If you pour over the transcripts of Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll speaking to the media during and after this year’s NFL draft, you won’t find any statements of contrition. Schneider is never quoted as saying, “We’re atoning for past transgressions,” and Carroll never uttered, “Our bad.”
But during the first round of this year’s draft it sure seemed like the Seahawks were performing a mea culpa. In selecting running back Rashaad Penny with its first pick, Seattle acknowledged that it has not handled the post-Marshawn Lynch era correctly.
For the most part this year’s draft went exactly as expected for the Seahawks. Trade down to acquire more picks? Check. Pass-rush help early on? Check. An emotional Griffin twin reunion? Check. Trading up to take a punter? OK, maybe not.
But the move that may have the biggest impact on 2018 is the one that wasn’t a big part of the pre-draft narrative, and it’s a move that attempts to correct years of mistakes in orchestrating the Lynch succession plan.
The Seahawks went against current conventional wisdom when selecting Penny 27th overall during Thursday’s first round, as the NFL is in an era when drafting running backs in the first round is at an all-time low — just five running backs were taken in the first round the previous five drafts combined. But the inability to find an adequate replacement for Lynch forced Seattle’s hand.
Lynch was many things during his time with the Seahawks. He was Pro Bowler who created big movements on the seismograph with his Beast Mode runs. He was also a complicated figure who created controversy with his shunning of the media and sometimes unpredictable behavior.
But for all of that, Lynch’s most important quality to the Seahawks was his dependability. He was always healthy, as between 2010 and 2014 he missed only one game because of injury. He was always able to carry a heavy load, at one point going 34 straight games with double-digit carries. And he was always able to make something out of nothing, gaining yards after contact even when hit behind the line of scrimmage, allowing Seattle’s offense to stay on schedule.
When quarterback Russell Wilson’s ability to run the ball was added into the equation in 2012, Seattle became the runningest team in the NFL. Between 2012 and 2015, Lynch’s final four seasons with the Seahawks, Seattle averaged 32.3 carries and 153.1 rushing yards per game, both tops in the NFL.
But every step the Seahawks took to prepare for life after Lynch was the antithesis of dependable.
It began with the selection of Christine Michael in the second round of the 2013 draft. Michael was groomed to be Lynch’s successor. However, in many ways Michael was the anti-Lynch, a risk-reward player who was gifted with all the physical tools, but never translated those tools into top-level production in college. The Seahawks rolled the dice that the light would eventually go on for Michael. It never did.
After being burned by Michael the Seahawks latched onto league trends and went for bargain-basement choices at running back. Why not? When the list of effective runners in recent years includes the likes of DeMarco Murray (third round), Jordan Howard (fifth round) and Arian Foster (undrafted), why bother expending premium resources at that position?
Those methods may work for teams that pass first and run second, but they didn’t work for a Seattle team that still wanted to prioritize the run. Undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls and late-round pick Chris Carson both flashed promise, but broke down physically before fully establishing themselves. Signing a free agent trying to recapture the glory days backfired in the form of the Eddie Lacy debacle. The past two years the Seahawks dipped to 25th and 23rd in the league in rushing yards, and they completely lost their identity as a power running football team.
So the Seahawks owned their culpability and used a top pick on a running back, and in Penny they acquired a back who displays the hallmarks of Lynchian dependability.
Penny appeared in all 54 games of his college career, never missing a game because of injury. Penny was productive, leading the nation in rushing as a senior at San Diego State. According to Pro Football Focus Penny had 82 broken tackles this past season and averaged 3.32 yards after contact when hit at or behind the line of scrimmage, both of which led the draft class.
These are Lynch-like qualities, the things that enabled the Seahawks to remain a bastion of run-first offense in a league that’s become increasingly enamored with the pass. That formula made Seattle the NFC’s winningest franchise from 2012-15. It’s no coincidence that the Seahawks’ run of five consecutive playoff appearances came to an end last season when Seattle was no longer able to replicate the run game that helped make it successful in the first place.
There are those who criticized the Seahawks for using their top pick on a running back. It’s not the current way of the NFL, and Seattle had a lot of other pressing needs it needed to address.
But Schneider and Carroll tried and failed with all the other methods for replacing Lynch. Using their first-round pick on Penny was an admission of that.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.