Simmering tension, a ‘declining player’ and a public breakup: Inside Seattle’s trade of Russell Wilson

Sports

SEATED NEXT TO his wife and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a luxury suite at Raymond James Stadium, Russell Wilson watched Super Bowl LV and stewed.

To Wilson, who was in Tampa, Florida, to receive his Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, the game was an unsettling reminder of what he wanted and didn’t have, of where his career was after nine seasons with the Seattle Seahawks as compared to the quarterbacks on the field before him. On one side, there was Tom Brady getting hit twice all night, winning his seventh Super Bowl at age 43 and doing it with a collection of marquee players, several of whom the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had signed at his request. On the other side, there was Patrick Mahomes throwing 49 times in a pass-happy Kansas City Chiefs offense that had helped him win an MVP.

“You play this game to be the best in the world,” Wilson would say on “The Dan Patrick Show” two days after that Super Bowl in February 2021. “You know what I hate: I hate sitting there watching other guys play the game. There’s nothing worse.”

Wilson was frustrated. And in his mind, it was time to do something about it.

In an interview with Patrick and on a Zoom call set up to discuss his Man of the Year honor, Wilson made those frustrations public. In a 180-degree turnaround from his usual news conference puffery, he vented about pass protection and a perceived lack of say in personnel decisions relative to other elite quarterbacks. He made multiple mentions of his legacy and said the nearly 400 times he’d been sacked in his career — the most in a player’s first nine seasons since the 1970 merger, per ESPN Stats & Information — was “way too many.”

The Super Bowl, Wilson’s comments and the trade conversations that followed proved to be the most significant flashpoints in the yearslong fraying of his relationship with the Seahawks.

Thirteen months later, Seattle traded Wilson to the Denver Broncos along with a 2022 fourth-round pick in exchange for Drew Lock, Shelby Harris, Noah Fant, Denver’s first- and second-rounders in each of the next two drafts as well a 2022 fifth-rounder. One of the biggest blockbuster trades in NFL history sets up Monday night’s Week 1 reunion (8:15 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN+) at Seattle’s Lumen Field, where Wilson and the Broncos will face the Seahawks and his former backup Geno Smith.

People at the heart of the Wilson-Seahawks breakup — including those close to the quarterback and members of Seattle’s front office, coaching staff and players — described to ESPN how a dysfunctional situation built toward its eventual breaking point. Wilson wanted out, believing coach Pete Carroll and the organization were holding him back. And with their own misgivings about how his game was aging, the Seahawks lost faith in Wilson, just as he had lost faith in them.

“From my vantage point,” said former Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, a teammate of Wilson’s for seven seasons, “the divorce was inevitable and was many years in the making. The reasons are multiple, but ultimately, I think it comes down to a difference of pursuits.”


LEADING UP TO an October 2019 game at the Atlanta Falcons, Wilson’s fast start had made him one of the prime early-season contenders for MVP, an award he badly wanted to win. With the Baltimore Ravens and eventual winner Lamar Jackson on a bye, this was Wilson’s chance to pull ahead. He threw two touchdowns as the Seahawks jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead but attempted only five passes in the second half.

Afterward, according to a source who spoke with the quarterback, Wilson was livid at how Carroll had taken his foot off the gas, believing it had cost him a chance to grab hold of the MVP race.

Wilson would find himself back in the early-season MVP conversation a year later. The Seahawks went into the 2020 campaign with the plan to lean more on Wilson’s arm, much to the delight of the quarterback and fans who had backed “Let Russ Cook,” a social media movement and catchphrase that Wilson would later trademark for charitable purposes.

“Going into Year 9, I’m trying to break away,” Wilson said, mentioning four of the all-time greats whose company he wanted to join: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Joe Montana. “I want to be the best in the world to ever do this.”

With Carroll and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer running the offense through Wilson more than ever, he tossed 19 touchdowns to three interceptions during a 5-0 start to claim undisputed status as the early MVP front-runner.

“I don’t want a vote,” Wilson said, alluding to the fact he hasn’t received any in his career. “I think more importantly, I want to win. Obviously, MVP is a special award.”

The fact Wilson hasn’t received a vote for MVP is partly a function of the balloting process, as each of 50 voters make a single pick. But it didn’t help that he was operating one of the NFL’s more run-heavy systems. Since his rookie season, the Seahawks have been 29th in designed pass-play rate. They’re 21st since 2015, when Wilson signed his first megadeal.

