TNT reported this week that reps for RB Marshawn Lynch have reached out to the Seahawks for discussions over a multi-year contract. Lynch has accrued enough playing time this year to trigger a contract provision voiding the final year of his contract, making him a free-agent after this season.
So why are we feeling hesitant about this re-signing?
It's been a while since the phrases "Seattle Seahawks", "new contract negotiations", and "running back" were all mentioned in the same sentence. The last time they were, the result wasn't pretty. Shaun Alexander took the money and didn't run. Are we gun-shy over running backs from this?
The debate over the reasons for Alexander's dropoff is irrelevant and tired. It happened. In fact, it may be more instructive to leave that discussion open, because it highlights the fact that player decline can occur for a variety of reasons. Loss of surrounding talent, injury, wearing down, coaching changes, being too happy-go-lucky, New Contract Syndrome - everything under the sun has been named as a cause of Alexander's sputtering out, and every one of them has a legitimate place in the discussion.
When the 2011 season opened, Marshawn Lynch was undoubtedly one of the most popular Seahawks on the roster, courtesy of this. He was also one of the most likely-to-disappoint Seahawks. He was entering 2011 behind a straight-out-of-the-box offensive line, a new coach, and a fresh offensive philosophy that was going to demand a lot from him. Despite his physical, unrelenting, passionate running style, Lynch hadn't shown enough raw production in 2010 to make anyone think he'd transcend the line's growing pains and lack of offseason preparation. The QB situation certainly wasn't going to help. It wasn't a formula for success. Despite "The Run", many saw another frustrating season ahead for Lynch.
The first half of the season did little to deflect those concerns. Lynch struggled to a 3.5 YPC, inflated in classic Seahawks tradition by the occasional long run sprinkled amongst failed plays. (The long run against the Giants, for example, drops that YPC figure to 3.0 if left out.) The 12th Man, also in classic Seahawks tradition, blamed the offensive line. I was amongst them, because although I'm sick of blaming everything and world hunger on the Seahawks offensive line, this time they truly were awful enough to bury the offense. They resembled the impassable wad of snot I expelled from my nose last weekend while down with the flu (a spectacularly clogging wad, that).
Nor was the rest of the offense helping. Early in the season, Pete Carroll, the great run-first advocate who fired Jeremy Bates for knowing when to abandon an ineffective run game, abandoned the ineffective run game. Seattle could neither contain nor out-shoot dynamic offenses like Pittsburgh and Atlanta (and still can't), so Lynch got tossed aside before reaching double-digit carries. He was sort of the Matt Hasselbeck of the 2011 offense - capable of greatness when the rest of the offense showed up, completely shut down if they didn't. Doubt began to arise amongst more educated fans as to whether Lynch was a good fit for the zone-blocking system that Seattle was committed to.
Then, two games ago, everything changed. Here's another phrase you haven't heard for a while: "back-to-back 100-yard rushing games". Lynch just pulled it off against two strong, yet very different defenses. At Tom Cable's insistence, the team sacrificed some no-huddle offense and re-drew their game plan around the run, more specifically around Lynch. The offensive line stepped up to the challenge dramatically with a burst of chemistry and cohesion. The result was 109 rushing yards for Lynch against the Baltimore Ravens defense - ranked #2 against the run and against public anonymity.
What's more, these yards were consistent, decisive gains that virtually eliminated tackles for loss - the kind of grinding steadiness that zone-blocking looks for. The offensive line's development and the return of Robert Gallery are by far the biggest factors here. Camas from the NWSportsTalk forum is providing some great weekly run-game breakdowns (read here about the Giants, Dallas and Baltimore games) that keep repeating an extraordinarily welcome and exciting word in association with our line: "push". Suddenly our guys are just getting push, push, push, especially from Gallery. Such a simple concept, so agonizing in its absence all these years. They're also improving in the areas of coordination, quickness off the line, and speed to the second level (especially from pleasant surprise Max Unger). With better rushing lanes to decide from, Lynch's hard-headed style is starting to net him real yards, as well as a rushing TD in each of his last five games.
(Camas' Baltimore breakdown also has some encouraging words on Lemuel Jeanpierre, one of our backup guards, and the underrated fullback Michael Robinson, whose blocking has been key for Lynch and who had a tremendous day against future Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis. Seriously, read this stuff. It's not complicated or full of big words.)
