GREEN BAY, WIS. – When the Green Bay Packers saw Russell Wilson as an NFL rookie in 2012, the former University of Wisconsin quarterback was considered little more than a curiosity.
When the Packers ran into the Seattle Seahawks quarterback again in the 2014 season opener, the 5-10½ Wilson was considered a game manager, albeit a Super Bowl-winning game manager.
But when the Packers meet the defending NFL champion Seahawks in the NFC title game Sunday at Qwest Field in Seattle, Wilson will be something new altogether.
"He's a very dynamic playmaker who is balanced," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "He does a lot with his legs. He's a dynamic playmaker who can get out of the pocket and extend plays to make things happen with his legs. He's very dangerous in that area."
In his third NFL season since taking Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl as a one-and-done graduate transfer, Wilson has shocked the football world with how consistently dangerous he has become. Well, everyone except himself, that is.
Wilson's rise from third-round draft pick to dual-threat quarterback who is inching closer to elite status may be hard to comprehend for some. However, his rare combination of confidence, drive, intelligence, instincts, strong arm and quick feet has people wondering when — not if, when — he will join the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck as a top-echelon NFL quarterback.
The only thing holding Wilson back from that designation is his height.
Wilson still has a few doubters scattered about a copycat league that wants its quarterbacks to be 6-3 or taller, but his new-school approach has made him more than the career backup many expected him to be. With his uncanny ability to convert third downs and keep drives alive with his arm or his feet, Wilson has become at least the equal of halfback Marshawn Lynch in the Seahawks offense despite the loss of his two fastest wide receivers, Percy Harvin (trade) and Paul Richardson (injury).
"Russell Wilson is an outstanding football player," coach Mike McCarthy said. "No. 1, how they use him and the stress that he puts on your run defense is unique. His decision-making is, I think, is probably one of the best things that he does. He's very decisive with the football both in his run decisions and in the passing game. He can obviously throw it and he's a crafty runner. They utilize him a lot in the run game and he does a good job with his feet. I think he's a lot better in space than people think. We're looking at his running ability as that of a running back."
Wilson's 95.0 passer rating was 10th in the NFL and he tied for 16th in rushing with 849 yards, or 210 more than the next quarterback, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. who The threat posed by Wilson is obvious for the Packers. Kaepernick literally ran them out of the playoffs the past two seasons and now they have to face a quarterback who runs as well as Kaepernick but is a more accomplished passer.
Kaepernick's 181 yards rushing helped the 49ers oust the Packers 45-31 after the 2012 season. He had only 98 yards on seven carries in the playoff meeting last season, but his third-down runs of 24 and 11 yards kept San Francisco's last two scoring drives alive in its 23-20 victory.
Like Kaepernick, Wilson makes big plays in the running game by keeping the ball on the read-option or by scrambling out of the pocket. But he's a better thrower, both from the pocket and on the move.
"We lost to Kaepernick two or three times with him doing the zone read," cornerback Davon House said. "I think (Minnesota's) Joe Webb had some success a few years ago in the playoffs. But I would say last year in the playoffs we did a good job against Kaepernick doing the zone read and I don't think Russell had too many yards rushing in Week 1."
That is correct. Wilson had 29 yards on seven carries. But he also was 19-for-28 passing for 191 yards and two touchdowns in a game won easily by Seattle 36-16. Did the Packers learn any lessons about defending Wilson in that game that can be applied this time?
"He's a smart football player. He's not going to give you anything easy," defensive end Mike Daniels said. "He's going to throw the ball away if he needs to and he's going to dump it down to his backs just to move the chains."