “elite fantasy rankings” with every passing season.
He was also prone to mistakes. What I didn’t give him enough credit for then, what I will start paying more attention to now, is how often he was assessing the risk and willing to make a mistake if the other potential outcomes gave his team a chance to win. Luck threw a lot of interceptions. He also threw a lot of touchdowns.
The Seahawks—and every team—are going to be seeking the quarterbacks who give them opportunities to score the most often. Regardless, and in some cases because of, that adjustment in risk assessment.
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