Famously silent, Marshawn Lynch has always let his play speak for itself. But a subpar, injury-plagued season has Seahawks fans talking about the 29-year-old’s future and his true value for a struggling team
SEATTLE — It’s the Monday morning after the Seahawks’ bye week in mid-November, and inside the 710 ESPN studios, they’re talking about Marshawn Lynch. This is, of course, an exercise that Lynch himself disdains. He’ll talk for endorsements, for Skittles and Call of Duty and a local plumbing company, among others. He’ll discuss his charity work, and allow that he’s about that action, boss, but he rarely speaks publicly and even less about himself.
Thus, an experiment: Ask a football-obsessed city to speak for him and about him. About why he matters and how he will be remembered and whether he will play beyond this season. Opinions vary, as they often do when the subject is divisive. And Lynch ranks among football’s most divisive personalities.
It’s why we asked Seattle-based radio hosts Mike Salk and Brock Huard to open the phone and text lines on their “Brock and Salk” morning show. It’s 9 a.m., seven days before the Seahawks will face the Cardinals in a pivotal NFC West showdown, and at this point in the season backup running back Thomas Rawls has one more rushing yard than Lynch—on 34 fewer carries.
Seattle’s offensive line, while improving, remains in disarray through eight games. The entire offense is middling, ranking 19th in total yards at the time. Though Lynch has been battling calf, hamstring and abdominal injuries, it is nothing more than a footnote in a much larger debate about the city’s reasons for wanting to embrace him or be done with him. The hosts are seated behind microphones, sweaters on, coffee cups nearby, rain falling steadily outside the studio.
Eric from Gig Harbor is on the line. He’s saying, “This guy just is a perfect [blend] between Earl Campbell and Walter Payton.” He’s saying, “In the Northwest, we respect good football, and this guy runs like his hair is on fire, like he’s scared, like’s running from somebody.” Eric suddenly gets down on Shaun Alexander, who scored 112 touchdowns for the Seahawks from 2000 to ’07, and that’s because Alexander avoided tacklers while Lynch runs toward and through them.
The text messages trickle in.
Sadly, I feel like what we’re seeing is the end of Beast Mode. Each week I feel like we are waiting for him to get back to himself, and now we’re halfway through.
Who cares about getting to know Lynch? I care about stats, and with no O-line, he’s mediocre at best. I wouldn’t put more money into Lynch. We need to put the money somewhere else.
For the next hour, this is how the experiment unfolded, a back and forth all over the spectrum. Really, it’s always this way with Marshawn Lynch.
* * *
Topic 1: Has Marshawn reached the end?
“So,” Huard says, “are we looking at the final 11 games of Marshawn Lynch?” He’s counting playoffs, and to get to 11 games the Seahawks would need to win the NFC West title and advance to the Super Bowl for a third straight season.
“I felt all along this was going to be it for Marshawn,” Salk says. “Although, you know, if he came back that wouldn’t surprise me, either.”
JR from T-Town, or Tacoma for the uninitiated, is on the line. He notes the occasions when Lynch held out for more money, the games he missed this season (two full and most of another), the injuries to his calf and hamstring. He’s saying, “Everything he’s been doing has been building to this point”—the end.
People who know football don’t watch Lynch and see a diminished skillset, even at his advanced age of 29. Huard starred in college at Washington and played in the NFL for the Seahawks and the Colts. He witnessed backs who reached age 30 and fell off an invisible cliff—young, fast and explosive suddenly giving way to older, slower and not-so-much. But Huard has studied Lynch this fall, and he sees the same explosiveness, the same pass-catching ability, the same blocking skills. He can’t find even one specific area where Lynch looks markedly worse than he did in recent seasons, other than the injuries, which can stem from his running style and seem to indicate a familiar scrap with Father Time.
“I don’t see Jerome Bettis at the end of his career,” Huard says. “I don’t see Shaun Alexander at the end of his career. I don’t see Clinton Portis at the end of his career.”
He sees, well, the same Marshawn Lynch.
