A Closer Look at Marshawn Lynch

Last season, the Seahawks’ offense was in a constant state of flux.  The makeup of the offensive line changed on a weekly basis, the quarterback’s health was a constant source of worry, both starting wide receivers finished the season on injured reserve — the list goes on. 

But amid all the uncertainty and setbacks, a few players on that side of the ball stepped up their game and helped turn a dismal 2-6 start to the year into an outside shot at postseason contention.  Undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin came out of nowhere to become the team’s leading receiver.  Max Unger stepped into the starting job at center and proved he could be a capable, savvy leader in the middle of the line, something the team had lacked since Robbie Tobeck retired back in ‘06.  Michael Robinson completed his improbable transition from college quarterback to NFL fullback by lead-blocking his way into the Pro Bowl.  And let’s not forget Tarvaris Jackson, who gritted his way through most of the season with a 50% tear of his pectoral muscle that would have landed most quarterbacks on injured reserve; there may still be legitimate questions about his ability to be an effective starter, but the man has more than proven he’s one of the toughest QBs in the NFL.

But no one on offense — and I mean no one – stepped up to the challenge like Marshawn Lynch did.  Week after week, play after play, Lynch ran over, around, and through tacklers, physically dominating games so completely at times that I could’ve sworn someone at the television network had switched out the game broadcast for an old reel of Jim Brown highlights.  Not bad for a guy who came to Seattle as a midseason pickup on a downward career trajectory.  Looking back now, it’s amazing to think that a player with his talent was available for trade at all, much less in exchange for a pair of mid-round picks, but if you know a little something about the Bills’ recent track record with running backs the Lynch trade starts to make a whole lot more sense.

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What’s Past Is Prologue

From 1988 to 1996, the Bills were riding high on their greatest run of success in franchise history.  In those nine seasons, they won two-thirds of their regular season games, went to the playoffs eight times, and appeared in an NFL record four straight Super Bowls, and one of the main reasons for all that success was Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas and the 10,762 rushing yards (plus an additional 1,399 yards in the postseason) he accumulated during that span of time.  But as remarkably durable as Thomas had been for the Bills, by 1997 he was 31 years old and a veteran of nine NFL seasons.  There’s only so long you can expect a player to continue defying the odds, and running backs are not known for having particularly long or injury-free careers.

So in the 1997 draft, Buffalo began planning for life after Thomas by using their first round pick on Houston running back Antowain Smith1.  Smith quickly outperformed Thomas, rushing for a total of 1,964 yards in his first two NFL seasons, but after his production dropped off in 1999 and 2000 the Bills let him walk in free agency and used their 2001 second round pick on Tennessee RB Travis Henry.  So it goes.

Henry was a respectably productive player in his first few seasons with the team, but that didn’t stop them from spending their first round pick in ’03 on Miami back Willis McGahee.  Why they did so is unclear; maybe they were hedging their bets after Smith’s sudden decline, or perhaps Henry had already begun to show signs of becoming the Travis Henry we all know and ridicule today.  He did get a one-year reprieve while McGahee spent his rookie season recovering from a major knee injury he suffered in college, but in ‘04 Henry was injured and McGahee took over the starting job.  Henry was traded to the Titans that following offseason.

By now, I’m sure you’ve caught on to the pattern.  McGahee played well for three seasons, but injury and off-the-field issues2 prompted the Bills to trade him to the Ravens and draft his replacement in 2007, UC Berkeley RB Marshawn Lynch.  For his part, Lynch produced in his first two seasons in Buffalo, but he also spent his off hours getting into trouble.  He committed a hit-and-run in ‘08, followed by a weapons charge in ’09 that earned him a three game suspension and eventually led to his being replaced in the starting lineup by ex-semipro running back Fred Jackson.  After yet another off-the-field incident in early 2010 — this time a real head-scratcher in which he was accused of stealing a $20 bill from a policeman’s wife (no, really) – the Bills used their first round pick in the draft on Clemson back CJ Spiller.  After Henry and McGahee, the signal to the rest of the league was pretty clear: Lynch’s replacement had been found, and the troubled back was now up for grabs.

