In order to understand why Russell Wilson has been struggling to date, it is important to know two things about his biomechanical makeup.
The first is that, while Wilson shows 3 areas of full thoracic efficiency (which is truly elite), they are oriented towards his lateral posterior. Meaning that his default throwing style, albeit highly efficient, is also a bit slower than some QBs. Such as similarly efficient but anterior dominant quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Aaron Rodgers.
Full thoracic efficiency (first detailed in this post) will also need to be further defined in order to explain Wilson’s struggles. When a quarterback is listed as showing 3 areas of full thoracic efficiency (such as Russell Wilson), this does not mean that all three of those areas function equally. Specifically, it means that, when an action is initiated in the most favored areas (in Wilson’s case, his lateral posterior areas) that all 3 of those fully efficient linked areas are under full control and will remain slack unless involved directly in the motion. Orientation defines length, so when the longest/ most efficient areas drive the motion, the shorter linked fully efficient areas remain under full secondary control.
Meaning that when Russell Wilson is throwing comfortably and naturally (generating the motion from his lateral posterior areas), his 3 fully efficient areas only fire when necessary, and afterward relax immediately and fully– thus allowing full blood/ lymph flow at all times. A healthy sustainable mechanic.
However, “comfortable and natural” does not describe the nature of most of Wilson’s throws in 2022. Remember, Russell Wilson is posterior dominant, unlike the elite anterior dominant quarterbacks mentioned earlier. In general, posterior muscle groups are slower firing (as well as more enduring), relative to their anterior counterparts. This means that for a quarterback like Wilson to deliver a ball as quickly as an anterior dominant quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, he must rush his delivery.
And so far this season, likely in order to throw with greater quickness, Wilson has– instead of throwing comfortably albeit a bit more slowly via his preferred lateral posterior areas– been initiating the majority of his throws from his shorter medial anterior areas. Because he is so efficient overall, Wilson has been able to do this reasonably effectively, in terms of firing a quick pass that is mostly accurate. However, despite some level of effectiveness, Wilson is losing his characteristic full efficiency on these throws. Sacrificing 3 areas of full efficiency for none.
Wilson has made these kinds of throws occasionally throughout his career. Every highly efficient QB is able to throw in a variety of manners, not all of which are fully efficient. However, by making this inefficient mechanic his default, Wilson’s otherwise fully efficient medial anterior thoracic areas become constantly contracted– they are being used to generate power, rather than to channel and direct it. Over time, through misuse/ overuse, these areas become unable to pass blood/ lymph cleanly and consistently. A tremendous difference in efficiency, control, and stamina/ durability results, snowballing as overuse accumulates and the muscles weaken. Instead of a fully sustainable, elite, highly accurate/ controlled throwing mechanic, Wilson is increasingly showing one that is inherently unstable, unhealthy, and inefficient. And likely continuing to decline in health and reliability for as long as this inefficient throwing style remains his default.
So why is he doing this? Why change his throwing style in his 11th season in the league? Especially when it must be physically uncomfortable to do so?
In order to understand the likely source of this problem, it is important to examine the second biomechanical area relevant to these struggles. Quoting from the review of Russell Wilson written in the spring, “Wilson’s only obvious area of inefficiency is in his anterior cervical areas. These cervical areas are generally correlated with width of viewing focus, meaning that higher levels of efficiency (and therefore blood flow) generally equate to higher levels of horizontal field awareness/ vision. As such, it is likely that Wilson’s one notable area of quarterbacking weakness is in his ability to quickly scan the entire horizontal field of targets.”
In other words, despite an extremely impressive/ efficient overall biomechanical profile in thoracic, lumbar, and posterior cervical areas, Wilson does show one notable weakness. Which is that his anterior cervical areas are noticeably inefficient/ borrowed against. As stated above, this sort of efficiency correlates strongly with width of viewing focus, or the ability for the eyes to process a large field of information quickly (as well as make very quick left- right eye/ head movements). While Wilson’s depth of field vision processing is likely elite (correlated to his high levels of posterior cervical efficiency), his ability to quickly scan right to left and process this visual information is likely subpar (for an NFL QB).
In a traditional Shanahan-tree offense based around bootlegs and rollouts, this wouldn’t matter much; Wilson’s inability to quickly scan the entire horizontal field would be minimized by half-field reads, while his elite vertical throwing range and accuracy would be highlighted by the traditional Shanahan-tree staggered vertical routes. Additionally, as stated in the offseason scheme analysis, a mobile quarterback adds a potent backside rushing option to these bootlegs and rollouts, further increasing their effectiveness.