To that point, Warren Moon, the Hall of Fame quarterback and Seahawks radio analyst, is in agreement. Like everyone else in the greater Seattle area, he’s watched carefully in recent years to see if the runner known as Beast Mode has become less beastly than before. Last season Lynch rushed for 1,306 yards, scored 17 touchdowns and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. That answered all the questions.
But this season …
“He’s starting to get back there,” Moon says. “I was a little concerned early in the season, because whenever running backs get to this age, their physical skills diminish. He’s the most physical runner there is.”
But Lynch’s recent performances point toward an uptick. He scored his first touchdown this season against Carolina in Week 6, dominated San Francisco for 122 rushing yards and another score in Week 7, and scratched out 71 rushing yards against Dallas in Week 8. The Seahawks went 2-1 during that stretch, their record blemished only by a Panthers comeback late in the fourth quarter that was sealed by blown pass coverage. “The Cowboys game, those were man yards,” Moon says. “That said to me, he’s back.”
Lynch will present John Schneider, the Seahawks’ general manager, with a dilemma this offseason. He’s a complete back but an older one, a leader who doesn’t strive to lead, and he’s important to the Seahawks for reasons beyond the stat sheet, even as his stats are likely to continue to diminish. Going into the Cardinals game, Lynch ranked 41st out of 49 qualifying backs in yards per carry, at 3.6. Last year, he ranked 13th at 4.7. His average yards after contact were also down, from 2.5 to 1.9, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but that could have resulted from his injuries and the Seahawks’ abysmal line play.
And while statistics can often be misleading, two other numbers matter greatly. One is 1,181—the number of times Lynch carried the ball over the past four seasons, a league high. The other is $11.5 million—what Lynch is due next season, according to Spotrac.com. It’s money that, if not paid to Lynch, could be spent elsewhere (captain obvious speaking: to improve the offensive line).
Jim from Tenino is on the line. He wonders how much people really should expect from Lynch at this point in his career, at or near the end. But he’s not opposed to Lynch’s short-term return. He’s saying, “Maybe next year we do throw [the money] in his lap. I mean, it’s one year.”
* * *
Topic 2: Is Lynch a leader?
Matt from Auburn is on the line. He compares Lynch to Mariano Rivera, the former Yankees closer who for decades embodied the ethos of a franchise. He says, “We’re missing the point. Marshawn is the instigator of success. As Marshawn goes, so go the Seahawks.”
The argument for keeping Lynch extends beyond the usual statistics, and that’s because he means more to the Seahawks than rushing yards and touchdowns. It’s easy to argue that Lynch, more than any of his teammates, symbolizes how the Seahawks want to play and who they want to be. Tough. Physical. Punishing.
“I felt like they were missing their essence without him,” Salk says. “He is the one with the edge. And if Richard Sherman is not going to squawk the way he used to and have the same level of bravado, where are you going to get that edge from? The edge comes from Marshawn Lynch.”
Lynch’s impact was evident in how people reacted to the last play of Super Bowl 49, when coaches dialed up a pass at the Patriots’ 1-yard line and cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson. Most fans and even some teammates felt that Lynch should have been handed the ball. That sentiment wasn’t surprising, but the intensity of the response stood out for months.
His impact is evident in more subtle ways, and unseen ways, too. Nate Boyer, the former Green Beret who was in training camp last August with the Seahawks, remembers once seeing Lynch pull aside backup running back Thomas Rawls. Lynch pointed out the small mistakes he had seen Rawls making, and when Rawls’s expression indicated he wasn’t sure if Lynch was joking, Lynch added, “I’m serious, man!”
“This is a culture about helping each other,” Boyer says. “It’s what championship teams are made of. Marshawn’s one of the guys who makes it like that.”
Here, too, Moon is in agreement. He notes that Lynch can “do some quirky things,” like his need to vomit before games to relieve nausea, or the way he’ll sit at his locker during media availability with his speakers cranked to max volume and a towel over his head. But Moon also says, “People have the wrong idea about Marshawn. Some of that is his fault because he doesn’t let many people find out who he is. He’s smarter than people give him credit for. It’s just that he’s had to deal with a lot in life, and he doesn’t trust most people.
