This month we asked our writers to revisit their most indelible memories of 2012.
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Tornadoes ripped through Alabama the week before the Senior Bowl, bringing severe storms and meteorological chaos in their wake.
Torrential rains arrived in force during those four days of scouting gluttony among the mossy willows of Mobile, but the top quarterback prospects stayed home. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, already the heartthrobs, had transcended the post-season all-star process. Ryan Tannehill was injured. The available quarterbacks were B-list, and the receiving pool was thin, but the defenses were brimming with marquee talent: Melvin Ingram, Quinton Coples, Janoris Jenkins and a host of other enforcers.
Mix the talent disparity with the dangerous weather, and it was more common to hear the tornado siren echoing down Government Street than to see a crisp pass. It was a bad week for scouting quarterbacks.
Yet one guy stood out. He was short, but there was nothing frail about him. He could run, but he kept his eyes downfield. His passes didn’t whistle, but they cut through the stiff wind. Russell Wilson did not look great, but he looked good.
To really see Russell Wilson, though, you had to listen. Other players gushed about him. Receivers singled him out. He was a forceful presence in meetings and the huddle. Over the course of a week of practices on the concrete floors of convention halls and wind sprints to the team bus one step ahead of the storm siren, Wilson established himself as a leader. Not a sportswriter patois “kid is special” boilerplate leader, but a young man other young men instinctively looked up to, one they respected and admired after just a few tumultuous days.
In a two-quarterback race, Wilson began to emerge as the third wheel.
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Luck and Griffin were the belles of the NFL Scouting Combine debutante ball. They were heartthrobs like Paul McCartney and John Lennon arriving in America. Their back-to-back press conferences on a dreary February afternoon in Indianapolis played like the Lincoln-Douglass debates. Both were prepared, confident, charismatic. Each introduced himself to the football world while standing, literally and figuratively, in Peyton Manning’s shadow: A Manning mural covered a support beam just a few feet from the speaking rostrum, and Manning’s health and contract status loomed large over every quarterback situation in the NFL. The heartthrobs were unaffected by the pressure. They were humble, witty, composed, earnest.
The press pool was smitten. So were Colts owner Jim Irsay and Redskins owner Dan Snyder. A few weeks later, Irsay bid Peyton Manning a tearful goodbye and told him to start seeing other people. Snyder made a mixtape of future first-round picks and sent it to the Rams to prove how much Griffin meant to him. Irsay and Luck paired off, Snyder hardly felt he was settling for second best with Griffin, and the pre-draft quarterback debate was suddenly bereft of intrigue.
Tannehill also emerged at the combine. His interview was impressive, and his foot would heal enough for workouts in a few weeks. Tannehill became extra buzzy when Luck-to-Colts and Griffin-to-Redskins became foregone conclusions. Every draft needs a mystery quarterback.
Wilson had a quiet combine. He ran a 4.55-second forty. He measured 5-foot-11. He threw spirals in shorts. Wilson was fast, but the draft had a designated “fast” quarterback in Tannehill. (Griffin was fast too, of course, but the heartthrobs were their own category.) Wilson was short and plucky, but the draft had a designated “short/plucky” quarterback in Kellen Moore. Wilson played minor-league baseball and bounced between college programs, but the draft already had a designated knock-around prospect in Brandon Weeden. Wilson did not fit the archetypes. I don’t even remember Wilson’s press conference; unlike Luck and Griffin’s showstoppers, it took place during the chaos when two or three prospects spoke simultaneously on different rostrums. Wilson was low priority.
We learned later that he was blowing away the private interviews, prompting arguments in scouting departments about whether he would last into the middle rounds. Wilson’s merits were a closely guarded secret for many teams as they slid him up their draft boards.
Wilson remained a trade secret during a long winter and spring of coronation festivities for the heartthrobs. Televised pro-day workouts showcased Luck and Griffin as they completed passes in empty practice facilities, wearing compression shirts and gym shorts. Scouting services and blogs breathlessly reported their completion rates, as if lobbing a fade to an uncovered Kendall Wright in a Waco gym was a feat worthy of statistical analysis. Tannehill got his chance to demonstrate his health and athleticism in late March, while NFL teams paired off with the available free agents: Manning to the Broncos, Matt Flynn to the Seahawks, nobody with a better option to the Dolphins.
Wilson’s workout at Wisconsin was not televised. Russ Lande, one of the best draftniks in the business, filed a report for Sporting News. Lande wrote that Wilson was “impressive,” but he did not get to Wilson until the eighth paragraph of a 10-paragraph article, after center Peter Konz, guard Kevin Zeitler and receiver Nick Toon.
That sort of thing just did not happen to Luck or Griffin.
Lande praised Wilson’s arm, and he confirmed what the kids said at the Senior Bowl and the coaches whispered behind closed doors at the combine. “A source who attended the workout said Wisconsin coaches considered Wilson the best leader to come through the program in many years.”
If only leadership made him three inches taller.
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The NFL draft is prom night. The top prospects dress fashion forward. Roger Goodell is a proud papa, all warm hugs and photo smiles. Luck and Griffin were ready for their close-ups. Tannehill followed them onto the prime-time telecast. Weeden had his star turn late on Thursday evening, Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler during the second round on Friday. Osweiler? Gawky fellow with a live arm; the prospect you choose when you cannot choose a prospect.
Wilson left the draft board with minor fanfare late Friday, in the third round, when the bulk of the press pool had evacuated Radio City Music Hall and all but the hardest-core draftophiles had stopped watching. He joined the Seahawks, who had just signed Flynn. Wilson looked nothing like a third wheel. He was a developmental prospect, a non-story.
It was only in Seahawks rookie camp, then training camp, that the words and whispers about Wilson’s intangibles became shouts. Wilson won over his Seahawks coaches and teammates the way he won over Senior Bowl coaches and teammates. He out-hustled Flynn. He made Pete Carroll forget about height. He joined Luck, Griffin, Tannehill and Weeden as an opening-day starter.
Luck and Griffin were just as magical as expected. Tannehill was nondescript, Weeden disappointing. Wilson was breathtaking: Houdini scrambles and feisty comebacks, daring bombs from the pocket and creative tosses on the run. By December, there were three rookie quarterbacks in the playoff picture, three rookie quarterbacks worth talking about, but we were all talked out about two of them. The third wheel began squeaking, leading the Seahawks to thundering blowout victories. The two-man battle for the hearts of football fans had an unexpected third-party candidate.
Wilson is still 5-foot-11. His height is not irrelevant, and like Griffin and Luck, he still has to develop and round out his game. Wilson is no sure thing, no guaranteed franchise quarterback for the next decade, though no one really is, not even the heartthrobs.
But then you realize that Luck cost the Colts the first pick in the draft, and the chance to saddle up a few more times with Manning. Griffin cost the Redskins a briefcase full of future draft picks. The Seahawks got Wilson for loose change. They drafted two impact defenders before him (Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner). They put themselves in position to reach the Super Bowl before the Colts and Redskins are finished building their rosters to championship level, which means that Wilson could beat the heartthrobs to the Super Bowl. The third wheel could cross the finish line first.
Sometimes it pays to look past the dazzle, and to listen. Wilson’s name was in the air last January. In retrospect, it should have been easy to find an overlooked, available heartthrob. All it took was the ability to filter out all the other noise.