Wilson’s lead on winning his first MVP in 2020 quickly faded when the prolific stretch gave way to the worst turnover funk of his career. Wilson committed 10 over the next four games, and with their defense also faltering, the Seahawks went 1-3.

One of Wilson’s seven interceptions in that stretch came in a loss at the Los Angeles Rams in Week 10. Trailing by a touchdown, he scrambled to his right and had a massive swath of empty turf in front of him. He bypassed the rushing yards, uncorking a deep heave back across the field that was picked off in the end zone.

“What are we doing here?” one source in the Seahawks’ front office remembers thinking at the time. “Are we trying to win games or are we trying to win MVP?”

Carroll had enough of the turnovers. He pulled the plug on “Let Russ Cook” and reverted to the formula that was ingrained deep within the then-69-year-old coach. After dropping back to pass more than any team over the first 10 weeks, the Seahawks ranked 15th in designed pass rate over the final seven.

“Early on [this season] when we didn’t have to run the ball much because we were rolling throwing the football, those guys were out there and we almost took it for granted,” Carroll told reporters as he signaled the shift back. “I’m disappointed about that because that’s the element of our football that makes us this style of team that we are, and it makes Russ’ job different than it is when he has to throw the ball 40 times or 50 times. He certainly can do it and loves doing it and we don’t mind doing it, but our football is better shaped when we’re balanced and we’re attacking you and we can play off of that. It fits the defense; it fits the special teams. It’s the statement of the way we play.”

The Seahawks won their final four regular-season games to take the NFC West, only to suffer another early playoff exit when the Rams’ defense overwhelmed them in the wild-card round. Wilson threw a pick-six, was sacked five times and was pressured on half his dropbacks. Afterward, Carroll lamented how Wilson didn’t get the ball out quickly enough and how Schottenheimer’s playcalls didn’t put Wilson in positions to make quick decisions.

Carroll fired Schottenheimer after the season, citing philosophical differences. Two days later, the Seahawks set up a Zoom call with reporters at Wilson’s request. He praised his ousted OC and told reporters a point he said he had already made to Carroll — that he expected to have input in the hiring of his new offensive coordinator.

And he did. Seattle hired Shane Waldron with a strong endorsement from Wilson, who liked his lineage from Rams coach Sean McVay and experience with the up-tempo style. Waldron had spent the previous four seasons in an offense that was built around the run game and play-action, and now he had a quarterback with arguably the best deep ball in the NFL.

But inside team headquarters, concerns were growing about Wilson’s legs.


IN THE SPRING of 2017, Seahawks general manager John Schneider was a conspicuous attendant at Patrick Mahomes’ pro day. The GM had become so enamored with the Texas Tech quarterback that Seattle would have taken him had he been available late in the first round, multiple team sources said. The massive gamble on an unproven quarterback would have carried an obvious benefit: flexibility to build the roster around a cheap rookie contract the way Seattle had done during Wilson’s first three seasons when the Seahawks won one Super Bowl and nearly a second.

A year after eyeing Mahomes, Schneider attended Josh Allen‘s Wyoming pro day, a repeat move that raised eyebrows among observers and ruffled feathers inside Wilson’s camp. Why would Schneider travel to far-flung campuses to scout quarterbacks when he already had one building a Hall of Fame résumé as a Super Bowl champion and perennial Pro Bowler? Wilson, 29 at the time, was coming off a season in which he led the NFL in touchdown passes with 34, then his career high.

Schneider had an explanation. He was working in the Green Bay Packers‘ front office when Aaron Rodgers unexpectedly fell to them late in the first round in 2005. That experience, plus his and Carroll’s oft-cited promise to leave no stone unturned in player evaluation, meant Schneider had to do his homework on quarterback prospects. Schneider’s in-season schedule kept him from attending any of Mahomes’ or Allen’s games, so the pro day was his chance to see them throw live.

Wilson’s camp had a different view.

“They were f—ing pissed,” a Seahawks’ front-office source said.

Then came the clearest sign yet to Wilson’s camp that Seattle’s interest in other quarterbacks was something more than due diligence. The Seahawks, according to someone in Wilson’s camp and the Seahawks’ front office, called the Cleveland Browns before the 2018 draft to discuss a trade that would have swapped Wilson for the No. 1 overall pick. Wilson’s agent, Mark Rodgers, found out.

