Is This The End (As We Know It) Of Marshawn Lynch In Seattle?

As the Seahawks get ready to play the New Orleans Saints this week, one can’t help but reflect upon what happened this week, three years ago, when the Seahawks won a game 41-36.  Of course, we played the Saints on that day, and everyone remembers it for the Marshawn Lynch game-clinching 67 yard touchdown run where he broke countless tackles and set off the 12th Man into an ecstasy we’ve never seen ’round these parts before or since.

That play will live on as one of the most amazing individual feats in NFL playoff history.  We’ll be talking about that play in 50 years just like we talk about the Immaculate Reception and the Dwight Clark catch.

Locally, it’ll be remembered as the moment where it all started to go right for the Seahawks.  Personally, I’ll always remember it as the point where Marshawn Lynch was at his absolute peak.  It’s all been downhill (albeit, a very negligible grade) since then.

The Seahawks traded for Marshawn Lynch 4 games into that 2010 season.  The Bills had just drafted C.J. Spiller, plus they already had Fred Jackson on roster, so there was no point in holding onto three starting-calibre running backs.  The Seahawks were just working their way out of the dark days of Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett and were looking for a dynamic talent to bring this team into the light.  Supposedly, Lynch had fallen out of favor in Buffalo for reasons that aren’t important.  Either way, we got him for a steal.  His numbers in Buffalo weren’t particularly outstanding, and there was a real chance that he would come to Seattle and fizzle out.  People tend to forget that.

Lynch came into a situation in Seattle where everything was a mess.  The offensive line was a massive ball of injuries and ineptitude.  To his credit, Lynch was a consummate professional, and one of the baddest motherfuckers on the planet as he continuously took on defenders behind the line of scrimmage and turned those runs into positive gains.  His first game in Seattle was a road contest in Chicago, and he ran for the most impressive 44 yards on 17 carries that anyone has ever seen.

The rest of his first season wasn’t much better, as Lynch never had a 100-yard rushing game in 2010.  But, his hard running set the tone.  And he was rewarded in that playoff game against the Saints.  Aside from that 67-yard run, Lynch had 64 yards on 18 carries, which sounds about right.  Nevertheless, with that putrid offensive line, you’ll never find a more-impressive season out of a running back.  That 67-yard run was indeed the peak of Lynch’s powers.

Of course, with Tom Cable coming in starting in 2011, things started to improve.  We infused the line with more talent, and halfway through 2011, Lynch ripped off six 100-yard efforts in his last nine games.  His numbers from 2010 to 2011 were drastically improved.  And, in 2012, his numbers were even better!  With 1,590 yards and 5.0 yards per carry, Lynch was the second-best running back in the NFL.  So, how could I sit here and say that he peaked in the 2010 season?

Well, with all aspects of the offense, improved line play makes everyone’s job easier.  And, like I said before, it’s not like Lynch’s effectiveness has diminished THAT much.  But, still, if you put the 2010 Lynch behind last year’s offensive line, you would’ve seen him damn near approach 2,000 yards.

Anyway, while still carrying the load in 2013, Lynch’s numbers came back down to Earth.  At a 4.2 yards-per-carry average, Lynch put up 1,257.  Still good, but not great.  He has averaged almost exactly 300 carries per season the last three years, and that’s not including playoff runs.  My hope is that he’s got enough left in the tank to push us through to a championship this year, because I don’t know how many more years he has left.

If we want to maximize Lynch’s effectiveness going forward, we’re going to have to start cutting back on his carries.  We did just draft Christine Michael and he looks like the kind of twitchy, breathtaking talent that you eventually can’t help but play.  I expect a couple things going into next season.  First, I expect to read a bunch of stories about how amazing Michael looks in OTAs and Training Camp later this year.  And second, I expect more of a time-share in the backfield starting next season.

When you read that a running back had 301 carries in 2013 (which Lynch did), it sounds like a lot.  It sounds like you’re running a guy into the ground prematurely.  But, honestly, that averages out to a fraction of a carry less than 19 per game.  Lynch had a high of 28 carries against the 49ers in Week 2 and only 7 games with over 20 carries.  Robert Turbin had approximately 5 carries per game and Russell Wilson had about 6 carries per game.  That’s the bulk of this team’s carries in 2013:  30 carries per game.  So, if I’m expecting a Lynch/Michael time-share, what would that look like?

Well, I don’t expect Wilson’s carries to go down all that much.  Maybe he drops down to 4 carries per game (you have to expect he’s going to become less and less of a “running quarterback” the deeper he gets into his career).  Turbin really muddies things a bit.  It’s impossible to have a three running back rotation, because this isn’t college football and we’re not running the single-wing offense.  Either the team shops Turbin for a low-end draft pick, or converts him into a Michael Robinson-esque fullback.  After that, I think you look at something of a 13/13 split of carries for Lynch and Michael.  Maybe that means running them in and out, alternating by series.  Maybe that means Michael carries the load between the 30s and Lynch comes in when they’re closer to the goalline (sort of like how Buffalo uses Spiller more between the 30s and Jackson on goalline).  I don’t think it’s as simple as giving the ball to Lynch on first and second down, then running Michael in on third downs and passing situations, because the real wildcard here is how improved Michael is at pass protection.  But, either way, expect Michael to carry more of the load in 2014, with him to eventually become the featured back in 2015.

Marshawn Lynch’s cap numbers going forward aren’t too prohibitive.  He’s set to earn $5 million in base salary and $1.5 million in signing bonus in 2014 (with a $500,000 roster bonus, bringing his cap number to an even $7 million), and $5.5 million in base and $1.5 million in bonus in 2015 (with a $2 million roster bonus, bringing his cap number to $9 million).  This contract was designed to keep Lynch around for three years at the most.  With guys like Wilson, Sherman, Thomas, and Harvin all set for big raises, you’re going to have to find money somewhere.  I don’t think that means cutting Lynch prior to 2014 (even though we would only owe $3 million in dead money, saving us $13 million in base salary and roster bonuses over the next two years), but I’m certain that means cutting Lynch prior to 2015.  Either way, I’d like to see us win it all now, just to give Lynch his due while we still can.

In this day and age, it’s almost foolish for teams to over-pay for running backs.  While Lynch has been the one guy above all others who has come to define what Seahawks Football has become under Pete Carroll, at some point you have to make decisions that are best for the team long-term.  In this case, it means cutting ties with a guy on the down-side of his career.  It’ll be a sad day when it comes (especially if it comes sooner rather than later), but the last thing you want to see is a once-great player turn into a burden.

While Marshawn Lynch was never better than he was at the tail-end of 2010, he’s still in what can be considered his prime.  What we have to be prepared for is that this is the tail-end of his prime.  It’s been a great 4-year run, but all great things eventually come to an end.