“He’s not inspirational in terms of personality,” Moon concludes. “But he is inspirational in the way he plays. He’s the poster boy for this offense and this football team because of his mentality. He plays the way Pete Carroll wants his players to play football.”
That was most evident this season on the Seahawks’ first scoring drive against the 49ers in Week 7. Lynch carried nine times on that drive, including five times on six plays from inside the 3-yard line. He bulled and inched and pushed forward until he scored, and it was a tone-setter that deflated San Francisco’s defense in a game the Seahawks absolutely had to win. Soon afterward, Carroll told reporters that the Seahawks were “starting to play more in the style that we’re accustomed to.” That started with Lynch.
The larger questions are whether the Seahawks will ever want to be something else, and how soon? Salk asks a fair question. “As long as Lynch is there, are you ever going to get the full Russell Wilson experience?” As in, will this ever truly be Wilson’s team with Lynch around?
For now, Lynch is a leader, and the Seahawks need him to lead in whatever quirky, odd, say-little fashion he desires. Sure, issues remain. The Seahawks have struggled on offense in the red zone and up front. Did we mention the offensive line yet? And their 39-32 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday night dropped their record to 4-5, putting them three games out of first place in the NFC West. (Lynch carried the ball eight times for 42 yards, once again making him the team’s leading rusher.) But Seattle’s remaining schedule—49ers Steelers, Vikings, Ravens, Browns, Rams, and Cardinals again—isn’t exactly daunting, and it includes four home dates. All of the Seahawks’ goals remain possible, again.
“This team needs this challenge,” Moon says. “They’ve had so much success the last two years, and you can start to coast a little bit. What this team is lacking now is hunger. This challenge is going to make them hungry again.”
* * *
Topic 3: Is Lynch starting to reveal himself more?
Corey from Marysville is on the line. He’s saying, “I completely believe in Beast Mode.” But he adds, “I do want a little more out of him. Because I love the guy so much … I want to get to know him. That’s why I was bummed when his movie didn’t go through.”
Let’s pause there and consider that Lynch almost starred in a movie about himself. We haven’t seen a script, but his lines surely would have included, About that action, boss.
OK, moving on.
Jim from Woodinville is on the line. He’s saying, “It just seems like it’s a shame that we as fans and everybody, we don’t get to know the guy because he doesn’t talk. It’s kind of like the whole feeling when Ichiro was here. We all knew him, he was great on the field, but he hid behind the language barrier, and we never really got to know the person. I kind of feel the same way about Marshawn. He hides behind not talking.”
That’s probably the first and only time Lynch will be compared to Ichiro, but perhaps it helps explain his recent commercial blitz. You can’t turn on your television these days in the Seattle area and not see Lynch, even if you rarely hear from him on matters other than what you should buy, or play, or who should fix your toilet.
There’s his Beacon Plumbing spot—“stop freakin’, call Beacon, Beast Mode”—in which Lynch carries a toilet through a living room. There was his interview with Conan O’Brien, when they watched gamers play Call of Duty and O’Brien wore a T-shirt that said, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” O’Brien teased Lynch about how his pants looked, as if they might fall off. And Lynch provided commentary best described as Lynch-ish. Examples: “Blew up s---” … and “I didn’t think you were the sliding type” … and “I ain’t mad at you.”
“They’re going to put a chip in your brain,” O’Brien said at one point.
“I guess I won’t be getting any data updates,” Lynch responded.
There’s even a Beast Mode Frappuccino available in Oakland, Calif., Lynch’s hometown, and Washington state, with a portion of the proceeds going to Lynch’s Fam 1st Family Foundation. The drink is a combination of coffee (although it can be ordered without), protein powder, hints of mint and cream, purple raspberry drizzle, a sprinkle of matcha (for a green hue) and whipped cream. It contains eight grams of protein, 13 grams of fat and 44 grams of sugar and runs about 330 calories. The MMQB tried one, because, well, it’s Peter King’s website. Here’s our Beast Mode coffeenerdness review: like candy in a cup.