The Browns weren’t interested, but Seattle’s flirtation motivated Rodgers to secure a no-trade clause when he negotiated Wilson’s four-year, $140 million extension the following April.

Unlike with Wilson’s 2015 extension, talks among Rodgers, Schneider and Seahawks vice president of player administration Matt Thomas didn’t drag into the summer, with Wilson and Rodgers setting an April 15 deadline for a deal. Without one, Wilson’s side said he would play the final season of his deal, with the plan to go year to year on the franchise tag then hit free agency, a tactic that landed quarterback Kirk Cousins a record contract with the Minnesota Vikings the year before.

The no-trade clause put Wilson’s deal over the finish line in the middle of the night. In exchange for the Seahawks preserving the right to use the franchise tag at the end of his extension, Wilson got protection in the event the team wanted to move on — and a measure of control if he wanted out.


AFTER WILSON SIGNED the four-year, $140 million extension that made him the highest paid player in NFL history at the time, the Seahawks held a news conference at team headquarters. Dozens of teammates and Seahawks employees filled the seats inside the auditorium in what felt like a celebratory atmosphere. Wilson donned a Seattle SuperSonics jacket over his shirt and tie while posing for pictures alongside family. Then, with Carroll and Schneider seated on each side of him, Wilson told the crowd that he wanted to be “a Seahawk for life.”

The joyous moment belied building tension. Between a run-heavy offense, Wilson’s mounting sack total and Seattle’s waning playoff success, the quarterback and those close to him began to believe the Seahawks weren’t doing enough to help get him in his desired place among the game’s all-time elite.

For example, the 2017 season ended in disappointment when they didn’t put the ball in Wilson’s hands with their Week 17 game on the line, trusting struggling kicker Blair Walsh instead. Walsh missed what would have been the winning field goal from 48 yards out after conservative playcalling necessitated the long attempt. The Seahawks finished 9-7, and Wilson missed the playoffs for the first time in his career.

When they were ousted in the wild-card round the following year, Mark Rodgers called the team and voiced his objection to sticking with an ineffective run game. The 2019 season ended with a divisional-round loss that followed a similar script. The 2020 wild-card loss to the Rams made it six straight seasons in which the Seahawks failed to get back to the NFC Championship Game since nearly repeating as champions in Super Bowl XLIX. According to sources both in Wilson’s camp and with the Seahawks, Wilson asked team brass after the Rams loss how they were going to address one of his biggest frustrations: the offensive line.

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Marcus Spears breaks down why the Russell Wilson extension puts the Broncos back in “Peyton Manning mode” in their chase for a Lombardi Trophy.

During Wilson’s 10 seasons with the Seahawks, they ranked last in the NFL by a wide margin in pressure rate, which measures the percentage of offensive dropbacks in which a quarterback is sacked, hit or put under duress. They fared better in recent seasons in ESPN’s pass block win rate, which measures how often blocks are sustained for at least 2.5 seconds. Since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2017, Seattle has finished as high as third (2018) and as low as 28th (2019).

With Seattle opting for value in free agency over big-money additions, Wilson’s camp believed the Seahawks were getting what they paid for — or didn’t pay for — up front. The way the Seahawks saw it, the leaguewide dearth of quality offensive linemen meant that the best ones who hit free agency got vastly overpaid, making them a luxury Seattle couldn’t afford with Wilson’s contract and those of their other stars taking a huge chunk of their cap.

Over Wilson’s first three seasons, while he was playing on his rookie contract, the Seahawks ranked between fourth and ninth in percentage of cap dollars spent on their offensive line, according to Roster Management System. In the seven seasons since he signed his first megadeal in 2015, they’ve ranked in the top 20 once and were among the bottom five three times.

Wilson, according to a source close to him, didn’t get a clear answer from the Seahawks on how they planned to improve their offensive line, prompting him to take his frustrations public after the Super Bowl. According to team and NFL sources, Wilson’s comments angered Seattle’s linemen — left tackle Duane Brown would later express as much to reporters — and team brass. Carroll and Schneider were caught off guard, believing all was well after they had worked together to hire Waldron.

With the NFL world buzzing, the Seahawks made no public attempt to tamp down the story, instead letting Wilson sit with the firestorm he created. In the meantime, Schneider and Rodgers began discussing potential trade destinations and, according to sources on both sides, had a heated exchange about which teams would be in play.

