SEATTLE -- This is going to be the most critical season of Russell Wilson's career. You can hear it in the way he talks, feel it in the way he carries himself and see it deep in his eyes. The plan Wilson cultivated years ago has brought him everything he ever wanted coming into the NFL. Now he'll have to show us how he handles the most telling phase in his journey: dealing with life as a wealthy franchise quarterback.
Of all the questions Wilson has faced thus far, that is the one he has yet to answer. He's shown us that his height (5-foot-11) isn't a detriment in the league, and that he should've never been picked as low as the third round in the 2012 NFL Draft. Those challenges weren't nearly as daunting as the burdens that come with being the undisputed face of an organization. That is where he finds himself today, especially now that he has a new four-year, $87.6 million contract extension with the Seattle Seahawks in hand.
The minute Wilson signed that deal, he stopped being just one component of a highly effective formula in Seattle, one that includes a dominant running attack and a formidable defense. He became a potential lightning rod for a team hoping to sustain its success far into the future, even if he doesn't want to acknowledge that.
"It changes nothing," Wilson said earlier this month. "We're going to have a great defense. We're going to have a physical running game. We're going to have great play-action ... Ultimately, the goal [for] the quarterback position is to win football games, so that's my focus."
That sounds good, in theory. Wilson might even believe that, to a certain degree. The reality is, there isn't another franchise quarterback in the NFL who would agree that it really is that simple. It's an even harder role to assume when you're a signal caller as unique as Wilson.
Even if Wilson doesn't like thinking about how the Seahawks will retain valuable players now that he's creating a bigger dent in the salary cap -- and the list of unhappy campers seeking pay increases has been growing in that organization -- he needs to understand how much his life is going to be altered. There's already a popular perception among the public that he's a bit too disingenuous, far too reliant on cliché-filled answers in interviews and too slippery when it comes to showing people much of his identity. Wilson has done plenty to impact lives both on his team and within the Seattle community. What he hasn't faced is a public that will demand to know increasingly more about who he really is.
Wilson appears ready to show people a little more of himself, as his deep religious faith already is opening him up to increased scrutiny. Wilson generated plenty of attention this offseason when he spoke at The Rock Church in San Diego and uttered two eye-opening revelations. The first was that he and his new girlfriend, R&B singer Ciara, are abstaining from sex as long as they aren't married. The other was that God spoke to him after he threw that loss-clinching interception against New England in Super Bowl XLIX.
Now, a caveat: Wilson has the right to believe whatever the hell he wants. This is still America, and we don't spend any time wondering about the beliefs of Andrew Luck or Tom Brady. The bigger question here is whether the general public is ready to deal with a star quarterback who is willing to be so incredibly open about his spirituality. Kurt Warner is the only celebrated signal caller in recent memory to have pulled that feat off -- you can throw Tim Tebow into that group, if you want to add players who didn't thrive at the position -- and he never faced the kind of media scrutiny that is building around Wilson.
It's also apparent that Wilson's growing success is making him even more comfortable with opening up that side of his life for public inspection.
"I think you constantly grow," Wilson said. "I'm constantly trying to progress, to figure out life more and more. ... I never try to force my religion or my faith or anything like that. I just try to love people through my faith, love people the way that God would love people and try to encourage other people. ... I don't think I need to be shy about it."
Wilson is venturing into highly unpredictable waters with this approach. This is a man who, like most celebrity signal callers in the NFL, likes to control nearly every aspect of his public life. During his first three seasons, Wilson carefully managed his image as a good-hearted underdog hell-bent on touching as many lives as possible. Now that he's a full-fledged rock star who's even more driven to make the world a better place, the public is going to pounce on everything he does. Wilson already has faced criticism for endorsing Reliant Recovery Water, a concoction that he both invests in and sells as being capable of healing injuries.
A recent Sports Illustrated story reported that a rift had developed between Seattle's offensive and defensive players last season, one that nearly threatened to decapitate the team's hopes of making a second straight Super Bowl appearance. As the story noted, Wilson arranged an offseason trip to Maui so his teammates could air their gripes and strengthen their relationships.
It's critical to understand that the Hawaii excursion wasn't just a chance for Wilson to connect with his offensive teammates. He had gathered those players in Southern California after his first two seasons in order to train and build chemistry on the field. Inviting the entire team served as Wilson's first major attempt to take control of a franchise that is destined to be his for the foreseeable future. He was basically doing what Seahawks broadcast analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon has long advised him to do: letting his own teammates see a little bit more of who he really is.
The one thing we know moving forward is that Wilson has the skill level to be an elite quarterback. Even though the Seahawks haven't asked him to do much in the passing game, he possesses the play-making ability and mental toughness to grow into a quarterback who might someday have to throw 600 passes in a season. It's easy to forget now that New England's Tom Brady was once a young game manager who benefitted from a reliable running attack and a tough defense before evolving into a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. It's also important to remember that Brady had to learn to manage his own celebrity after surprising the world with his success.
The real test for Wilson will come in managing his missionary zeal; he can't keep trying to touch lives without exposing himself more to the public. In fact, most quarterbacks tend to avoid revealing much of their personal lives, simply because the job already has enough distractions built in. That, however, doesn't appear to be a concern that will impact Wilson moving forward.
He's chosen the path he wants to walk. The key for him now is realizing how rocky that road could become in the future.