Thursday, January 21, 2016

Marshawn Lynch and the Identity of the Seahawks in 2016

It seems it's a forgone conclusion.  Marshawn Lynch, more than likely, has played his final game in a Seahawks uniform.

It isn't necessarily because he's 30 years old and missed considerable time to injury.  The most glaring reason is the $11.5 million cap hit that comes if he's on the roster in June.

The Seahawks have very little room to work with under the salary cap next year and they have a lot of expired contracts to sort out along with holes that need to be filled based on this past season. Thomas Rawls has shown that he certainly has the potential to handle the starting running back duties, though durability will be a legitimate concern going into next season.

For me, personally, it's sad to envision a Seahawks team without #24 in the backfield. In my opinion, Marshawn Lynch is the greatest rusher Seattle has ever had.  While his five-year tenure with the team feels brief, even for a position where the average career span is about 3 seasons, he has accomplished a tremendous amount in that short time.

Let's first remember how Lynch came to be a part of this team. On October 5th, 2010, the Seahawks traded the Buffalo Bills a 2011 4th round pick (122nd overall) and a 2012 5th round pick (147th overall) for Marshawn Lynch.  Lynch was a first round selection coming out of Cal with a tremendous amount of promise.

Unfortunately for Buffalo, Lynch never really got it together in his time there and even faced some run ins with the law. Pete Carrol and John Schneider were able to look past the off field troubles and it paid huge dividends.

Lynch gave this team an identity. He was, by many accounts, a strange dude.  He gorged on candy during games, loathed dealing with the media and was beloved by his teammates.  His effort was never called into question. He was first team All Pro in 2012 and second team in 2014.  He carried Seattle to their first World Championship and, had he been given the ball on the 3 yard line, he likely would've been the hero who brought us our second consecutive Lombardi trophy.

But it wasn't the trophies and accolades that I will remember Lynch for-- it was the numerous remarkable highlights he put on film in his 5 seasons in Seattle.

Two of the 3 most phenomenal plays I've ever bore witness to were executed by Marshawn Lynch. The player affectionately known as "Beastmode" gave fans the sense that he could go off on any play.  Here are two clips of the 'Beastquake' runs, named as such because (the first one) actually registered seismic activity from the fan reaction to the play.

Even if he continues his career beyond Seattle, it's unlikely that Lynch will retire with any Top 5 All Time rushing titles.  It's been said that he's a borderline Hall of Fame candidate at this point.  Nevertheless, Lynch has been a consistently extraordinary talent, the likes of which the NFL may never see again. Outside of maybe Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning-- Lynch has been my favorite player to watch in my 30 years of NFL fandom.

For the first time in half of a decade, Seattle looks to start next season without the bruising, intimidating rushing ability of Marshawn Lynch.

So, what does this mean for our Seahawks?

It doesn't mean that we're no longer a Championship contender. Regardless of who heads up our backfield, as long as #3 is at the helm-- we've got a shot.

But this will certainly have an impact on this team's identity.  At least it should, anyway.

Russell Wilson has shown that he has what it takes.  He can command a run game, he can beat you with his legs and he can put up 300 yards through the air whenever called upon.  Yet, this team, to it's own detriment, seems to insist upon predicating it's identity upon the run game.

First off, it's astonishing to me that any team would identify as a run-first team while almost completely neglecting the development of it's offensive line.  In Pete Carroll's entire tenure with the Seahawks, he has seemingly made everything but the offensive line a priority-- which is typically a fairly important component of a run-first team.

Because of the presence of Lynch, Wilson and the outstanding work from offensive line coach Tom Cable, the Seahawks have been able to mask many of the deficiencies brought on by the neglect of resources allocated to the offensive line.  What on Earth would cause anyone to believe that this will improve, much less stay the same, in the absence of Lynch?

Cable was able to form a semblance of a decent line in the latter part of last season-- as he usually does.  Since this coincidentally coincided with Lynch succumbing to injury, many fans speculated incorrectly that Lynch was somehow responsible for the unproductive start of the season. In this 'what have you done for me lately?' NFL-- fans have jumped on the Rawls bandwagon and largely washed their hands of Lynch.

To those people, I would remind them that Russell Okung (the team's only high-draft selection on the offensive line) becomes a free agent this offseason who will also, more than likely, have a new home next year based on his cap number. JR Sweezy is also due a new contract and Patrick Lewis is a restricted free agent.  That leaves us with Alvin Bailey, Justin Britt and Gary Gilliam being the only guarantees to return next year.

That should be a tremendous concern for Seahawks fans next year.

Again, no reason to freak out, it's nothing that cannot be overcome.  Still, I would argue that this team absolutely needs to publicly renounce it's identity as a run-first team. Instead, I suggest they adapt the following identity:

The Seahawks are a team that will beat you by any means necessary and give 100% in all four quarters of every game.

Hell, they've already showed that they're capable of that.  They can beat you on special teams, they can beat you with defense.  They can beat you on the ground and they can beat you through the air.

The run game is an extremely important aspect of the game of football.  However, it doesn't work when you fall behind big, early in games.  Too often, the Seahawks have stubbornly forced their run game when it just wasn't there.  There are numerous examples of this from the past few seasons, but you need not look further back than the Divisional Playoff game against Carolina.

In the NFL, you have to be willing and able to adapt in games.  You can't always wait until halftime to make adjustments to your gameplan. While I agree with Pete that you can't win the game until the 4th quarter-- you can very easily cost your team an opportunity for victory in the first 3 quarters.

Even though the bulk of Seattle's salary cap has been spent on the defensive side of the ball, that doesn't mean we have to expect our defense to win every game for us.

I anticipate a great deal of change to take place between now and the start of next season.  No one can predict the moves Seattle will make internally, through free agency or through the draft. Every year that Pete & John have been here-- they've surprised us in the offseason.

We do know that we'll have Wilson leading the offense.  We should have a spectacular playmaker in Jimmy Graham returning next year.  We have the NFL's leading scorer at the receiver position in Doug Baldwin and an exciting star-in-the-making with Tyler Lockett.  Everyone loves what we've seen from Thomas Rawls and the defensive core should not change much.

The ability to win in all three phases won't change much and should even improve, if the right moves get made.  However, Seattle will need to change it's identity.  They can't wait until midseason to get their act together, like (virtually all) previous years.

Carolina seems to have finally made the next-level leap from a good team to a great one.  Arizona, barring Carson Palmer's retirement should be on top of their game next season.  The Rams swept us this past season.  Green Bay still has Aaron Rodgers and who knows what we can expect from the Chip Kelly-led 49ers.

What I'm saying is that we're not the only great team in the NFC and home-field advantage will continue to be crucial in vying for that next Super Bowl appearance. Since winning Super Bowl 48, the only team that has really prevented us from becoming an undisputed dynasty is ourselves. We've managed to overcome just about every obstacle we've faced, but there's two Lombardi's missing from our trophy shelf for which we only have ourselves to blame.

Next year's road to the Championship will only be harder.  The division will be as tough, if not tougher. We face Carolina, Green Bay and New England-- all playoff teams with Super Bowl potential. They also face Drew Brees, the up-and-coming Jameis Winston and a Jets team that just barely missed the playoffs this year.

Failing to win home divisional games and dropping conference games to likely playoff opponents will once again put Seattle behind the 8-Ball with their Super Bowl hopes.  While I will continue to believe that the core of this team is never out of any contest-- they cannot continue to make the journey harder on themselves by not playing up to their potential in all four quarters of every, single game.

The offseason is a time for reflection and speculation.  It is, far and away, my favorite time to write about this team that I love so much.  During the season, fans and media alike boast and speculate every day of the week-- but everything gets settled on the field on Sunday.  In the offseason, everyone is undefeated and nothing can be proven until the kickoff of the very first game.

I will have plenty of speculative posts in the coming weeks and months, but below is a brief 'Wish List' of what I would like to see happen before next season:

Restructure Lynch's contract-- Hear me out. John Schneider set a bad precedent by reworking Lynch's contract when he still had years remaining because he was coming off an outstanding season.  He could undo that by telling Lynch "You are getting up there in age, but you've still got a few productive years left in you.  We want you to retire as a Seahawk, but we are going to reduce your role somewhat.  If you can play two more seasons at $5mil and accept a lesser role, we will get you at least one more ring and get you closer to achieving some of those career accolades."   Think about it-- if Thomas Rawls was our feature back with Lynch spelling him over the next two seasons.  That'd be amazing.

Let Okung walk-- If we can't secure Sweezy on a cap-friendly deal, he can walk, too.  While I agree that continuity is a significant factor in a line's success-- I don't think that Okung or Sweezy is at all beyond replacement.  A solid veteran and a high draft pick could easily patch those holes up. Plus, the team seems to love what they've seen from Mark Glowinski. 

Find a way to keep Irvin-- This might be more improbable than my dream of retaining Lynch, but it would sure be sweet if it happened. Irvin started the season vocally expressing an interest in playing for Atlanta, but has since 180'd to say that he'd take a substantial discount to stay here.  The problem is, he's too good to not get a huge contract.  His speed and athleticism are incredibly rare and will be almost impossible to replace.

Retain Jermaine Kearse, but only if its cheap-- Kearse has played a tremendous role in this team's recent success.  He's also spent his entire football career in the state of Washington. His post game interview with Ian Furness was all the indication you need to know that he wants to be a part of this team in the future-- but he has now gone on record saying that he's worked too hard to give any discount for his services. I would LOVE to have him back-- but this team won't miss a beat without him, especially if Paul Richardson can stay healthy.  Expect another receiver to be drafted, too.

Keep Jeremy Lane, but replenish the secondary-- Cornerback depth was a huge reason for this team's early failures.  We can't let that continue into next year.  Tharold Simon will be back, but he's shown nothing on the field.  It would be awesome if Seattle were able to find a rookie like former Washington Husky Marcus Peters who came in for Kansas City and was golden from the get go, but I understand that's unlikely.  Having Lane available for the start of next season will make a huge difference.

If you want to be a run first team, start acting like it!--
The Seahawks offense has incredible potential to be exciting week in and week out.  Still, I have a feeling that Pete won't read this and consider my proposal for an identity change. Alright, I accept that you want to be a run first team-- but, damn it, you better invest in your offensive line!  Should the Seahawks stay the course with their identity, I want to see them trade up to get a top-tier left tackle.  Add a few more reserve linemen in the late rounds and through the undrafted pile.  Pick up not one, but TWO more running backs to compete with Rawls and seriously consider retaining Lynch.  Draft a pure blocking tight end and completely absolve Jimmy Graham from any and all blocking assignments.  If that's the identity this team insists on having-- commit to it!

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