The Seahawks eventually took them up on the offer, and when Marshawn left for the Pacific Northwest I’m sure the Bills figured his post-Buffalo career would be much like those of their other recent ex-backs: moderately successful, but nothing too exceptional.  Antowain Smith spent three respectably productive years with the Patriots before fading away into veteran backup obscurity.  Travis Henry had one last 1,000+ yard season left in him, but mainly he spent his remaining three NFL seasons self-destructing as hard and as fast as he possibly could. Willis McGahee’s numbers dropped off every year he spent in Baltimore, although last year he proved he had a little something left to give after all by rushing for 1,199 yards for the Broncos.  And like Smith, Henry, and McGahee before him, Lynch’s performance in 2010 was sometimes great and sometimes awful, but mostly it was just plain average.

Lynch’s career might well have continued to go the way of his predecessors, but then something truly awesome happened. In a playoff matchup against the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, a game which no one but Seattle fans thought the team had a snowflake’s chance in hell of winning, the Seahawks found themselves protecting a slim lead in the fourth quarter.  Trying to take some time off the clock, the Hawks went with a simple run play designed to go for a modest gain, as in four or five yards.  Well, Lynch didn’t go four or five yards.  Instead, he took an entire season’s worth of frustration out on the Saints’ defense by bulling his way through no less than eight tackles en route to a 67 yard touchdown run that ended up sealing one of the biggest upset victories in playoff history.  Marshawn Lynch may have been in town since October, but it wasn’t until that night that Beast Mode finally arrived in Seattle.

Better yet, so far he appears to have come to stay.  Offensive line troubles hindered the run game’s effectiveness at the beginning of the 2011 season, but by the time the year was out Lynch had topped 1,000 yards, set a franchise record by scoring a touchdown in eleven consecutive games, and broken another team’s streak by scoring a rushing touchdown against a 49ers defense that hadn’t allowed an opposing team to run one in for an NFL record-tying 15 straight games. 

Beast Mode Got Paid, But What Comes Next?

By all accounts, Lynch has rededicated himself to football and is taking his work much more seriously now than he did when he was still with the Bills.  Given his newfound professionalism and undeniable impact on the field, it’s no wonder that the Seahawks signed him to the contract they did: four years, $31 million, with $17 million of that guaranteed.  After watching him move piles and demolish tacklers all last season, it’s hard to argue he didn’t deserve a nice big contract.

But merit aside, it’s hard not to worry when you see that much money being invested in one player.  To put that $31 million in perspective, that averages out to $7.74 million per year; if he had played next season under a franchise tag contract, which is calculated by averaging the top five highest salaries for his position, he would’ve earned $7.75 million.  In short, for the Seahawks to get their money’s worth, Lynch needs to play at a franchise tag-worthy level every year for the next four years.  Again, I’m not arguing that Lynch isn’t a great running back, but what are the odds of him playing at such a high level through end of the 2015 season?

In the five years he’s been in the NFL, Lynch has carried the ball 1,137 times for 4,542 yards.  Absorbing 1,000+ carries’ worth of hits and tackles in just five years would put a lot of wear and tear on anyone, but that goes doubly so for a ballcarrier whose running style invites contact as much as his does.  So, when I began looking for running backs for a comparison, I narrowed my search to RBs who had at least 1,000 carries in their first five seasons in the league.

Going back to 1991, I found 37 running backs who fit the bill.  Since there’s no clean and easy way to search for the aggregate stats I required, I may very well have overlooked a player or two who meets the criteria.  I was tempted to loosen that restriction a bit — for one, I had to rule out 17 players who just missed the 1,000 carry threshold3 — but ultimately I felt it was more important to stick hard to that mark in order to ensure that I’d only be looking at players who were subjected to roughly the same amount of physical abuse as Lynch at similar ages within the same specific timeframe.

