Steve Young spoke several years ago about the few NFL quarterbacks who had achieved a mastery of the position.
The 49ers’ Hall of Fame QB said they had reached a point where they had played long enough — and remained skilled enough — that one of the most difficult jobs in sports became easy for them: While others toiled, they toyed with opponents.
“I always laugh at Peyton Manning — he’s pointing at protections, but I think sometimes he’s pointing at someone like, ‘You’re dead. I’m coming after you,’” Young said in 2014. “You just pick people out because you’re the master of everything on the field.”
This brings us to Seattle’s Russell Wilson, 31, who in his ninth season appears to have reached the “you’re dead” stage of his career.
The six-time Pro Bowler who threw 66 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions the previous two seasons was brilliant before 2020. But as he readies to face the 49ers on Sunday, his first six games suggest he has achieved a Manning level of mastery.
Consider: Wilson is on pace to throw for 5,040 yards, which would rank 12th in NFL history, as well as 59 touchdowns, which would break Manning’s record of 55 set in 2013, when he was 37.
When asked Wednesday whether Wilson was better than ever, it was notable what Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said to explain how he’d reached another level: Everything Carroll discussed involved Wilson’s mind.
“The position is so complex and calls for so much … and he is just in absolute command of what we’re doing in all aspects,” Carroll said. “He can fix plays. Fix protections. Adjust calls. Read things and change from one to thing another with such freedom. It’s just because of he’s capable of it and he owns it. This is the best he’s been.”
Wilson is a leading MVP candidate after leading the Seahawks, who own the NFL’s 32nd-ranked defense, to a 5-1 record. Wilson leads the NFL in passer rating (119.5), ranks second in yards per attempt (8.6) and is fourth in completion percentage (71.2).
In the season opener at Atlanta, he completed 31 of 35 passes, and his 88.6 completion percentage was the third-highest in NFL history (minimum 30 attempts). In Week 3 against the Cowboys, he became the only QB in league history with 14 touchdown passes in the season’s first three games. In Week 5 against the Vikings, he capped a game-winning, 94-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left.
On Sunday night, in a 37-34 overtime loss at Arizona, he had the third-highest passing-yardage total of his career (388) and most rushing yards (84) since 2018.
Asked whether Wilson had reached a mastery stage, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said, “Oh, yeah, definitely.”
“He’s seen so many different defenses,” Shanahan said. “He’s played with so many different players, and when you have the skill set he does, you have the mind-set he does, and then you have the experience he does, that’s usually what happens.
“That’s what you see with — Russell’s not there yet in terms of age — but that’s what you see with all the older guys,” he said, listing the Saints’ Drew Brees, the Bucs’ Tom Brady and the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger. “They all are unbelievable talents still at their age, but it’s their experience and stuff that makes them really hard to deal with.”
Unlike Brady, 43, Brees, 41, and Roethlisberger, 38, Wilson is among the best at using his mobility to extend plays that lead to long completions, or to take off running if nothing develops. Wilson ranks fifth among QBs with 237 rushing yards this season.
The 49ers just dominated a mobile QB who was the NFL’s MVP in 2015 in the Patriots’ Cam Newton, who threw three interceptions Sunday in a 33-6 loss and was benched in the third quarter.
However, their next game, against a potential future NFL MVP at the height of his powers, will provide a stiffer test.
Inside linebacker Fred Warner, 23, mentioned Wilson’s elusiveness and arm strength, but suggested his greatest asset, at this point in his career, wasn’t physical.
“He’s got everything,” Warner said. “Having that experience in the league — as opposed to me being in my third year and still learning things. I’m sure he’s still learning, too, but he’s much further ahead.
“So that chess match throughout the game — whatever he’s watching, I’ve got to make sure I’m watching two or three times as much.”