The larger point, Moon says, is that ”whatever certain feelings people have about him, it’s not hurting his endorsements.”
If all the airtime seems contradictory to Lynch’s stay-silent persona, it’s possible that this is who Lynch is, a player who is comfortable with himself and not afraid to poke fun at how he is perceived (and also cash in on it). Some forget, Huard says, that when receiver Ricardo Lockette suffered a scary neck injury against the Cowboys, Lynch was one of three teammates who stayed in Dallas with him. Or that when safety Kam Chancellor held out this summer and into the season, Lynch was one of the players who spoke up in support.
Lynch even made a stop at a McDonald’s while in Dallas, according to TMZ. A worker there reportedly complimented Lynch on the navy blue Buscemi kicks he was wearing. He tipped the worker $500.
That’s also Lynch. He can say nothing, but still say a lot.
* * *
Topic 4: How will Lynch be remembered?
Lorin Sandretzky, known as Big Lo, is more than a Seattle superfan. He has his own action figure and his own book and is known for the signs—“SEA” and a picture of fence— he brings to home games. (He’s also been stabbed and won the lottery and confronted a rare disease where a parasite devoured large chunks of his flesh, but that’s another story for another time.)
Big Lo has not one but two Lynch tattoos. He once asked Lynch to sign the one on his left leg, to which Lynch responded, “Oh, hell no, Big Lo! I ain’t signing your leg!” That only increased Big Lo’s affection for one of his favorite Seahawks ever. He so admires Lynch that he recorded a song with a local rapper and called it “March On Lynch.” And most Wednesdays fellow fanatics can find Big Lo at a local Costco, where he buys five oversized bags of Skittles so everyone in the south end zone can shower Lynch with his favorite candy should he reach score.
“Who wouldn’t want to shower a player with Skittles every time he scores a TD?” Big Lo asks.
Coming from a guy with those tattoos, it’s a perfectly reasonable question.
Big Lo thinks Lynch is in large part responsible for the greatest era in team history, for back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, for the Seahawks’ only championship, over the Broncos two seasons ago, in Super Bowl 48. “You know how the Oakland Raiders used to be the bad boys of the NFL? Now, we are,” he says. “That’s Marshawn.”
Big Lo wants Lynch to play for another two seasons after this one. He can see that happening, just like he can see the Seahawks going undefeated over the remainder of the season. He doesn’t want to think about if, or inevitably when, Lynch might depart. “That part scares me,” Big Lo says. “I don’t want to lose Marshawn.”
To the question of Lynch’s legacy, those on the airwaves agree with Seattle’s superfan.
Matt from Bellevue is on the line. He’s saying, “He redefined the position. His durability is the thing that comes to mind. He’s there. He’s the backbone of this offense. In five years, this team will be a shadow of its former self when he was a part of it.”
Scott from Sacramento is on the line. He has been a Seahawks’ fan for 30 years. He’s saying, “You’re going to look back at him as one of the best Seahawks ever. You’re going to look at him as one of the best running backs to ever play his position in a long period of time.”
The Seahawks universe, home of the 12s, seems to be in agreement here. The fans may find Lynch a little odd, or hard to know, or atypical in how he leads, but they will not forget him, whether he returns next season or not. That can’t factor into Schneider’s offseason dilemma, but it will impact the reaction to whatever happens.
The radio hour is nearing an end, as Huard delivers the perfect lens through which to view Lynch, in Seattle and beyond. “As sacrificial a player as anyone who ever donned the uniform,” Huard says. “And as enigmatic a guy who ever donned the uniform. You don’t really know him. You think you do.” He mentions Art Briles, the Baylor coach, and how he never wavers on his process, his way. “Marshawn has that infinitely more than any Seahawk I can remember,” Huard says.
That, ultimately, is Marshawn Lynch. His aura of silence, his air of mystery, his, ahem, creative way of existence, that’s all part of his charm and part of his genius and part of the reason that it seems possible he may no longer be welcome at the end of every season. He’s perfect for the Seahawks because of his imperfections. In a league filled with comparisons, for Lynch there is none.