At this time one year ago, the Seahawks entered the playoffs coming off back-to-back losses to the Cardinals and 49ers with major concerns at the running back position after losing Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and C.J. Prosise to season-ending injuries.
To offset those losses, Marshawn Lynch crawled off his couch and returned from retirement for a second time. Robert Turbin, who previously backed up Lynch during Seattle's Super Bowl run in 2013, also re-signed, while then-rookie Travis Homer earned his first career start against San Francisco in Week 17.
While the Seahawks managed to squeak by the Eagles in the Wild Card round and Lynch scored three touchdowns in two playoff games, the team struggled to run the football in the postseason with 174 combined rushing yards. 109 of those yards came from quarterback Russell Wilson, with Lynch and Homer rushing for 33 and 25 yards respectively and each averaging under two yards per carry.
Fast forwarding to the final stretch run of this pandemic-impacted 2020 season, Seattle found itself in a far more ideal situation with all three of its top backs healthy. Carson had returned from a mid-foot sprain that cost him four games, Carlos Hyde was fully recovered from a turf toe injury that cost him four games as well, and Penny was set to make his debut after recovering from offseason reconstructive knee surgery.
But with the No. 1 seed still in play heading into the final week of the regular season and the team gunning for a 12-4 finish for the first time in six years, despite having Carson and Penny active, it only seems fitting the Seahawks wound up relying on practice squad running back Alex Collins with Sunday's game against the 49ers hanging in the balance.
Already without Hyde, who was ruled out with an illness 24 hours before kickoff, the Seahawks lost Carson and Penny during a sequence midway through the fourth quarter. Carson was getting checked out on the sideline with a bloody ear, while Penny suffered cramps after his sixth carry of the game.
Facing a 2nd and 1 at the 49ers 11-yard line and trailing 16-12 with under four minutes to play, Collins stepped right into the fray, falling forward on a one-yard carry to pick up a first down. On the next play, he dragged multiple defenders on a powerful six-yard carry and three plays later, Wilson connected with Tyler Lockett for their second touchdown of the quarter to put the Seahawks back in front.
Moments later, after Benson Mayowa strip-sacked quarterback C.J. Beathard and Rasheem Green recovered the fumble, Collins provided Seattle's knockout punch to seal the deal. After picking up six yards on a split-zone concept on first down, he made a defender miss and again carried two defenders for extra yardage on an eight-yard run to advance his team to the San Francisco three-yard line.
Following a false start penalty on center Ethan Pocic, Collins called game. Running outside zone to the left, the fifth-year back bounced the run outside the tackle, sidestepped a diving tackle attempt by cornerback Jason Verrett, then lowered his shoulder to plow through Tarvarious Moore and extend the ball past the goal line for a punishing game-sealing touchdown.
"What a great finish he had. That touchdown run was sweet," coach Pete Carroll said following the game. "He knocked out some yards when we needed it in great fashion. Whenever Alex gets his chance he does stuff and he's a good football player and we're really lucky to have him. It was a great finish for him."
Though he only played in the fourth quarter, Collins finished with 29 rushing yards on just five carries, once again impressing in a reserve role when called upon. Earlier in the season, with Carson and Hyde sidelined, the former Arkansas star earned a Week 10 start against the Rams and rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown.
Previously a fifth-round pick by Seattle back in 2016, it's been a long road back to the field for Collins, who didn't play at all last year due to off-field issues and injuries. The Ravens released him in March 2019 after he was involved in a car crash and arrested for possession of marijuana and a handgun. Before he could latch on with another team, he suffered a broken leg and underwent surgery, preventing him from signing elsewhere.
With the backfield in dire shape at the halfway point of the season, after kicking the tires earlier by bringing Collins in for a workout, the Seahawks officially signed him to the practice squad on November 4. Playing in his first game action in over a year, he received two carries for five yards in a 44-34 loss to the Bills in Week 9 before starting against the Rams the ensuing week.
Since then, Seattle hadn't been able to elevate Collins to the practice squad because his two game day promotions had been used. He would have had to take a 53-man roster spot. But recently, the NFL adjusted rules to allow teams to promote such players for playoff games, opening the door for him to receive a game day callup for the Wild Card round in a grudge match with Los Angeles on Saturday.
Behind Carson, the Seahawks expect to have Hyde back this week and Penny should be good to go after dealing with cramps, so the team may not have a need for Collins to be active. But considering the bad luck the team has had health-wise at the position in recent years and the extra juice he provided in the season finale, it might be wise to have a little insurance on hand against a tough Rams defense.
As for the future, with Carson and Hyde set to hit free agency and Penny yet to prove himself capable of being the lead back for the Seahawks to this point, Collins may also be playing himself into an opportunity to compete for significant playing time in 2021.