As NFL quarterbacks go, Russell Wilson is a wee thing. His official height is 5-foot-11, though that figure is probably generous by a half-inch or so. It's why, 74 picks into the 2012 draft, he was still available for the Seattle Seahawks to select. Despite his intelligence and athleticism, he went in the third round, not the first, because the presumption among NFL scouts and player-personnel people is that any quarterback who isn't at least 6 feet tall presents too great a risk for failure. After all, he can't step atop a milk crate before he throws each pass.
The Eagles only wish. If Wilson has done nothing else over his five seasons in the NFL, he's shown that his height isn't a flaw or a hindrance. His career interception percentage (1.8) is tied for the second-lowest in league history. He won a Super Bowl. He reached another. In 2014, he rushed for 849 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. A series of injuries he suffered earlier this season have limited him to 60 yards on 31 carries. So he has thrown for more yardage per game (271.3) than he ever has, completed 67 percent of his passes, and has lowered his interception percentage to a career-low 0.7.
Put simply, Wilson has managed to adapt and compensate, and if anything, his fit-for-Lilliput stature enhances his already considerable skills, and when the Eagles face the Seahawks on Sunday, he will represent one half of the most intriguing matchup within the game itself. He'll be on one side, and the Eagles' defensive line - their greatest strength, let alone in comparison to an inexperienced Seattle offensive line - will be on the other. The littlest guy on the field will be the one to watch.
"He's not a one-trick pony," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "You see it with some quarterbacks, that they come in and have a little bit of success, and then defensive coaches around the league sort of figure out a book on them, so to speak, and they take away those strengths and make them play to their weaknesses. A lot of guys' effectiveness starts to wane. But not him.
"People have had a long time to try to figure him out, and nobody really has, and it's because he's a good player. It's because even though he's 5-101/2 or whatever he wants to be, he plays big. When he's out there, we're not going to be concerned with his height. We're going to be concerned with his ability to make plays and his ability to extend plays, his ability to make plays with his feet, run for first downs. All those things are going to be the important thing, not what he measured at the combine."
The intricacies of what Wilson and the Seahawks do to "overcome" his height and what the Eagles will have to do to defend him are fascinating. They get to football at the granular level, the little strategic skirmishes that make or break a game and that we, in the press box or the bleachers or on our couches, rarely see.
Take, for instance, just the way Wilson drops back after receiving the snap. Most quarterbacks are 6 feet or taller; they can take a three-, five-, or seven-step drop and still carry out the most basic part of their job description: seeing their receivers over the oncoming pass rush.
Wilson can't do that. To even out his height disadvantage and create slight lines and throwing lanes for himself, he retreats farther - sometimes 10 or 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, Schwartz said - forcing defenders to cover more ground just to reach him. In theory, that technique would play into the Eagles' hands, given that Schwartz uses a wide-9 scheme. In the wide-9, the four linemen push up field as fast as possible, and since Wilson will drop back as far as possible, he would seem to be setting himself up to be a sitting duck.
"It's a race," Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. "Got to get there first."
But Wilson's mobility allows him to avoid that rush anyway, buying himself more time either to find an open receiver or escape the pocket altogether. Often in those situations, he spins away from pass rushers by turning his back to the other 21 players on the field, as if he were a figure skater about to unleash a triple Salchow.
Though Schwartz grew up in Baltimore, as a boy he was a fan of the Minnesota Vikings and of Fran Tarkenton, in particular. Tarkenton "did a lot of the same things," Schwartz said. "That scrambling backwards puts a lot of pressure on the defense. . . . Their wide receivers are used to it. They run a route. If the ball's not thrown right away, they're not, like, standing around looking."
No, they're breaking off their routes and embarking on new ones. They're still moving. They're hoping Wilson finds them, which he usually does. The key for the Eagles, Graham said, is to stay disciplined in their pass rush, to refrain from the impulse to chase Wilson all over the field. The key isn't necessarily to catch him. It's to contain him. That will be no small thing Sunday, because the quarterback isn't, all appearances to the contrary.