Russell Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He has exceptional arm strength and passing accuracy, is one of the league’s most dynamic running quarterbacks and has the leadership skills and football IQ of a ten-year NFL veteran.
But the second-year starter, who will lead the Seattle Seahawks against the Denver Broncos in Sunday’s Super Bowl, has been down-graded his entire quarterbacking life because of a single physical characteristic: his height.
Generously listed at 5'11", Wilson is the shortest starting quarterback in the National Football League. Wilson’s height was the primary reason he dropped to the third round before being selected with the 75th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. But it also may be part of the reason he is flourishing now.
Wilson put together an impressive college career. He starred at both North Carolina State and the University of Wisconsin, where, as a senior, he led the Badgers to the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl just six months after arriving on campus.
Wilson set a college football record by throwing 379 consecutive passes without an interception. He set another record with a passing efficiency of 192, and finished ninth in the voting of the Heisman Trophy his senior year.
But on Draft Day, none of that mattered nearly as much as his height. Whenever Wilson’s name came up in draft discussions, all anyone could talk about was his relatively short stature. “The only issue with Russell Wilson is his height,” ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden said. “That might be the reason he’s not picked in the first couple rounds.” Former NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke said of Wilson, “If he was 6–5, he’d probably be the No. 1 pick in the draft.”
Five feet-eleven inches may not seem that short. It’s taller than the average man on the street. And there are plenty of Pro Bowl-caliber players who stand much shorter than Wilson. But it has become gospel among NFL scouts, general managers and coaches that NFL quarterbacks must be at least six feet tall to succeed, and preferably in the 6'4" to 6'6" range.
To understand just how pervasive this mindset is, here is a list of every quarterback drafted in the 2011 and 2012 drafts and their heights.
Robert Griffin III
Out of 22 quarterbacks drafted in those two drafts, every one of them stood at least two inches taller than Wilson.
Wilson understood that height was the reason he was drafted so late. “No, I wasn’t surprised at all,” he told a Wisconsin radio station when asked if he was surprised by being a mid-round draft pick. “I’d talked to several teams and they thought I could go in the second or third round, and talent-wise, I had all the talent in the world and just, the only knock on me was my height.”
The NFL’s bias against short quarterbacks is so entrenched that only eight players shorter than Wilson have thrown an NFL pass since 1970.
It is easy to see why height is prized in quarterbacks. A quarterback needs to be able to see over his offensive linemen, who stand just a couple feet in front of him and typically range in height from 6'1" to 6'9". Quarterbacks need to be able to throw not only over the heads of their linemen but also over and around the out-stretched arms of defensive linemen, who also tend to be very tall. Teams were understandably concerned that Wilson wouldn’t be able to see the field very well and that he wouldn’t be able find throwing lanes in the pocket.
It is clear that Wilson’s height has not held him back in his first two NFL seasons. After being drafted as a back-up to high-priced free-agent Matt Flynn (6'2"), Wilson quickly surpassed Flynn to become the starter.
As a rookie, Wilson tied the NFL record for most passing touchdowns in a season with 26. In two seasons, he has completed more than 63 percent of his passes and thrown 52 touchdowns against only 19 interceptions. Most impressive, he set a league record for most wins by a quarterback in his first two seasons with 24. He has made the Pro Bowl and led his team to the playoffs both years, including to the Super Bowl this year.
It would be easy to say that Wilson has thrived despite being smaller than other QBs. But what if he has succeeded because of his short stature?
In his new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell argues that being an underdog or misfit can affect people in unexpected and underappreciated ways. “[I]t can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable,” he writes.
Gladwell discusses the idea of a “desirable difficulty”—a condition that appears to present an obstacle to one’s success but that ultimately offers him a better chance of excelling, perhaps by making him work harder or innovate in some way.
Gladwell tells the story of David Boies, a successful trial lawyer who says his dyslexia made it difficult to read but forced him to compensate by developing superior skills of observation, listening and memory.
Perhaps Wilson’s short stature can be seen as his “desirably difficulty.” It may make it harder for him to see the field. But it also allows him to elude would-be tacklers more easily than quarterbacks half a foot taller. And, while the telltale sign that a quarterback is too short is that many of his passes are batted down by defensive lineman at the line of scrimmage, Wilson doesn’t have this problem, in part because he is so adept at moving outside the pocket to find receivers on the run or to run the ball himself.
Wilson also takes great pride in having mastered the “intangibles.” His game preparation is second to none, and his on-field unflappability helps make him a great team leader.
Whatever role Wilson’s stature has played in his early NFL success, a Seahawk win on Sunday will allow him to break another NFL record: shortest quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
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