In late February 2021, hours after The Athletic published a story detailing the Wilson-Seahawks rift, Rodgers dropped an on-the-record bombshell. He told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that while Wilson hadn’t requested a trade, he’d waive his no-trade clause to play for four teams: the Las Vegas Raiders, New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears.

While a trade never came to fruition, the message had been sent to the rest of the NFL: Wilson was open to playing elsewhere.

Carroll, though, had no interest in letting him go. Their football differences aside, he had backed Wilson from the get-go — first making the bold decision to name him the starter as a third-round rookie in 2012 over free-agent addition Matt Flynn, then sticking by Wilson amid his early-season growing pains despite public criticism that Seattle was wasting a championship-caliber defense. As detailed in a 2017 ESPN The Magazine story by Seth Wickersham, Seahawks defenders grew resentful in later years over their belief that Carroll gave Wilson preferential treatment.

And now, according to a front-office source, Carroll was staunchly opposed to the idea of trading his franchise quarterback, believing that he could manage the drama and Wilson’s declining mobility. With final say over personnel decisions, Carroll’s view was the one that mattered most. But his stance would eventually soften.

“He’s a great pro, he’s a veteran, he shows up, leader — all that stuff — every single day,” a Seahawks front-office source said of Wilson and the resistance among some in the organization to trade him. “So yeah, it took a while.”

Then, after the 2021 season, Wilson and Carroll discussed the possibility of a trade.

“That’s when s— got real,” a front-office source said.


BY THIS POINT, some within the Seahawks believed Wilson’s best days were behind him. Their concern wasn’t with the finger injury that had sidelined him for three games in 2021. Some believed Wilson’s escapability — one of the traits that made him an elite quarterback worthy of elite money — was waning.

“He’s not as mobile as he used to be,” said one source in the Seahawks’ front office.

One notable play from last season that helped fuel that belief came in the Seahawks’ Week 16 loss to the visiting Bears. Leading by seven points midway through the fourth quarter, Wilson took a shotgun snap on third down and had a clean pocket but no options that he liked. Wilson scrambled out of the back side with his patented spin move. But there would be no magical escape. Robert Quinn dropped him for a 13-yard sack. The ensuing, longer missed field goal and defensive collapse resulted in a loss that eliminated the Seahawks from playoff contention for the second time in Wilson’s career.

Carroll chided Wilson’s decision, saying in his postgame news conference: “We can’t take a sack there.”

Wilson saw things differently: “I was trying to play ball like I know how to do and always do …”

The dueling explanations highlighted the disconnect between how Wilson wants to play and how Carroll wanted him to play. But the sack itself exemplified how, to some in the organization, Wilson was declining.

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Mike Tannenbaum and Jeremy Fowler think that the Broncos made the right decision to lock down Russell Wilson.

“I just felt like he’s a descending player,” another front-office source said, citing the same mobility concern. “Is he going to be able to be a true pocket passer at the end of his career and just stand there and drop the ball off to his checkdowns? He’s never done that. I can’t tell you he’s going to be able to do that.”

Over his past 25 games, Wilson’s 57.7 Total QBR ranks 11th among qualified quarterbacks. He was fifth at 71.1 in his 25 games before that. In a polling of NFL executives, scouts, coaches and players done by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Wilson ranked as the eighth-best quarterback for 2022, down four spots from last year.

“It’s going to get more and more difficult for him to create and do what he used to do … I do think that’s going to be harder,” said former Seahawks quarterback Brock Huard, who co-hosted a radio show on Seattle Sports Station 710-AM during most of Wilson’s career with the Seahawks. “Is that going to hit in 2022? Probably not. I think this will likely be one of his best years for the Broncos. But will he slow down in ’23, ’24, ’25? Yes.

“The guys that have endured and changed the threshold and played into their 40s — Brady, Brees — they played a different game than Russell plays. They play a game totally from the pocket and have done that the entirety of their career. That’s not necessarily Russell’s game.”

With Wilson’s 2019 extension running through 2023, the Seahawks were a year away from another negotiation. They knew that quarterback prices were set to skyrocket, which they did with extensions for Aaron Rodgers (who signed for three years and $150 million), Kyler Murray (five years, $230.5 million) and Deshaun Watson (five years, $230 million fully guaranteed).

“So those two things,” a source in the Seahawks’ front office said. “A declining player and then what the ask was going to be the next time, which would have been his third time. It’s like, ‘No, let’s play really good defense, let’s run the s— out of the ball. That’s how we won a world championship.’ That’s what we’ve kept going back to.”

