SEATTLE — Amid the chaos stirred by nearly 70,000 rabid fans at CenturyLink Field, Russell Wilson did not flinch. As the last play of overtime began, he backpedaled sharply, glanced across the field, shifted his weight forward and drilled a 15-yard bullet pass to his tight end.
In a season filled with heart-pounding victories, Wilson had once again been his best when on the brink of defeat. His statistics in that Nov. 3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: five touchdown passes, 378 yards, no interceptions and a cascade of elusive scrambles.
It was Seattle’s ninth game of the season, and his improvisation looked akin to watching Miles Davis in full flight while the opposing defense was playing basic keys. It was impossible not to wonder if this would be the season in which Wilson found the postseason redemption that has eluded him for five years.
It has been that long since Wilson threw the most infamous interception in Super Bowl history: a pass a yard from the goal line against the New England Patriots that denied the Seahawks a repeat as champions. “I am never going to let one play define my career, good or bad,” Wilson said in a recent interview with The New York Times, incanting the trademark mantra he has used since that throw. “I’m going to keep trusting the process, and continue to go for it.”
Wilson and his team have not advanced to the N.F.C. championship game since.
Seattle has posted an overall playoff record of three losses and two wins — one of those victories coming only after a Minnesota kicker shanked a short, go-ahead field goal with less than a minute left.
Those results evoke questions of the league’s highest-paid quarterback entering his prime. Without the stout defense known as the Legion of Boom and with most of that era’s roster departed (with a notable exception in running back Marshawn Lynch, who made an unexpected return from retirement last week), Wilson is now the undisputed leader of the Seahawks (11-5), the one player whose absence would doom this new version of the team to mediocrity.
As he prepares to lead his team in a wild-card playoff game Sunday in Philadelphia against the Eagles (9-7), how should Russell Wilson be regarded?
It seems fitting that he will chase the Super Bowl ghost with an injured team full of question marks. There are ways in which Wilson, in his eighth season in the N.F.L., is still a question mark, still an enigma to those outside his immediate sphere.
The Times followed Wilson and his team for the last nine weeks of the season and saw a riveting quarterback who had to be thrillingly perfect to win this season, and a preprogrammed, hard-to-fathom star who sometimes buckled when least expected.
Which Seahawks team will we see in the postseason? That depends on which Russell Wilson shows up.
Showing Personality, and Perseverance
In the game following the victory over Tampa Bay, Wilson did not dominate. It was against Seattle’s N.F.C. West rival, the San Francisco 49ers, unbeaten to that point. But he was flawless when his team most needed him to be, recovering from a costly interception, only his second of the season, to freelance a long overtime drive that led to a game-winning field goal.
The final drive emphasized an important point about Wilson’s season. He seemed more accurate, powerful and evasive than in the past, with a new layer of calm assuredness.
To fans in Seattle, Wilson sits firmly on the Mount Rushmore of sports icons. His No. 3 jersey is ubiquitous. His tendency to be friendly while also keeping the world at arm’s length fits in with a cultural vibe known locally as “Seattle nice.”
As stars such as Richard Sherman and Lynch left the team, and as Wilson spread his own narrative on social media, the city’s love affair with its favorite quarterback only intensified.
Social media is arguably the perfect platform for Wilson, allowing thin but glowing glimpses of his life through the mediating remove of technology. There he is, at the local children’s hospital on Facebook Live. On Instagram, getting his hair cornrowed, letting his goofball flag fly and cooing with his family for Christmas.
In April, after signing a record contract — $140 million for four years, with a $65 million signing bonus — he popped up on Twitter in the dead of night, barechested, cuddling next to his music superstar wife, Ciara.
“We got a deal, Seattle,” he said in a Barry White baritone far deeper than his usual voice, which some read as an assertion of his blackness.
“Russell understands how race works in America, that America sees what it wants to see in a black person, and him especially, being a black football player,” said Louis Moore, a professor at Grand Valley State in Michigan who focuses on race and sport, when asked about Wilson’s post. “The beauty of Russell Wilson is he is able to play with the stereotypes.”
However Wilson portrays himself, the online glimpses have given him a dash of personality that even longtime admirers find refreshing.
“It’s good for us to see he’s not some robot,” said a fan, Charlene Lewis, as she walked to Seattle’s downtown stadium.
A ‘Safe Spot’ in the Locker Room
For at least three-quarters of the season, Wilson was hailed as a leading contender for the Most Valuable Player Award. His only real competition came from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has electrified the league with his unstoppable running and pinpoint accuracy, a more explosive, younger version of Wilson with a penchant for postgame humor.
Wilson and I met a few days after the win in San Francisco, at the end of a long practice at Seahawks headquarters on the shores of Lake Washington. His stature was immediately noticeable. Wilson is 5 feet 11 inches, small for an N.F.L. quarterback. Among a cluster of mammoth players walking off the indoor practice field, he was hard to spot.
When he spoke about his most stirring, memorable plays, his words tumbled out fast, and with an earnestness that brought to mind a young preacher — no surprise given Wilson’s oft-professed evangelical Christianity.
He had been to six Pro Bowls and set the record for most wins by a quarterback through his first seven seasons (75). But so far in 2019, at age 31, Wilson had been better than ever. How had he improved?
Another earnest answer: balance. “That’s been key,” he said, citing his 2016 marriage to Ciara, and the presence of their daughter, Sienna, 3, and Wilson’s stepson, Future, 5. “When you get to have kids and you get to have another thing to play for, it always helps.”
