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Marshawn Lynch: Beast Mode Evolved

The rise, fall, and rise of Seattle's bruising running back

Marshawn Lynch occupies a weird, compelling space in the football world. More so than anybody else in the league, he’s the guy I find non-football or casual football fans gravitating toward. He’s your favorite basketball blogger’s favorite football player. On a team known even within the outsize sphere of the NFL as one of the league’s biggest1 and most bruising, Lynch stands out for not only making a fair number of defenders miss, but also for seeming to truly relish shaking tacklers off or running them over more than any other back in football. At the same time, he’s a good-natured, downright goofy character with a legitimately funny TV reel, albeit a character with a troubling record of off-field incidents. Maybe what makes him so interesting is that contradiction: Lynch is both that Skittles-slurping folk hero and an old-school archetype being squeezed out of football: the workhorse franchise running back.

Lynch’s professional backstory and the path he has taken to the biggest game of his life are equally disjointed. His lows were lower and his burn was slower than most remember. Somehow, he’s both a cautionary tale for investing too much in a running back and an argument that upper-echelon talent just needs the right spot to shine.

It’s probably fair to say Marshawn Lynch never really should have made his way to Buffalo at all. It was a surprise when the Bills took him with the 12th pick of the 2007 NFL draft, not because of anything to do with Lynch’s talent, but because the Bills were just coming off a dismal experience with their last highly selected running back. They had just been rewarded for spending a first-round pick on Willis McGahee in the 2003 draft by having him complain his way out of Buffalo, refusing to sign an extension while taking shots at Buffalo’s women on the way out. The Bills were only able to net a pair of third-rounders and a seventh-rounder for McGahee. They would end up, years later, getting a fourth- and a fifth-round pick from Seattle for Lynch. Buffalo would even use a third first-round pick on a running back when it nabbed C.J. Spiller with the ninth pick of the 2010 draft.2

As tempting as it is to say that Lynch showed flashes of the brilliant back he would become, he was really a nondescript player for his three-plus years with the Bills. He started from day one and spent his first two seasons as the team’s featured back, but those two seasons produced ho-hum results: He produced an average of 265 carries, 1,076 rushing yards, and eight touchdowns over those two years, just barely squeaking his way over four yards per carry. There’s nothing wrong with those numbers, but you don’t draft a guy in the top 15 to get a league-average back.

The more exciting option was lurking on the bench. Fred Jackson was a 26-year-old undrafted free agent out of tiny Coe College who had spent his postcollegiate career playing minor league indoor football before excelling in the now-defunct NFL Europe; the only reason the Bills likely even gave him a glance was that then–general manager Marv Levy is a fellow product of Coe. Jackson didn’t get the ball as frequently as Lynch, but outperformed him when he did touch the rock. Jackson averaged 4.6 yards per carry on his 188 rushes over that two-year span and was regarded as the better receiver of the two. At the very least, it wasn’t clear that Lynch, the much-ballyhooed first-round pick, was better than his out-of-nowhere backup.

If Lynch’s play left the door open for question marks, his behavior off the field kicked it down. In May 2008, Lynch hit a woman in the middle of a Buffalo street while at the wheel of his Porsche Cayenne before leaving the scene of the accident. He would later plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge, claiming he didn’t realize he had hit the woman, and have his license revoked. The woman would later sue Lynch, claiming he was drunk at the time of the accident. Then, in February 2009, Lynch was arrested on felony charges for possessing a concealed firearm; he pleaded down to a misdemeanor.

After the firearm plea, the NFL suspended Lynch for the first three games of the 2009 season. Whether it was the off-field issues, Lynch’s uninspiring on-field performance, or more likely the combination of the two, Jackson began to establish himself as the superior option at tailback. The team lost faith in Lynch as the season went along, and by Week 12, it had installed Jackson as the team’s starting halfback for good. During the subsequent offseason, the Bills drafted Spiller with their first-round pick and installed him in a time-share with Jackson atop the depth chart. Just three years into his career, the 24-year-old Lynch had fallen from the lofty heights of the first round to the third string of the 6-10 Bills.

During that 2010 offseason, Lynch told Yahoo’s Michael Silver that he felt unwelcome in Buffalo; he and his agent reported that Buffalo cops had chastised him for playing music too loudly in the stadium parking lot and falsely accused him of stealing a $20 bill. His homeowners’ association then wouldn’t allow him to keep a pair of pit bulls he intended to raise. By the end of the story, Lynch had suggested it was time for him to move on from his past and improve his reputation, regardless of where he played. He had an ominous threat for opponents, too: “What will you see from me this year? Beast mode.”

Lynch’s time with Buffalo was coming to a close. Trade rumors swirled around him all summer, and while he suffered a preseason ankle injury that prevented the Bills from dealing him before the season, a season-ending injury to Packers back Ryan Grant in Week 2 just added fuel to the rumor fire. A reunion with former college teammate Aaron Rodgers in Wisconsin seemed to make sense for both sides, but during Buffalo’s Week 5 bye, it finally pulled the trigger on a move and shipped Lynch to Seattle for two midround picks. The Seahawks weren’t dealing with a notable injury at running back, but they were dissatisfied with the performance of preseason starter Julius Jones, whom they released shortly after the trade.