However, to date, Hackett’s offense has used very few QB boots, instead putting Wilson in the gun with receivers spread around him. On the most critical plays of the early season– both in the red zone and during end game situations– Wilson has been asked to make quick horizontal reads, and even quicker throws. This is, quite simply, not Wilson’s game. Both in terms of making those quick wide-field reads, and in terms of delivering a quick accurate ball afterward.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most critical plays of the Denver Indianapolis game, starting with Denver’s first red zone sequence of the game, on the very first drive. If Nathaniel Hackett is following Shanahan scheme convention, this sequence was likely scripted ahead of time (part of the first 15 plays).
Here is the first and ten play, on the 12 yard line: shotgun formation, two receivers to either side of Wilson. Post-snap, Wilson starts reading to his right. By the time his head is turned to his left and seeing Sutton in single coverage, the throw is too late and sails helplessly out of the end zone. This despite the fact that Wilson rushed his delivery, throwing inefficiently via his anterior areas.
The next play is a wide zone run to the right, with Wilson under center. Jeudy is motioned away from the playside (continuing the trend of moving Jeudy to where his subpar blocking won’t influence the play). It goes nowhere.
The final play of this sequence again has Wilson in the gun, except now it is 3rd and long. Wilson only looks to his left on this play, and therefore has time to throw with full efficiency. This is the only play of the three where there was a chance for a touchdown.
Three plays, starting from the 12. Two shotgun plays, the first (on first and 10 from the 12) forcing Wilson to read the entire horizontal field of targets and then rush a ball to Sutton (too late). The 2nd, under center, was a wide zone run that never stood a chance (Jeudy motioned out of the hole that the LB plugged, Saubert completely whiffed in blocking his defender). And the 3rd play, despite being predictably a pass out of the gun, had a shot due to Wilson finally being able to throw more naturally– because he made fewer horizontal reads on the play.
The below play, close to the end of regulation– with Denver up by 3 and near the end zone– comes straight out of Green Bay’s playbook. It was mentioned in the offseason Shanahan scheme analysis that LaFleur had added RPOs to his version of the scheme as a way to force defenders to hesitate an extra beat post-snap. Just long enough for Aaron Rodgers to force a quick throw in behind defenders frozen by the potential handoff. Aaron Rodgers never actually ran the ball on these plays– but just by keeping his head facing the defense during the potential handoff, he was given an extra beat to read the defense and know where to throw the ball.
As you can see, this play starts with an RPO that isn’t even slightly sold by Melvin Gordon. Nevertheless it does freeze the defenders for a split second; additionally the routes are built to this timing, where at the moment of handoff, the WRs shift from potential blocking to generating separation. A well designed play, except for one minor wrinkle. Wilson simply isn’t built like Aaron Rodgers. By the time he has executed the fake handoff and read from his left all the way to his right, the defender has regained ground on Cleveland. And because it took Wilson so long to read left to right, he has to force the throw via his anterior areas, with an inefficient/ less accurate mechanic.
The final play of the game shows these tendencies in full force.
Denver does not need a touchdown on this play. In fact the Broncos were only a yard short of a first and goal from the 4. But Hackett again calls a play from the shotgun, rather than a play from under center (which would offer a greater threat of a run, or a potential bootleg/ rollout from Wilson). Wilson again is flanked on both sides by receivers. He starts out looking exclusively to his left, seemingly locked in on Sutton. He misses a wide open Hamler to his right before finally rushing an inefficient anterior-driven pass to a covered Sutton. Game over.
This tendency: putting the QB in the shotgun, asking him to read the whole horizontal field and then make quick accurate throws, works very well for an anterior dominant QB such as Aaron Rodgers. One who is built to read horizontally and throw efficiently via quick-firing anterior areas. But Wilson is not Rodgers. His strengths lie in the vertical game, in endurance (when throwing with a fully efficient mechanic), and in buying time with his legs.
It’s easy to understand the desire for Wilson to adapt his play style to suit this sort of scheme. In theory, it should enable Wilson to get the ball out quickly and take fewer hits. And to rely less on his legs as he ages. Using more spread formations also plays to the strengths of Denver’s receiving talent, which is generally stronger in depth than in one-on-one matchup-winning talent.
Nevertheless, Wilson simply isn’t built to play this sort of scheme at a high level. His two otherwise minor deficiencies– a somewhat slower delivery and a weakness reading horizontally– compound on each other in a spread scheme predicated on quick throws. Furthermore, because Wilson is so often rushing his delivery to fit the demands of the scheme, he is now dealing with overuse to his anterior thoracic system.
Wilson is nowhere near washed up. He still shows the same high levels of thoracic efficiency he did in Seattle (overuse aside), and he still shows excellent mobility (albeit understandably lessened by age). The problem is that he is playing in a scheme that highlights his weaknesses while minimizing his strengths. Nathaniel Hackett’s scheme and offense appear very well conceived and designed. Just not for a QB built like Russell Wilson.