Passing rates through the first six games
Peyton Manning (2013)
Russell Wilson (2020)
Wilson has been cooking up a stellar season almost from the start, and there was some concern Coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer would shy away from Wilson’s passing prowess in favor of establishing the running game, but so far that hasn’t come to fruition. Instead, the Seahawks are passing the ball 58 percent of the time on first and second downs, the highest rate of Wilson’s nine-year career.
More passing attempts, obviously, give Wilson more opportunities to throw touchdown passes and leverage his league-high 10 percent touchdown rate. Before this year, Wilson’s best rate for a season was 8.2 percent in 2018. The highest touchdown rate by a quarterback qualifying for the passer rating title since 2002, when the league expanded to 32 teams, was 9.9 percent by Manning in 2004. Manning posted a touchdown rate of 8.3 percent during his record-setting campaign in 2013, so there is reason to believe Wilson can sustain this level of production for the entire season. Wilson is also helping himself by improving his on-target rate (defined as throws that would have hit the intended receiver) to a league-leading 80 percent. It was 69 percent in 2019 and 71 percent in 2018.
The schedule is favorable to Wilson’s continued success, too. Seattle gets another shot at Arizona, which Wilson and Tyler Lockett terrorized in last weekend’s overtime loss. Two of those scores were against Cardinals cornerback Dre Fitzpatrick (ranked 116th of 126 corners per Pro Football Focus) and the other against safety Budda Baker. Wilson also completed at least two passes against every defender in Arizona’s secondary except linebacker Isaiah Simmons, whom he only tested once. Plus, none of the Cardinals’ cornerbacks rank higher than 49th of 126 qualified players at the position.
There is also a four-game stretch against three, um, underperforming teams from the NFC East — the Philadelphia Eagles (2-4-1), the New York Giants (1-6) and the Washington Football Team (2-5) — plus the winless New York Jets (0-7) during Weeks 12 through 15. Those five teams have given up two or more touchdowns to an opposing quarterback in 20 of their 35 games.
There are two games left against the San Francisco 49ers (on Sunday and in Week 17), but injuries have decimated their pass rush, which should allow Wilson to work in a clean pocket for most of the game. Only Aaron Rodgers (16) has thrown more touchdown passes than Wilson (14) from a clean pocket, per Pro Football Focus, and no one has a higher touchdown rate than Wilson when not facing pressure (12 percent).
This isn’t to say it will be easy for Wilson to break Manning’s single-season passing touchdown record, but it isn’t far-fetched, either. To estimate Wilson’s projected touchdown rates against each of his remaining opponents, we can regress his performance to the mean to adjust for the small sample size of games played and then make another adjustment by comparing how each defense fares relative to the league average. To project passing attempts, we can use each opponent’s passing rates allowed. By this method, there is a 32 percent chance Wilson breaks Manning’s record. That includes an 11 percent chance he obliterates the record by throwing 60 or more touchdowns.