Once I had my list, I recorded how each of those backs performed in their sixth through ninth seasons.  You can view the resulting spreadsheet here.  For the kind of money Lynch will be making, I figured that 1,000+ yards per season is a reasonable expectation, so for every season a player met or exceeded that mark I highlighted his yardage total on the spreadsheet in cash-money green.  Likewise, I figured a season total that fell between 500 and 1,000 yards would be disappointing without being a total wash, so I highlighted those figures in a nice cautionary orange, while any season that fell below 500 yards got highlighted in an embarrassing shade of pink.

Breaking down the data I gathered by percentages, slightly over half of the running backs in question (54.1%) were able to hit the 1,000 yard mark in their sixth year, but the odds get worse from there.  Only about two-fifths of the players reached that goal in years seven (38.9%) and eight (41.9%), and in year nine only a third of the pack (32.3%) made the grade.  Not very encouraging, I know.

Of course, what we really want to learn here isn’t whether a player was able to play at a high level for one season, but whether he was able to sustain that level of performance over multiple seasons.  To that end, I tallied up how many 1,000 yard seasons each running back was able to produce in their sixth through ninth seasons:

1,000+ Yd Seasons # of RBs
4 7
3 3
2 5
1 6
0 10

(Note: Since we’re looking at these seasons as a whole now, I only included the 31 RBs whose careers started in 2003 or earlier.  The other six haven’t been around long enough to play four seasons.)

Breaking the results down into percentages again, 22.5% were able to gain 1,000+ yards in all four seasons, 32.3% were able to do it three times, and 48.4% managed to break that mark at least twice.  In short, the odds of Marshawn Lynch performing at a level commensurate with his pay over the entire length of his contract are not good when we look at each season individually, and those odds get even longer when we look at all four seasons as a whole.

That said, what really caught my eye while I was putting together the data for that last table wasn’t the numbers themselves but the names attached to them.  It’s one thing to say that seven out of those 31 running backs were able to produce four straight 1,000 yard seasons in years six through nine of their careers, but it means a whole lot more when you find out that those seven players are Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and Curtis Martin, Hall of Fame finalist Jerome Bettis, Hall of Fame nominee Ricky Watters, and Edgerrin James, who just hasn’t been retired long enough to be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

In terms of guaranteed money, the Seahawks appear to be banking on Lynch remaining an elite back for at least two more seasons.  If his play drops off after that, he can be released without incurring too much damage to the team’s salary cap.  But, if he can defy the odds and keep his Beast Mode attack going strong for the next four seasons, he will have not only justified his hefty salary, he will have also made himself a legitimate candidate for enshrinement in Canton.  Marshawn Lynch is already a special, game-changing player, and now he has an opportunity to show everyone just how truly special he can become.  Let’s hope he takes advantage of it.

1 As it turns out, their fears weren’t unfounded.  Thomas would run for just 643 yards in 1997, and his production dropped off in every year thereafter until his retirement (281 yds in ’98, 152 yds in ’99, and 136 in ’00).

2 McGahee made plenty of contract demands and for a while there was the target of a seemingly endless stream of paternity suits, but neither one of those is the reason the team got rid of him.  No, McGahee was shipped out because he went and did the one thing that no one in Buffalo could ever forgive: he publicly suggested that the Bills should move to Toronto.

3 In case you’re wondering, here are those players in no particular order: Ahman Green, Tiki Barber, Duce Staley, Stephen Davis, Mike Alstott, Napoleon Kaufman, Jamal Anderson, Garrison Hearst, Adrian Murrell, Edgar Bennett, Chris Warren, Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, Marion Barber, Joseph Addai, and DeAngelo Williams.  Some failed to make the cut by more than others. 

I did, however, make an exception for Priest Holmes and Rudi Johnson.  Neither player registered a single carry in their rookie seasons, so I omitted it and counted their sixth through ninth seasons as their first five. 

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