RENTON, Wash. — When Marshawn Lynch put a cryptic retirement message on Twitter on Feb. 7, it was thought to be the logical end to one of the more remarkable second acts in NFL history. Lynch, selected with the No. 12 pick in the 2007 draft by the Bills, didn’t really become a franchise player until the Seahawks traded for him in the ’10 season, creating a perfect mixture of player, scheme and team. Lynch gained 6,347 yards and scored 57 rushing touchdowns during his time in the Emerald City, so it would make sense that his teammates didn’t quite want to accept the end of the ride.
“Yeah, I think he’s done,” Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett said last week on The Rich Eisen Show. “He might make an appearance later on, but I think he’s done for right now. He’s played a lot of football, done a lot of great things on the field. I think he’s really focused on his community work. I want him to play again, but we’ll see.”
“I don’t put anything past him,” cornerback Richard Sherman told former teammate and current NFL analyst Michael Robinson at Robinson’s youth camp last Saturday. “He’s about as predictable as a pair of dice. So I don’t try to call his plays ... You would hope that he comes back. In the back of your mind, you hope he comes back and plays another year. But he doesn’t owe us anything. He’s given us everything. He’s given the game everything we asked.”
This could be an example of wishful thinking from two teammates who benefited greatly from Lynch’s skills on the field and his leadership off the field. And despite what you may think, Lynch was absolutely a leader on the field and in the locker room—he was an ALPHA in a room full of alphas, and teammates regardless of position, on offense and defense, would readily talk about how Lynch’s toughness set the tone for the entire franchise during his time there.
The Seahawks participated in OTAs on Thursday, which presented the first time the media could ask quarterback Russell Wilson and head coach Pete Carroll about the Lynch rumors. Wilson sounded very much like a man who did not expect to see his former teammate on the field anytime soon—or ever.
“Obviously, losing Marshawn is one of the hardest things that can happen, because he’s one of the most talented players in the National Football League when he was playing,” Wilson said. “I think the biggest thing is everyone else stepping up and playing, very similar to when we couldn’t have Marshawn last year when he was battling through his injuries and stuff. Guys stepped up and were leaders, and we’re going to have to have that collective group of leadership.”
When asked if he had any updates on Lynch, Carroll simply said, “No.” Similar to the last day of the 2016 draft, when the head coach simply said, “He’s committed to being retired.”
The transition away from Lynch has been coming for a long time. In truth, Lynch has been wavering between retirement and returning to the NFL since the end of the 2013 season, after the Seahawks demolished the Broncos 43–8 in Super Bowl XLVIII. He mused about it again after Seattle lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, so the wordless announcement on Twitter hardly came as a surprise. That’s why the Seahawks are counting on undrafted second-year man Thomas Rawls, who looked great as Lynch’s replacement until he himself was felled by injuries. Backup Christine Michael took a lot of the snaps with the first team in practice, and everyone seems to be excited about the three running backs the team drafted in 2016—Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise, Alex Collins from Arkansas, and Clemson’s Zac Brooks. It will take a veritable village to replace Lynch’s value at his best, through it’s also reasonable to assume his best may have been behind him.
Even if he were to return (and that window is closing fairly quickly), Lynch’s future is complicated. He missed nine regular-season games and both of Seattle’s playoff games due to injury in 2016, gaining just 417 yards on 111 carries. His average of 3.8 yards per carry marked his first full season with the Seahawks in which he didn’t average at least four yards per carry, and the fact that he just turned 30 should be a concern, given the physical style with which he has always run. The burn rate for backs of Lynch’s age is exceedingly high, and it’s quite possible that this was a primary factor in Lynch’s original decision to finally hang up his cleats—in his case, literally.
There’s also the small matter of Lynch’s contract—which if he returned to the team would exact a cap charge of $11.5 million in 2016. Seahawks GM John Schneider has said that the team would rather take the $5 million cap hit caused by Lynch’s placement on the reserve/retired list, and that decision must be made by Wednesday. This would take all of Lynch’s cap off the books in 2017.
Coincidentally, the Seahawks have their next OTA open to the media on Wednesday, at which point the answer to the seemingly eternal Lynch question should be a bit more grounded in reality—and the replacements will get one more chance to prove that they can indeed replace a player who seems to be irreplaceable.