One of the biggest mysteries from the 2022 NFL season was “What the hell happened to Russell Wilson?” This was a conundrum that not even the Scooby Doo gang could solve. Danger-Russ was supposed to help the Denver Broncos compete with the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC West, but instead posted a career-worst season that had everyone asking “Why did they let him cook?”
While there were definite signs of regression in Wilson’s game prior to 2022, no one could’ve seen such a massive decline in production coming. After all, he was given a solid receiving corps between Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy. As Wilson’s level of play fell off, so did fans’ willingness to look past his rather corny demeanor. Wilson had always tried to display a positive persona during his time in the NFL, but that’s easy to do when you’ve had a winning season each of your first nine years. When things get tough, that positivity gets flipped on its ear and deemed corny or cringey by the public. However, as former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf explains on his podcast, “The Straight Line,” that cringey dialogue we experienced last season is just Wilson adjusting to life without his mental health trainer.
Trevor Moawad and neutral thinking
As Leaf describes here, Wilson was heavily invested in sports psychologist and author Trevor Moawad’s concept of neutral thinking. As Leaf explains, neutral thinking is disallowing any negative thoughts to enter your head space. Leaf also claims that he himself got invested in Moawad’s philosophy when he got out of prison, and it “made [his] life increasingly better.” Now, Moawad was a well-respected individual already in the sports mental health field. He’d been a director of performance at IMG Academy for 12 years before really getting involved with Wilson. In fact, that’s where the pair met, while Wilson was training for the NFL Draft. Wilson bought into Moawad’s philosophy almost instantly and the two worked very closely together moving forward, helping guide one another during their careers, hosting a mini-series on television together, and even building the company Limitless Minds together in October 2018. As The Athletic reports, you can even hear Wilson preaching Moawad’s philosophy on the sidelines during games and helping engineer Seattle’s second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl in 2015.
As Wilson progressed in the NFL, attributing much of his success to Moawad’s guidance, Moawad’s way of neutral thinking became so sought after that even highly-touted college football programs like Alabama, Florida State, and Georgia would employ Moawad to help their players reach their potential. Moawad wasn’t just some fraud that Wilson bought into, but a certified expert in mental health and conditioning.
Unfortunately, Moawad passed away on Sept. 15, 2021, at 48 years old after a long battle with cancer. According to Leaf, Moawad didn’t tell very many people about his condition for fear of “being a burden.” The Seattle Seahawks’ 2021 NFL season started on September 12 with a win over the Indianapolis Colts. Before their next game, Moawad died, and Wilson immediately started playing some of the worst football of his career. The QB lost his next two games and six of his next seven en route to his first season under .500.
Although the media hadn’t given up on Wilson for the future, this is when rumors began swirling that Wilson was not the quarterback he once was. Even though Wilson had talked publicly about the loss of his good friend and mental-conditioning coach, many fans didn’t know how large an impact Moawad had on Wilson. Wilson struggles to even talk about the subject because of how much Moawad meant to him, not just from a personal standpoint, but a professional standpoint as well. What would Wilson have been without Moawad? He clearly had a substantial impact on Wilson’s career and growth as a quarterback. He was always someone that Wilson could turn to if he was facing troubles, and early into the 2021 season, that outlet was gone. Wilson had lost arguably the most important person in his football career, and we, the fans and media, couldn’t comprehend the impact such a loss would have.
Let’s ride turned into Let’s hide
Wilson went to Denver the following season, and immediately, people started clowning him for various reasons. Whether it was “Broncos Country, let’s ride!” or a Subway commercial that gave off stalker-ish vibes, fans started to turn on Wilson’s positive demeanor as the Broncos’ offense collapsed. With every bad throw and poor performance, Wilson never wavered from trying to think neutral. That’s why, no matter how poorly he performed, Wilson always ended every press conference with “Broncos Country, let’s ride!”
Did Wilson handle the negative media attention as well as he should have? Maybe not, but this was Wilson’s first full season without Moawad in his corner. The man he could turn to for guidance wasn’t there, so we shouldn’t be shocked that Wilson’s play and personality started to lose their luster this year. The constant reassurances during press conferences and insistence on staying positive even during the worst times weren’t Wilson being corny, but rather Wilson trying his best to keep following his friend and partner’s philosophy, but lacking the direction he’d had the previous ten years.
Obviously, Moawad’s death was probably not the only reason for Wilson’s decline. However, as Leaf puts it “When you walk into a facility and you exercise your body, okay…you get a trainer to do that. You need a trainer to exercise the biggest muscle in your body, and that’s your brain. And [Wilson] didn’t have it last year.” That’s tough to conquer.