GREEN BAY — When grad transfer Russell Wilson arrived at the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 2011 after three seasons as the starting quarterback at North Carolina State, few people in the state had seen him play.
But after observing Wilson during training camp that August, Barry Alvarez had seen all he needed to see. The former UW football coach and current UW athletic director told me prior to the opener he saw a lot of Drew Brees in Wilson, and not because both Wilson and the longtime NFL star from Purdue were shorter than most quarterbacks.
Although Wilson had impressed everyone during fall camp with his poise and arm, I must admit to thinking Alvarez had played a few too many games with a leather helmet when he compared Wilson to Brees. Nine seasons later — one at UW, eight in the NFL — it has become patently obvious Alvarez nailed it.
Drafted in the third round by the Seattle Seahawks, Wilson has won a Super Bowl, is second only to the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers in NFL career passer rating and likely will be the runner-up for the league's Most Valuable Player Award this season. Almost by himself, Wilson has kept the Seahawks competitive even as their once-dominant defense disbanded.
Wilson alone makes the Seahawks dangerous in the playoffs, something the Packers must keep in mind when the teams meet in the NFC divisional round Sunday at Lambeau Field. More than any player in the NFL, Wilson's resourcefulness gives Seattle a puncher's chance against any opponent.
"Russell definitely has an 'it' factor to him," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said Monday. "He has a specialness to him that when it comes down to clutch time, he's the one who makes the plays."
Don't the Badgers know it. They saw it repeatedly during Wilson's 14-game-career at UW, where his NFL journey truly began.
UW averaged a school-record 44.1 points per game in 2011 and lost only three games, all heartbreakers after Wilson had put them in position to win late in the second half.
"He just made stuff happen," UW coach Paul Chryst, the school's offensive coordinator in 2011, said a month ago. "It was cool because he did it within the offense. We didn't do a ton different, but he made it different. The plays weren't different, but how we played was different. He brought some stuff to life that probably only he could have."
Wilson's combination of competitiveness, intelligence, instincts, running ability, arm strength, quick release and accuracy on downfield throws sent a jolt through UW's offense. He was a run-first quarterback in North Carolina State's spread offense, but at UW he only ran when he had to. And when he did run the ball, it was usually just a yard or two past the first-down marker before he got out of bounds without taking a hit. Most of the time, he kept his eyes downfield when he escaped the pocket, looking to make a big play.
Wilson led the nation with a pass-efficiency rating of 191.8 that year, but it was in UW's three losses that he showed his true colors. At Michigan State, Wilson rallied UW from a 31-17 fourth-quarter deficit to tie the game at 31, only to see UW lose on a Hail Mary pass. A week later at Ohio State, UW trailed 26-14 with 5 minutes left when Wilson threw two touchdown passes to Jared Abbrederis for a 29-24 UW lead, one it lost when the Buckeyes scored on a Hail Mary pass. And in the Rose Bowl against Oregon, Wilson rallied UW from a 35-28 deficit to a 38-35 lead before the Ducks took control, scoring the final 10 points.
The biggest reason Wilson picked UW was because he wanted to play in a dropback passing offense and give himself a better chance to play in the NFL. That plan worked out perfectly for all parties.
"That was the one deal that we cut with him," Chryst said. "We said, 'We're not going to have one designed run for you.' Because, why did he come here? It wasn't for that. He had that part down, right? He could do that. And yet he had a number of runs that were significant. But that was part of the recruitment. We were like, 'We're not going to turn you into a runner.' "
For eight NFL seasons, Wilson has been a playmaking machine, extending plays with his legs when necessary, then usually completing them with his arm. With Tyler Lockett and rookie D.J. Metcalf emerging as stars at wide receiver, Wilson finally has some deep targets to exploit.
In Seattle's 17-9 victory at Philadelphia Sunday, Wilson threw for 325 yards and a touchdown and was the team's leding rusher with 45 yards. This week, he's the Packers' problem.
"Russell always presents a challenge to the defense that a lot of quarterbacks in this league doesn't present," Williams said. "He has an uncanny ability to extend plays and make big plays off them. That's one of the things that stresses the back end, stresses the secondary of every team. We know we're going to have our hands full with Russell."
One measure of Wilson's effect on a game is he hasn't thrown the ball well against the Packers and yet he's beaten them four times in seven games, often with clutch plays at the end. The Packers may have avoided facing Brees when New Orleans was upset Sunday, but the quarterback they'll see looks a lot like him.