Russell Wilson is often praised as a man who’s disproved the myth that a team can’t win an NFL title without a quarterback taller than 6 feet.
Only in a world without the Seattle Seahawks signal caller is this not a myth. Until Wilson led Seattle to a win over Denver in last year’s Super Bowl, it was a fact.
First things first:
In the days before rookies were measured at the scouting combine, an NFL quarterback’s height was sometimes a confidential matter. Jim McMahon, who won a Super Bowl, was always listed at 6-foot-1 but occasionally confessed to being less than 6 feet tall. There were always suspicions that Hall of Fame members Johnny Unitas and Norm Van Brocklin, both also listed as 6-foot-1, were somewhat shorter than advertised. Official heights are less than reliable.
Height is, nevertheless, an immense advantage for a NFL passer, both in terms of field vision and passing angles. Want proof? No quarterback measuring at Wilson’s height of 5-foot-11 or less has been taken in the first two rounds of an NFL draft since 1953.
Only three years into his pro career, Wilson may already be no lower than No. 2 in the ranks of the best sub-6-footers ever to play his position in the NFL. If that sounds surprising, note that his competition — Doug Flutie, Eddie LeBaron, Pat Haden and a few “triple threat” passer-runners from the 1930s — isn’t particularly deep.
Atop the list — and thus Wilson’s only remaining role model — would be 5-11 Christian Adolph “Sonny” Jurgensen III, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who defied every short-QB stereotype. While smaller passers have invariably relied on mobility to compete in a world of giants, “Jurgy” was proudly immobile – a Brett Favre-type gunslinger who always felt his splendid throwing arm was equal to any challenge.
And he was usually right. Jurgensen only once rushed for more than 60 yards in a season, but he threw for 32,224 yards and 255 touchdowns during his career. Wilson, with 9,950 career yards and 72 TDs, will need many more years to catch him.
It seems unfair, however, to limit the discussion to quarterbacks who admitted to being under 6 feet tall. Adding QBs who claimed to be 6-feet-even — and assuming most of them were lying — makes the discussion more interesting.
The list of notable 6-footers includes:
• Three additional members of the Hall of Fame — Len Dawson, Fran Tarkenton and Y.A. Tittle — and Drew Brees, almost certainly a future selection.
• Three title winners — Dawson, Brees and Joe Theismann.
• Billy Kilmer, who led a team to a Super Bowl, and Michael Vick, the first player selected in the 2001 draft.
Kilmer’s 20,495 career yards rank him seventh all-time among NFL passers standing 6 feet and under.
Among passers of all heights, he ranks 101st all-time.
Wilson’s height disadvantage is very real. So is the perception that shorter quarterbacks tend to struggle in postseason games. A common thread among these shorter QBs is that they have all been occasionally characterized as players who:
(a) Couldn’t lead a team to the playoffs, or
(b) Couldn’t “win the big one” once they got there.
Tittle and Jurgensen are unique among Hall of Fame QBs in that neither of them ever participated in a playoff victory. Tittle was 0-4 in NFL Championship Games and Jurgensen was never a starter in a playoff game. Dawson lost two Super Bowls before winning Super Bowl V, but gets extra credit for winning an AFL title game as a Dallas Texan in 1962.
Tarkenton occasionally gets typecast as a passer whose weaknesses were exposed in playoff games, but there’s certainly something to be said for reaching three Super Bowls, which he did. As a playoff starter Scramblin’ Fran was 6-5 and over .500, something that can’t be said of Payton Manning (11-13), Dan Marino (8-10) and a few other taller, fairly historic NFL quarterbacks.
Wilson, 6-1 as a postseason starter, is simply doing things in professional football that no man his size has ever accomplished. When he was drafted in 2012, there was speculation he’d be moved to running back, safety or wide receiver because Seattle had just “solved” its QB problem by signing 6-2 free agent Matt Flynn.
The Seahawks, ignoring decades of evidence and NFL history, made the opposite choice. They’ve been richly rewarded.