The other part? Years of toil. Wilson’s extreme, obsessive dedication has been part of his story going back to high school and has edged him closer and closer to mastery. “You develop it so it becomes second nature,” he said. “It becomes part of who you are. This year, physically, spiritually, mentally, I feel as good as ever.”
Wilson left out another key difference this year, one that has given him the freedom to thrive as his wholly sincere self. “He is the captain, the man in charge,” said wide receiver Tyler Lockett, echoing a theme repeated throughout the Seattle locker room. “I think that allows him to be comfortable. He’s just in a safe spot right now.”
Lockett’s words harked to a different time, when the Seattle locker room wasn’t as much of a “safe spot.” In the seasons that shadowed the Super Bowl interception, fault lines developed on a team bursting with young, iron-willed stars. A faction of disgruntled teammates fumed that Wilson was overhyped and coddled by Coach Pete Carroll and management.
“It was like brothers growing up together,” Carroll said. “You grow up and you are battling, and you are fighting and wrestling. It was natural that things were not all going to be smooth. There were rivalries, and everybody wanted to be great. It was challenging and hard. Hard for the egos. Hard in all directions. But it was also natural.”
Wilson grew up middle class in Richmond, Va. His late father was a Dartmouth-educated lawyer, and his mother a nurse. He attended predominantly white private schools through 12th grade.
From the moment he entered the N.F.L. he didn’t comport himself to fit society’s narrow definitions of black masculinity. He wasn’t cool or hip or brash, nor did he try to be. Everything about Wilson — the generic way he spoke and dressed, the people he surrounded himself with, his eager zeal to never offend — seemed to differentiate him from his teammates in a sport that is all about the collective. Not everyone greeted that story with open arms. Rumors swirled that there were teammates who considered him not quite “black enough” to gain respect.
Seattle is now one of the youngest teams in football. The vibe toward Wilson is one of awe.
“With No. 3 in charge, we are never out of any game,” said offensive lineman George Fant, who in 2012 was a sophomore at Western Kentucky University when Wilson became a rookie starter for the Seahawks. “He works magic.”
“There’s been a change,” Carroll said. “These younger guys watched Russell in their college days or back in their high school days, so there is a natural reverence that comes from his accomplishments and the staying power and mentality he has.”
When Carroll said this in early December, Seattle was coming off a Monday night home win against the Minnesota Vikings. During the game, Wilson wore a small microphone that broadcast his on-field chatter to the national TV audience.
He sounded like an extremely positive, over-caffeinated coach as he exhorted his teammates in a way that, depending on the listener, could have sounded admirable or cringe-worthy, and perhaps both.
“One play at a time!” he shouted. “Let’s go to work, men. Let’s do this together. Clear heart, clear mind, clear eyes! Let’s do this thing together. Whatever it takes. Great language. Unwavering language, unwavering belief!”
A Veneer of Optimism Even in Defeat
By Dec. 8, the Seahawks were in Los Angeles, playing the Rams in another crucial, nationally televised game.
It was nighttime, drizzly, the season’s 13th game, and suddenly there was tentativeness to Seattle’s quarterback, a slowness that has not been evident all year.
It seemed his cleats were stuck in the soggy gloaming. Stepping back to pass, he often held the ball too long and ended up sacked or hurried into a poor play. In the press box, reporters wondered aloud if he was sick.
In the 28-12 loss, Wilson failed to throw a touchdown for the first time all season. For the fourth consecutive game his quarterback rating sat below 100, the benchmark for great play. It was vexing. With Seattle poised to put a stranglehold on the N.F.C. playoff race, with Wilson ready to cement his bid for the M.V.P. award, he composed not a masterpiece, but a dud.
As usual, he was the last to speak with reporters after the game. It took nearly an hour for him to emerge from the locker room. Most of his teammates, who, to be fair, had played just as poorly, were already lining up for the Seahawks’ bus when Wilson walked briskly to a white tent near the cramped visitor’s locker room.
Bright-eyed, grinning, clad in an earth-toned suit, he looked out at the assembled reporters, and put on another show. Wilson sounded as he always does after a painful loss — even as he did right after the Super Bowl interception — not just clichéd, but optimistic in a way that few professional athletes could be after defeat.
“With where we are trying to go, lot more season left, lot more things to do, everything is still out in front of us,” he gushed. “We got to play it one game at a time, just get better, see the film, figure out how we can get better as a group.”
It was vintage Wilson: the guy who never lets down his guard, never shows negativity or a whiff of being in the dumps. The guy who instead of smoldering in the manner of, say, Roger Federer or LeBron James after significant defeat, offers milk and honey promise of a new day.
Wilson has long worked with a mental conditioning coach, Trevor Moawad, on a stoic-like mind-set they call “neutral thinking” — stay even keel, in the moment, and steer clear of anything negative. They zealously believe in a direct link between the words one speaks and success. Moawad said they had engaged in a careful study of how great quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees handle questions following defeats.
Too contrived? Perhaps.
Love it or hate it, Wilson’s manner did not waver as the season marched on. His demeanor was the same after a win against the Carolina Panthers three weeks ago helped seal a playoff berth. He spoke of silver linings even as his top three running backs went down with season-ending injuries and as Lamar Jackson won hearts and M.V.P. votes.
“We have everything we want in the locker room, everything we need, everything it takes,” Wilson said following a 26-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers last weekend, a game Seattle frittered away in the final moments to close the regular season on a two-game losing streak.
Whether he believes that rosy statement, another postseason looms. His unalterable mind-set matters, not only to Russell Wilson, N.F.L. enigma, but also for a young team reliant on his magic-making in order to have a legitimate shot.
And a shot is usually all Wilson needs.