By John Boyle
Marshawn Lynch was undeniably one of the NFL’s top running backs in 2013, rushing for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season, then gaining 288 more in three postseason games to help carry the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl championship.
Now, the most pressing question going forward for Lynch and the Seahawks is how much longer he can keep it up. Questioning how much longer Lynch can be an elite back has nothing to do with his 2013 performance, his durability, his skill, his desire or his work ethic, but rather one thing he can do nothing about—his age. Lynch turns 28 later this month, which would put him right in the middle of his prime in just about any sport, even football, if not for the fact that he plays running back, a position that just doesn’t age well.
The long-held belief has been that running backs fall off a cliff at age 30, and considering Lynch has rushed for 1,200 or more yards in three straight seasons, it’s hard to see him taking a huge step back next season, but as an ESPN article published Monday points out, the age when significant decline begins might be come well before that 30-year-old mark we’ve used for a long time.
The article looks at running backs who have played at least four season since 2001 and averaged a minimum of 75 carries per year, and after peaking in their age 27 season, running backs see their rushing totals drop 15 percent the next year, 25 percent over two years, and almost 40 percent by the time they’re 30.
Does that mean Lynch is guaranteed to see the same drop? Of course not. Plenty of running backs a lot less talented than Lynch contribute to those stats, meaning they would be more likely to lose carries to younger competition than Lynch might, and again, his postseason production showed that Lynch was still going strong late in the year.
But it’s also hard to ignore that Lynch is an almost 28-year-old with a lot of mileage on him, having carried the ball 901 times in his past three seasons—and that’s just regular-season games. And in case you didn’t know, Lynch’s carries tend to be of a rather physical nature, meaning he’s taking his share of physical abuse.
So what does all of this mean for the 2014 Seahawks? Well you’re not about to see Lynch lose his starting job to either Robert Turbin or Christine Michael, but perhaps, whether he shows signs of slowing down or not, he could see his workload go down slightly, and yes, with that his total production.
Seahawk general manager John Schneider recently mentioned Michael in pointing out that two of the team’s most explosive offensive players (Percy Harvin being the other) barely played last year. Michael, Seattle’s surprise second-round pick in 2013, didn’t spend most of his games inactive—he appeared in just four and had only 18 carries for 79 yards—because the Seahawks don’t think he can play. Michael was the odd man out because Turbin was the better blocker, a key element for a backup running back who frequently plays on third down, and because Michael didn’t establish himself on special teams, which meant the Seahawks preferred to have two fullbacks active over a third running back.
While the Seahawks would have liked to get a bit more out of Michael last season, he was never drafted with an eye towards that 2013 season. The Seahawks took him because he was, in their opinion, the best player left, by a wide margin, when their second-round pick came along, and yes, because they known Lynch can’t keep it up forever.
It’s very unlikely that Michael is the Seahawks’ top running back in 2014 barring injuries, but as the NFL’s history with aging running backs has shown, his time may not be far off either.