Zombie Lies, NFL Addition — Russell Wilson, Game Manager

Since real football is still about a month away (enough with this Hall of Fame Game nonsense), we need to entertain ourselves with some inane football-related prattle.  To this end, let’s talk about Russell Wilson and some silly rumors swirling around him.  Don’t worry, they have nothing to do with Golden Tate, infidelity, nor divorce.

On his show Real Time, Bill Maher has a segment called “Zombie Lies” in which he exposes false narratives that continue to persist among the general population (and among many “experts”) no matter the abundance of objective evidence that piles up against them.  The reason these untruths never die is because they serve a preconceived political ideology.  In sports there are zombie lies as well.  And usually the reason is just as partisan.  We all have our favorite teams and favorite players and our least favorite teams and our least favorite players, and all too often too many of us view sports not as how it is, but as how we wish it was.  This leads to fallacies that people believe because they want to believe them, and then if a critical mass of people believe them, they gain momentum and more people believe them because everybody else believes.

Google “Russell Wilson Game Manager” if you want an example.  I still come across articles that purport this Zombie Lie, and I still frequently read comments by people online averring it as well (I know, it’s my fault for even reading these comments in the first place).  But it’s not true.  And not only is it not true, it’s diametrically not true.  Russell Wilson is the exact opposite of a game manager.  I give two general lines of reasoning to make my case: The Numbers Test and the Eyeball Test.

But first we need a working definition of “game manager”.  Wikipedia defines a game manager as “a quarterback who, despite relatively poor individual statistics such as passing yards and touchdowns, manages to perform well enough to win games”, which I think is a good enough starting point.  Let’s add that game managers typically: (1) make relatively few big plays, (2) utilize a very low-risk (and low-reward) style of play that includes avoiding turnovers at the expense of not moving the ball (and as a corollary, not scoring), (3) win games mostly because they have a good defense and a good running game, not because of things they do.

Now let’s look at why Russell Wilson fits these criteria, if only they were exactly opposite.

The Numbers Test

  1. Little known fact: The 2013 Seahawks offense relied heavily on big plays from the passing game.  According to SportingCharts.com, the Seahawks had the fifth most big plays of any passing game in the league.  And if you look at the percentage of their offense generated from big plays, they move up to second on the list.  Furthermore, Russell Wilson averaged 8.2 yards-per-attempt, fourth most in the league.  He was better at making big plays than slingers like Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford, and Andrew Luck, let alone a stereotypical game manager like Alex Smith.
  2. It’s true that Russell Wilson didn’t throw many interceptions (9 on the season), and that in a few games (e.g., the Saints playoff game) the focus seemed to be on not making a mistake more so than on attempting to move the ball downfield.  But if this was an overarching trend, and not just an occasional, situationally specific game plan, then surely it would be reflected in the numbers.  And yet the numbers tell a contrary story.  When it comes to moving the ball and scoring, Wilson was at least a top-10 quarterback (and even better if you consider his running).  He finished ninth in DYAR (770) and ninth in touchdowns (26).  Those aren’t game manager stats; those are plain good quarterback stats.
  3. The Seahawks defense and running game last season was (obviously) awesome, but it doesn’t therefore follow that Russell Wilson wasn’t awesome.  It could be that all three of these things were awesome.  And in fact that’s what the numbers suggest, and they further suggest that Wilson had a huge hand in the Seahawks Super Bowl season.  The three stats that most make this case: (1) Wilson’s Approximate Value was 16, the third highest of any player (not just quarterback) in the NFL; (2) Wilson led five game-winning drives, no quarterback led more; (3) Wilson had four fourth-quarter comebacks, only one quarterback had more (Tom Brady).  The fact is, when the time came to make a play, Wilson made it almost every time.

The Eyeball Test

Watch the Seahawks!  And if you don’t have time at least watch this.  Russell Wilson plays nothing like a game manager.

Bonus Test

Below are the most stereotypical game manager-y seasons I could think of: Trent Dilfer ’00, Tom Brady ’01, Mark Sanchez ’10, and Alex Smith ’11.  I put their stats in the table below with Russell Wilson’s last year.

Quarterback Year Win Loss Yards TD INT Y/A DVOA DVOA Rank
Trent Dilfer 2000 7 1 1502 12 11 6.6 -22.8 39
Tom Brady 2001 11 3 2843 18 12 6.9 5.4 12
Mark Sanchez 2010 11 5 3291 17 13 6.5 -4.3 28
Alex Smith 2011 13 3 3144 17 5 7.1 3.1 14
Russell Wilson 2013 13 3 3357 26 9 8.2 15.6 8

Which of these things is much better than the others?