The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russell Wilson wanted more. Now he has to salvage whatever he can.

Russell Wilson before an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that continued his troublesome start in Denver. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
7 min

The myth of Russell Wilson is dying. What’s left of it probably will be gone by season’s end, and good riddance. As painful as it is to watch Wilson play poorly and endure ridicule that betrays his character, he is desperate for an image reset that his brazen pursuit of more fame won’t allow.

Wilson has spent more than a decade in the NFL winning, thrilling and turning his underdog story into an iconic tale. With a Houdini act that may take him to the Hall of Fame, he redefined the modern-day possibilities for quarterbacks under 6 feet tall. He attained celebrity in a largely faceless game. Yet for all his good traits and good deeds, his ascension came with a perception of inauthenticity that fuels those who mock him now. It’s not that they are rooting for him to fail. They are sneering at the awkwardness of a man who has abandoned self-awareness.

The football struggles are concerning enough for Wilson, who will miss only his fourth game in 11 seasons Sunday because of a hamstring injury. He forced a trade to the Denver Broncos, and he has debuted there with the worst six-game stretch of his career. But he’s still straining to be funny in strange commercials that seem like unintentional parodies. And on his social media accounts, long tolerated only because he is a wonderful quarterback, Wilson presents himself like the caricature of an icon rather than a real person.

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Much of stardom is mythology, and people who exist in it for a long time must reconcile their public and private lives. It seems almost impossible to do so during times of great success. So the failure Wilson has experienced early this season is both the longest predicament of his pro football career and an opportunity, finally, to disentangle from the constraints of his own legend.

Wilson can play better, and he will play better. But there is no way back to the likability he enjoyed with the Seattle Seahawks. He is something different now: naked in ambition, diminished in popularity, exposed in Denver. Instead of acclaim, the most valuable thing Wilson can seek is identity. He is challenged now to truly find himself, if he’s still capable.

There is nothing wrong with such a humbling, unless you’re the Broncos, who traded three players and five draft picks to acquire Wilson and then signed him to a five-year, $245 million contract extension before he took a regular season snap in orange and blue. Denver is 2-4 with its new quarterback despite possessing a defense that has yielded just six touchdowns in six games. The Broncos have the worst scoring offense in the NFL (15.2 points per game), and they average only 329.3 yards. It’s so bad that Wilson no longer ends his interviews with his silly pet phrase, “Broncos Country, let’s ride!”

The Broncos have 11 more games to make something out of this mess, and after that they will have six more seasons with Wilson under contract. The extension came with $165 million in guaranteed money. The franchise and quarterback are wedded to each other, and while it looks like a disastrous deal right now, it’s too soon to declare Wilson done as an impact player. He works too hard. He has too much self-possession. But Wilson, a month from turning 34, is at the caboose of his prime, and that’s being optimistic.

Combine his first six games in Denver with his final 1½ seasons in Seattle, and there is evidence over a significant sample size that he is not the same quarterback who won a championship at age 25 and later carried Pete Carroll’s post-Super Bowl Seahawks.

But in another sense, Wilson hasn’t changed, not mentally. He hasn’t evolved. He became the star he longed to be, but beneath it all, he hasn’t grown into himself. And that problem now holds back the player and deteriorates his public persona.

Early in his career, it was charming to learn about the 5-foot-11 kid whose late father instilled an expectation of greatness in him. It was fascinating to watch Wilson fulfill that vision. He was groomed to be a standout quarterback and a prototypical role model, right down to his polished interviews in which, somehow, he reveals little in a charismatic way. He was groomed to aspire without limitation, to change lives with his example. But while his far-reaching impact earned him a Super Bowl ring and a Walter Payton Man of the Year award, Wilson is burdened by dissatisfaction.

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There is never enough greatness to settle him. That mentality propelled him to elite NFL status. But a lack of restraint actually stunts his personal growth because it comes with an unhealthy amount of self-importance. His Seahawks departure is complicated and full of blame on both sides, and while Wilson wasn’t necessarily wrong to pursue change, it’s possible that he may have both ruined his once-pristine reputation in Seattle and expedited his demise as a relevant player.

Wilson sought to leave Seattle partly because he wanted to have more autonomy and play in a more creative offensive system. But he failed to recognize that he limited himself by lacking trust and operating in the same style despite having three offensive coordinators in 10 seasons with the Seahawks.

In Denver, Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett, the first-year Broncos coach, have spoken like they function as peers, far from the typical coach-player dynamic. This partnership has resulted in a rookie coach who hasn’t established control, a new quarterback who hasn’t played within himself and an offense that has been neither entertaining nor reliable.

“I’ve been playing this game for a long time and kind of know what’s coming and what’s happening,” Wilson told Denver reporters Thursday when asked about missing open receivers. “[I’m] seeing the game well. I think ultimately, it’s just all of us meshing together, all of us still learning together. I mean, that’s the part that you work at every day. That’s the magic of it all.”

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Moving forward, the Broncos will need to pair Wilson with a head coach more up to the task than the overwhelmed Hackett, who figures to be a one-and-done bust. And the coach-QB dynamic, whether the Broncos woo Sean Payton or turn to another veteran strategist, must go back to being a traditional one.

Wilson is in a career phase that demands he streamline his entire approach to achieve the longevity he wants. It’s a less-is-more period: economize motion on the field, take more calculated risks, prioritize the mental game over the physical, trust the rest of the team better. Do everything smarter. Respect that time always wins and the goal now is to extend success, however that looks.

There are plenty of star quarterbacks in decline who have led winning teams and produced at a Pro Bowl level. But to overcome limitation, Wilson must admit it to himself. If he’s paying attention, it should be clear.

Just like he reduced the significance of his height, Wilson needs to understand that he can’t do it all anymore. His body, with an ailing shoulder and hamstring, is telling him that. His statistics, which include a poor 83.4 passer rating and just five touchdown passes, are telling him that. Denver’s record, the incessant “What’s wrong?” questions and the tepid reaction to his platitudes — they are telling him that.

For the first time since Wilson became a household name, the focus isn’t on what more he can accomplish. The concern is what he has left to salvage. Without question, the myth is dying. Now the actual man must make a decision: Vanish with it, or discover who he really is.