This seems like a natural turning point in the Lynch story, with the back getting a clean slate in his new surroundings and exhibiting the considerable raw talent that had fallen by the wayside in Buffalo. It wasn’t. Lynch was barely passable during his debut season in Seattle. He carried the ball 165 times for just 573 yards, averaging a lowly 3.5 yards per rush. Seattle kept its faith with Lynch and used him as its starter for most of the season, but he was benched after fumbling twice in one quarter against the Saints in Week 11, with The Olympian referring to his playing style as “Bumbling Lynch Mode.” The Seahawks again took him out of the starting lineup for their Week 17 play-in victory over the Rams, during which he fumbled for the third time; he fumbled again in the opening round of the playoffs against those very same Saints.

Lynch ran for 57 yards on his first 16 carries against New Orleans, a near-perfect match for that 3.5-yard rushing average from the regular season. On his 17th carry of the game, he unleashed the Beast Quake, arguably the greatest individual run in football history. For a player who never seemed to feel at ease in Buffalo, where he had been rendered irrelevant and unwanted, Lynch became an instant folk hero the moment he crossed that goal line. It must have felt like he had finally found his professional home.

If the trade to Seattle isn’t seen as the turning point of Lynch’s career, it’s the Beast Quake run that’s seen as his step forward into becoming an upper-echelon running back. Again, it’s simply not that clear. He carried the ball just four times for a total of 2 yards against the Bears in Seattle’s subsequent playoff loss, suffering a shoulder injury in the process. He returned as the team’s starting back in 2011 but was relatively ineffective through the first half of the season; in six games (plus a bye and a missed week because of a back injury), Lynch carried the ball 74 times for a total of just 263 yards, keeping his rushing average at a paltry 3.6 yards per attempt. He fumbled in consecutive starts against the Giants and Bengals, turning over the ball on both occasions. The Seahawks were 2-5 and floundering, as they turned the ball back over to Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback for a start at Dallas, which was without emerging linebacker Sean Lee.

Before the game, Lynch went to offensive line coach Tom Cable and asked for some extra guidance on how to run behind Seattle’s zone-blocking scheme. Although the changes were subtle — Seattle Times writer Danny O’Neil described the shift as “[not changing] how he ran so much as where” — Cable credited Lynch for being brave enough to mix things up. “What he showed me is that he had the courage to accept something new,” Cable said. “I say courage because it takes that to actually change your mindset and go to something different.” That shift in mind-set, very clearly, was the turning point in Marshawn Lynch’s career.

The results from the change were immediate. Seattle lost 23-13 to Dallas, thanks to a pair of interceptions on consecutive passes from Jackson, but Lynch had his first big game — game, not lone play — as a Seahawks back. He ran for 135 yards on 23 carries, marking his first 100-yard regular-season game in nearly three years. The Seahawks had hesitated to rely on Lynch before that contest; he’d averaged 13 carries per contest as a Seattle player up to that point, with just four of his 18 games involving 19 carries or more. From the Dallas game on, Pete Carroll turned Lynch into the focus of the football team. He averaged more than 23 carries per game over the final nine contests of the year, carrying the ball at least 19 times in each of those nine games. Lynch finished with six 100-yard games over that nine-game stretch. Seattle went 5-4 to finish the season, and while it would be getting cause and effect backward to suggest Lynch’s workload caused the Seahawks to start winning (when it was likely, in part, the other way around), that second half was really the first time we saw the style of the Seahawks team that will line up in New Jersey this Sunday.

After the season, the Seahawks finally locked Lynch up with a four-year contract extension that guaranteed him $17 million. While Lynch had become a key contributor to and a beloved member of the Seahawks, his off-field issues again arose. He was arrested on suspicion of DUI in Northern California while driving a Ford van, a case which is yet to be resolved, due to come to trial on February 21.

On the field, Lynch has become Seattle’s beating heart. Since that fateful meeting with Cable, the mercurial running back has led the league in both carries and rushing yards:

Lynch has averaged 92.4 rushing yards per game over that stretch, a figure topped only by Adrian Peterson. He hasn’t missed a single game over that time frame, and after losing that week to Dallas, the Seahawks have gone 32-12 since, including three playoff wins. They’ll aim to make it four on Sunday.

Marshawn Lynch’s history reveals a convoluted, inconsistent story. All the popular reference points for his turnaround are off. He didn’t leave the inexcusable off-field behavior in Buffalo. He doesn’t remotely fit any single past archetype that would suggest a reasonable comparison, but there are players who seem to be in the middle of Lynch’s story, players we probably shouldn’t rush to judge.

Those include LeGarrette Blount, who threw an infamous punch in college before coming to the pros and winning a starting job, only to lose it immediately thereafter and get traded away to a more tolerant franchise. Like Lynch, Blount had his breakout game in the playoffs (against the Colts), only to follow it with a goose egg in the next contest (five carries for 6 yards against the Broncos). Lynch’s history tells us Blount’s next move is to find and adapt to a scheme that plays to his strengths; Blount’s surroundings might be more important than his actual ability to exceed those surroundings. Lynch’s slow rate of adoption in a new scheme after being traded also evokes thoughts of Trent Richardson, a fellow first-round pick and college star who was dealt during his rookie contract.

And, really, it’s important to take away that Lynch’s story is far from over. Believe it or not, he is just 27 years old. In four years, he managed to go from first-round pick to troubled afterthought, and in the subsequent four years, he’s gone from malcontent to superstar. Predicting the future of veteran NFL running backs is often a fool’s errand; with Lynch, it seems downright impossible. About all I can guess is that he’s likely to remain one of the more compelling figures in football.

Filed Under: NFL, Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks, Buffalo Bills, Bill Barnwell

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell