RENTON, Wash. -- Over the last two seasons, the Seattle Seahawks have thrown the ball fewer times than any other NFL team. And over the last three seasons, no running back has taken the ball more times than Seattle's Marshawn Lynch -- 334 carries per season, including the postseason. It's an appropriate strategy for a team whose head coach, Pete Carroll, promises to "run the ball down their freakin' throats" when speaking of Seattle's opponents, as he did during last week's Town Hall meeting with Seahawks fans.
But it was what offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell revealed during that gathering that piqued interest.
"We are going to be running back by committee," Bevell said. "We really like what Christine Michael is doing right now ... with the quickness, the speed and the toughness he's shown. He's making great cuts. He has breakaway speed to finish a run and he has really quick moves in short areas."
Michael, the team's second-round pick in 2013, does indeed seem to be on track to get more carries in the new year. The 5-foot-10, 220-pound back posted a 4.43 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, and he looks at least that fast on the practice field, as he did on occasion in his rookie year. Michael gained just 79 yards on 18 carries in 2013, but with the right combination of maturity and schematic understanding, Michael could indeed be the kind of back capable of carrying a run-heavy franchise. He showed at Texas A&M that he has the raw speed, power and escapability to make big plays; he scored 12 touchdowns on just 88 carries in his final collegiate season after tearing the ACL in his left knee the year before.
When Kevin Sumlin replaced Mike Sherman as the program's full-time coach in 2012, Sumlin wanted more maturity and better blocking; Michael reportedly didn't meet him halfway, and he started to fall down the depth chart. As a result, many didn't know that much about Michael when he declared for the 2013 draft, or why the Seahawks took him in the second round, but Carroll and general manager John Schneider were all over the case.
“Much like all of these guys, they’re young men that are growing up," Schneider said last April, after Michael was selected. "So you’re trying to find out their past and where they’re coming from, and how they’re moving forward with life. He had a little rough stretch when he tore his ACL, he had a new staff come in, went through a whole offensive change, and had to adapt.”
“That happens quite often with upperclassmen when a coaching change occurs," Carroll added. "There is a transition time, and he went through it and got along well with the coaches once they figured everything out. We think he responded to it really well, and performed really well under those circumstances.”
Then, there's Robert Turbin, the team's fourth-round pick in 2012. Though he shares' Michael's basic dimensions, Turbin is more of a power back -- less explosive to the edge, and more adept at bulling through tackles. He's gained 617 yards on 157 carries in his two NFL seasons, but he's also learned to impress his coaches with his ability to pick up the little things.
"He’s a big, strong kid," Bevell told me about Turbin on Monday, after the team's most recent OTA practice. "He’s got good speed and he’s got power. Those are things that we liked when he was coming out. To his credit, last year he had some really big runs, and just about every time he had a big run it got called back. Even in the Super Bowl, he had a nice run in that game and something happened where it came back. He has the ability to break big runs and he can finish them with power. He’s our kind of guy. He’s very tenacious. The game is important to him. He loves to play and he wants to be the best he can possibly be, and that gives him a chance."
A chance is all Seattle's backup backs are looking for, but Lynch's workload has been in the way, and for good reason. Though he's chosen to skip preseason activities, Lynch has been the team's offensive catalyst since he was acquired in a trade with the Bills in October 2010 -- Carroll's and Schneider's first year in Seattle. That has given Turbin and Michael the time needed to pick up on the little things in Seattle's offense -- how to find holes quickly, how to run one-cut-and-go in the team's preferred style and how to live up to the standard on the field that Lynch established and kept.
"This has been great for them," Carroll said Monday. "Christine has made the most progress, he’s had the farthest to come. Turbo continues to work really well. Turbo got his knee cleaned up, which has really helped him. Those guys are right on it. Really doing well on pass protection and pass assignments. In the passing game, both guys have shown that they can help us. It’s been a great offseason for those guys."
Lynch, who signed a four-year, $31 million contract extension in 2012, is due $5.5 million in base salary in '14 and $7.5 million in '15. He turned 28 in April, an age when most power backs start to decline (if they haven't already), and there were some worrisome aspects to his 2013 season. Though he ran for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns on 301 carries, his yards per carry average plummeted in December to 3.57 from 5.23 the month before. He rebounded well in the playoffs, running for 140 yards against the Saints and 109 against the 49ers, but was bottled up in the Super Bowl with just 39 yards on 15 carries. It didn't matter, because Seattle's passing game, defense and special teams were all working on high levels, but it's generally been true that as Lynch goes, so go the Seahawks. And it's probably just about time for the Seahawks to find contingency plans, in case that scenario starts to fade.
The potential changes are not just about a possible adjustment in the backfield. In fact, it's hard to imagine the Seahawks not airing it out more. They sent their 2013 first-round pick to the Vikings for receiver/speedster Percy Harvin, and reaped the rewards in the season's biggest game when Harvin riddled the Broncos with runs and returns. They selected two more receivers in the 2014 draft -- Colorado burner Paul Richardson and Alabama possession receiver Kevin Norwood -- and Norwood has looked particularly nifty in early practices. They also re-committed to Doug Baldwin with a two-year contract extension, and Baldwin has been torching everyone in these early practices -- including Richard Sherman, his former Stanford teammate.
Carroll's offenses have generally been risk-averse, but as quarterback Russell Wilson said last week after practice, there's a common theme to the recent acquisitions -- pure speed.
“Yeah, our receivers right now are as fast as it gets. You’ve got Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse is extremely fast, too. Then you add Paul Richardson, who you saw [Monday] went for that deep, deep ball that I threw to him. He’s looking exceptional as well. So I think our receiver group is probably one of the faster in the league right now, based on who we have ... that’s been the best looking position so far – with our offense, at least.”
In 2013, there was no question that the Seahawks had the NFL's best defense. And they kept most of the players that made that defense great, wisely locking up lineman Michael Bennett, cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas with impressive deals. But regression at that level is nearly inevitable. The 2013 Seahawks were not built to play from behind; the 2014 version seems to be constructed to do just that if necessary. And that balance has been on Carroll's mind for a while.
“Well the formula of being committed to a balanced offense, which means running the football more than what’s generally accepted, is just, in my mind, the best way to play football," he said last November. "So we would always want to. Sometimes you can’t. You’re not given the right parts to fit it together, but we made a huge commitment. Going all the way back to Marshawn, that was the statement. We weren’t trying to make it a statement to anybody but it was the statement of what we were looking for. We wanted an aggressive, physical guy that could really lead the charge and then we went out and got Robert Turbin, who is a stud of a kid and fast and tough and all that. And, we come back with Christine Michael. That’s the kind of guys that we want. We want guys that are big and strong and can handle it.
"We’re always committed to running the football because that’s the formula we would like to exhibit, but you can’t knock you head against the wall. When it ain’t happening, it ain’t happening. That’s why we’ve always felt like we need to do what we have to do to get the game won. If it was a perfect world, we want to balance it out and make you have to defend it all, play everything off of the running game and make you have to defend the play passes and the movement of the quarterback and all that.” Bevell backed off the idea of the committee approach after Monday's practice, saying that it was more about players getting opportunities in preseason practices. But given the team's roster construction over the last year, it's clear that the Seahawks are trying to create a new perfect world for themselves -- a world in which the ground game still leads the way, but with more explosive plays as the ultimate result.