Too soon to get excited? Maybe. The test is long-term consistency. But it's better than anything offered by the one-two punch of Julius Jones and Justin Forsett. Seattle has been desperate for any kind of identity or reliability on offense, and whether or not you agree with a run-first approach, Tarvaris Jackson (and the QBOTF that Seattle had better draft next April) will be thankful for the reduced pressure. He's also glad for the new weapon; Lynch's 5 catches for 58 yards suggest that Darell Bevell is finding ways to get him involved in developing pass plays, so long as Jackson can stay clean. Far from irrelevant, Lynch is suddenly crucial to this offense.
The frustrating injury loss of John Moffitt and James Carpenter will have their impact, Moffitt's moreso than Carpenter's. For all his development time, Ben Muth of Football Outsiders has seen Carpenter's run success as pretty limited. Carpenter still seems to be playing close to replacement level in both phases of the game; the improvement in run protection is there, but also appears to be a factor of game-planning and play design. This means there might not be a huge dropoff from him to aggressive-styled backup Brent Giacomini. (None of this is a knock on Carpenter's future, by the way - Max Unger was terrible in his rookie season and sat out his second season on IR, but returned to become a key cog in this newfound running prowess.)
Fortunately for the integration of the new right side, Seattle has a whole 'nuther week before facing a respectable run defense. This week, St. Louis is ranked #31 against the run. There is some sort of airborne virus in the Rams locker room that only infects cornerbacks (nine currently on IR), so their defense will be playing from back on its heels in every department.
That situation, along with Tarvaris Jackson's improvements, make for some interesting possibilities on offense. They will likely drop more linebackers out of the box and dedicate more safety help to the corners; that gives Lynch running room up the middle. We could also see some runs from three-wide receiver sets to test the recognition and tackling ability of those backup corners (as Mike Sando suggests). Whatever the case, I wouldn't expect Bevell to stray from featuring Lynch heavily despite our offense. The run focus has really seemed to stabilize his play-calling, and our line's best run-blockers are still healthy.
After this week, Seattle's remaining six opponents are ranked 13th (WAS), 26th (PHI), 31st (STL), 15th (CHI), 1st (SF), and 30th (ARI) against the run. Out of those, only the Eagles and Bears have enough of a high-powered offense to potentially force Seattle away from the run. This is a decently balanced slate of competition that will give us a good picture of Lynch's potential without taking away the fun.
Two weeks ago, the run game was so bad that we were looking at RB's in the first round of next year's draft. It was correct to put a load of the responsibility on Lynch, although I think that some underestimated just how horrifically pathetic our line was to start with. Now that they're reaching competency, does Lynch's status change? Not exactly. He's still largely dependent on the surrounding offense to succeed (although succeed like crazy he can), placing him firmly in "they could theoretically do better" territory.
But drafting a RB in the first round was a tenuous idea even before things started getting better. RB is such a fungible position. Many of the current leaders at that position aren't found in the first round. If you've got a terrible stable of backs and a lack of other pressing needs that demand first-round treatment, AND are looking at a draft prospect that's truly worthy of the label "franchise changer", then first-round running backs are swallowable.
This offense's progression drops the team out of that category in my opinion. To pursue a running back on the draft's first day would ignore other growling needs (like quarterback) and would spend high on a position that, while improveable, isn't terrible either. It's an annoying middle ground that demands attention, but not too much. Seattle should save the running back hunt for the second day of the draft. While I'd prefer emphasis on the pass rush, I wouldn't be shocked if our draft took a long look at guys like Chris Polk or Lamichael James in the second or third round.
I gotta say, I feel vindicated on a number of levels by Lynch's recent success. He can do amazing things when given holes to run through. Like late Hasselbeck, he can take a dose of assistance and run far further with it than you'd expect. Although he's not really enough of a back to overcome poor play elsewhere on the team, he really doesn't have to be. He's playing in a league that ultimately requires success from the passing game, so for me, "productive behind a good enough O-line" is enough.
Lynch is more than that. He's hard-hitting, tackle-breaking, spirited, determined, and best of all young and not yet in his prime (the John Schneider effect again). He exemplifies the desire to win and was running hard before his contract year. Instead of fading into obscurity after "The Run", he may turn out to be a staple of this offense for many years to come.
That's a lot of Beast Mode to enjoy.
And just because I can: