Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Prince, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and the Difficulty of Comparisons

Russell Wilson is short by NFL QB standards but matched with the right offense, there is a place for him in the league. Photo by Seth Youngblood.

Russell Wilson to Compete for Seahawks Starting Gig Now

Apparently, I was wrong about Russell Wilson. I thought he’d compete for the starting job next year – not right now.

I’ve been talking about Wilson’s potential as a future starter before the draft at in my Futures column. Wilson had an off-the-charts Lewin Career Forecast score (highest ever as an indicator of potential success in the NFL), which my colleagues at Outsiders consequently labeled with an asterisk because history accurately demonstrated that quarterbacks with Wilson’s height aren’t drafted in the first three rounds as potential starters. I decided to take a bit of the different approach and “Study the Asterisk.” Click the link above and learn why Pete Carroll and the Seahawks saw Wilson as a future starter, why his game translates, and why the comparisons to Drew Brees aren’t silly.

The Nature of Player Comps

Speaking of player comparisons, I think it is important to talk about them. There are a lot of opinions about the value of comparisons. When done well, comps can be a great way to convey a lot of information in a brief description.

When I sit at a table with’s Chad Reuter and National Football Post’s Wes Bunting and I say Bengals receiver Marvin Jones stylistically reminds me of Packers veteran Donald Driver, I don’t usually have to say anything more. I know they get it because we have learned through conversation that we all have a similar approach when it comes to the frequency, intensity, and subtlety of our game study.

I can’t say the same thing about most people because I don’t know them, their knowledge of the game, or their viewing habits. A player comp can engender a wide span of positive, negative, or confused reactions. I think the best way to begin talking about comparisons is to define how I do it.

Horn section, bass line, funk beats and layers of rhythms of the song above are very James Brown…

Comparisons to me are stylistic in nature. Music is a great example. It is clear that Prince has influences from James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. However, if I simply say Prince sounds like James Brown on a song, its human nature to want to compare the skill level. A common reaction from someone hearing that comparison is Prince isn’t nearly as good as the Godfather of Soul or James Brown is good, but Prince is a genius!

Here’s Prince doing his arrangement of “Red House” in a tribute to Jimmy Hendrix, but with a very strong flavor of B.B. King during the intro.

What also makes this problematic is that Prince has several other influences beyond Brown and Hendrix. It’s rarely going to be an exact comparison (at least I hope not – otherwise I wouldn’t be interested in listening to a musician that sounds like a carbon copy – I’d just prefer to listen to the original). People who compare Robert Griffin III to Michael Vick are sometimes chided for making an intellectually lazy effort.

I see a lot Vick in Griffin’s game. Both operate with a great deal of quickness in their drops and play fakes. Both can get too frenetic with their movements under pressure. And both can make all-arm throws with the required velocity that I’ve only seen a player like Cutler (insert Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, or Matt Stafford if you wish…) only capable of approaching. However, I also see some of Steve Young’s and Aaron Rodgers’ pocket presence and maneuverability in tight quarters.

Whether Griffin studied Young or Rodgers doesn’t matter. I’ve seen interviews of musicians who say they never listened to a performer that they’ve been compared but regardless, they share striking stylistic similarities. Rams runner Isaiah Pead told me and another reporter at the Senior Bowl that when he was in high school he heard comparisons of his style to Gale Sayers. Pead had to look up Sayers to see what they meant. However, when I watched Pead, I could see the hip flexibility and the light-footed, gliding style reminiscent of the Kansas Comet.

That leads to the next point, I view comparisons as descriptors of style rather than skill. I may see Pead’s similarities to Sayers, but I’m not saying he’s as good. Pead can develop into a starter – perhaps a 1300-yard runner – and still not be as good as Sayers. Justin Timberlake is a successful singer, but he’s not as good as Stevie Wonder just because I can see similarities in style between some of Timberlake’s solo efforts and Wonder’s works from the `70s.

People don’t naturally think about these things when they hear player comparisons. If they did, the idea that Toby Gerhart and Jamal Lewis have a fair basis for comparison wouldn’t spawn a negative or confused take. Gerhart lacks Lewis’ breakaway speed, but his agility, power, and build give the Vikings runner a style that looks similar. Effectiveness is a secondary factor in the equation.

In the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, I try to compare a player on a spectrum that references at least two established pros. I also attempted to provide some level of separation that intuitive explains my view of the gap in effectiveness between the subject and the compared players. It’s difficult to convey subtlety in shorthand, but hopefully, this provides a little more insight into my thought process.

Do these passing lanes look narrow to you? There’s a reason they don’t. Photo by eschipul.

Russell Wilson and Drew Brees

Reading what I explained above, the Wilson and Brees comparisons are more about style than skill. However, I will add that Wilson’s skill potential is good enough to make him a good pro and therefore he isn’t as far from Brees as many want to believe. Certainly, if you’re viewing a subject through an atomic microscope rather than a magnifying glass, the perspective can be worlds different, but from the perspective of NFL starting quarterback or NFL reserve, it’s close.

Brees and Wilson are both strong improvisers, mobile, throw receivers open, demonstrate underrated athleticism, and great leadership. Both benefit when the offense moves them around to keep passing lanes wide. This doesn’t have mean the team has to roll away from the pocket. As my “Studying The Asterisk” piece illustrates, the Saints use half-rolls and play fakes to create passing lanes while keeping Brees in the pocket and not limiting his ability to access the entire field.

The problem with comparing Wilson to Brees is that it is a label that sets up the Seahawks rookie for failure. Fans will want to see the same productivity despite the fact that Brees is in a pass-first, spread offense with control to call plays and help build the game plan. An offense that also has a Pro Bowl-caliber slot receiver, All-Pro hybrid tight end, and Pro Bowl-caliber scat back. If Wilson wins the starting job, he’ll be manning a Seattle unit that doesn’t spread the field as much, is run-first in nature and lacks the same caliber of skill talent.

If all of us had the ability to watch Brees during the Tomlinson era in San Diego, I think the comparison would be easier for most to see. However, back then many people didn’t think Brees was good enough to become a long-term starting quarterback. He was too short, his arm was too weak, and he didn’t come out of the gate looking like a world beater. Wilson has a stronger arm and more athleticism, but anything less than a rookie year comparable to Matt Ryan will generate skepticism.

My take? Wilson was my No.4 QB in the 2012 RSP and from a fantasy football perspective, I drafted him in three of four dynasty leagues. Enough said.

7 responses to “Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Prince, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and the Difficulty of Comparisons”

  1. nice writeup. i agree completely its unfortunate the people who need to read this will probably skip over it

  2. This is a situation primed to screw Tavaris Jackson. The Seahawks are not a team that’s going anywhere, and as such, Matt Flynn will be handed the reins and given the opportunity to succeed. There are 10 million guaranteed reasons. There’s every reason to expect the battle for backup to stretch deep into camp. Deep enough that, when Wilson wins, Jackson will have trouble just hooking up somewhere like Miami.

    Interesting to note that Flynn has never been the starter anywhere post high school. We know he’s got a two game resumé in the NFL. Wilson, on the other hand, starts everywhere he goes. He took Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl in his only season at the school. If Flynn is ever hurt, he might never get back on the field. If he doesn’t excel, Wilson will get the opportunity.

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