Not everyone in the organization believed Wilson is declining. Two Seahawks coaches pointed to the same play from last season as a counter example. During an October win at the San Francisco 49ers, Wilson spun out of a would-be sack, scrambled to his right and, with his feet unset, threw a rope some 30 yards in the air for a touchdown.

“The 4.5 speed where he’s scrambling and now he’s running down the field for big chunks of yards, that might not come anymore,” one Seahawks coach said. “But the feel for pocket presence, he’s always going to have that. … I have no reservation in saying that Russ is going to continue to compete with his style, and then as that begins to slow down a little bit, I think he’ll adjust. That’s just who he is. He finds a way to win.”

After shaking off the rust from his finger injury, Wilson led the NFL in Total QBR over the final two games of 2021. His eight combined touchdowns included a 4-yard rushing score.


BY DECEMBER, WITH the Seahawks headed toward their worst finish since 2009, Wilson’s uncertain future was again a hot topic. On the Thursday before the Seahawks’ home finale in Week 17, Wilson told reporters: “I know for me, personally, I hope it’s not my last game, but at the same time, I know it won’t be my last game in the NFL.” The comment was unprompted and glossed over an obvious fact: Wilson’s no-trade clause could assure him of remaining in Seattle.

“I think he was trying to get across that it was a very real possibility that he could be gone at the end of the year, and not just indications on how he was feeling, himself, but how the organization was, as well,” a source close to Wilson said. “I think that both sides kind of knew at that point, not necessarily that it was going to go down that path, but it was a very real possibility.”

“I always thought Pete was not going to be OK with it. Like it would just be tough for him, because Russ was Pete’s guy for a long time.”

A Seahawks front-office source, on Seattle coach Pete Carroll’s initial feelings about trading Russell Wilson

Wilson had his best game of the season in January against the visiting Detroit Lions, tossing four touchdowns and looking like himself for the first time since his finger injury. He was the last player off the field, lingering well after the final whistle. He flapped both arms to the sky as he walked off, eliciting a roar from the fans who had stuck around and gathered near the exit into the home locker room. He stopped to sign a few autographs before disappearing into the tunnel.

Some in the organization doubted it would really be the last time, believing the 70-year-old Carroll wouldn’t want to part ways with Wilson and start over with a young quarterback.

“I always thought Pete was not going to be OK with it,” a source from the Seahawks’ front office said. “Like it would just be tough for him, because Russ was Pete’s guy for a long time. Obviously, all the stuff that happened, Pete would always back Russ, that caused all that friction with the defense. So I just thought Pete would have a tough time doing it.

“But things change.”

The Seahawks received calls from the Broncos and several other teams, including the Saints, New York Giants and Washington Commanders. They knew Wilson wanted Denver, according to a front-office source, but kept New Orleans involved in the bidding so the Broncos would have to compete against another offer.

Schneider later apologized to the Saints and other teams who had called, having told them they weren’t trading Wilson. Denver was Wilson’s only option and Schneider’s preferred choice, because Drew Lock was the quarterback Schneider wanted in return. Schneider met with Broncos GM George Paton at the Senior Bowl in early February and again at the scouting combine in Indianapolis a month later. At the combine, Carroll told reporters in carefully chosen wording that the team had “no intention” of trading Wilson.

But the deal was soon done.

When the trade became official a week later, the Seahawks released statements from Carroll, Schneider and de facto team owner Jody Allen, all making a clear mention of how Wilson wanted out. Then, in a news conference at team headquarters, Carroll defended his since-scrutinized comment from the combine and said that a better-than-expected offer from Denver turned the tide.

“I’ve said a million times to you guys that I have had no intention of moving on with the quarterback,” Carroll said. “I love Russ and loved him in the program. That’s the way I was committed to doing it, and I felt that way all the way throughout. The opportunity became available …

“To me, it’s not about blaming anybody or forcing the issue in any way in particular. Everybody had to agree to this eventually, and we did.”

On Thursday, the Broncos committed to Wilson with a five-year, $245 million extension that includes $165 million in guaranteed money, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

“To be able to get this done before the season, to have it all done, is just a blessing,” Wilson said at a news conference following the extension. “And it allows us all to be excited.

“It’s so important to me … to me what it’s about is to be able to win championships and have enough space on the salary cap so George [Paton] can work his magic and we can get guys like Randy Gregory … and other great players. We want to make this a destination location.”

A place for Wilson to build his legacy.

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