What I think I learned from Christine Michael
Pete Carroll and his coaching staff aggressively plays young players from the moment they enter the league. They did it with Russell Wilson. They are doing it with this offensive line. Nearly every rookie who makes the team gets a chance to grow on the field their first season. Christine Michael was one of the rare exceptions. That was our first clue that something was amiss.
Seattle drafted him in the second round of the 2013 draft, shocking many observers due to the fact the team had a guy like Marshawn Lynch in his prime and had just drafted Robert Turbin the year before. The scouting department and front office talked up his remarkable athletic ability, noting he shared some physical attributes with the rarest of athletes, Adrian Peterson. Once on the practice field, his burst and lateral quickness became apparent immediately. He was in a different league than a guy like Turbin. Knowing how much Carroll preached competition and how much more potential Michael had than Turbin, the door seemed wide open to a new heir apparent to Lynch.
He led all runners that preseason with 67 yards per game, and did it explosively with a 5.0 yards per carry. This guy was clearly a weapon. The only question seemed to be how the Seahawks would find spots to feature him. It never happened.
He carried the ball 18 times for 79 yards his rookie year. Turbin was abysmal as a runner, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. Every sign pointed to Carroll and staff giving Michael a chance to shine. I was flummoxed. It is not like running back is a position that players have trouble transitioning from college to pro. In fact, many runners have their best seasons early in their careers when their bodies are healthiest.
Coaches were asked about why Michael was not playing, but gave vague answers that provided little insight. My side conversations with coaches, players, and media members offered little in the way of clues. There was some talk of him needing to “grow up” or “be a professional.” Nothing damning.
The following season saw him get a few more chances, and the results were impressive. He averaged 5.1 yards per run on 34 carries. Still, he could never break through to become a regular member of the rotation. Turbin was still a mediocre player, barely eclipsing four yards per run. Now, I started questioning the coaching staff. Whatever his faults may be, the guy had oodles of talent. It was their job to unlock it. Darrell Bevell had even caused some commotion after he talked about what sounded like a running back-by-committee approach in the offseason as he talked up Michael again.
He wound up getting traded at the end of the 2015 preseason to the Dallas Cowboys. When he eventually returned, we learned that he was approaching things in a different way as far as coaches were concerned. They commented on his professionalism and newfound attention to detail. That shed some light on what the problem had been. This was a guy who was not learning the plays and protections well enough to be trusted on the field. The team clearly cannot risk the health of their quarterback by putting a player out there who does not know who to pick up on blitzes. They cannot ask his teammates to execute perfectly while allowing a single player to run the wrong direction and botch the whole play.
Michael ran hard when he got back last season. He protected the football better, which was another bugaboo that some chalked up to lack of focus and attention to detail. He celebrated less after each play. Then, during the offseason, the Seahawks drafted three running backs. It was a clear signal that his place on the roster was anything but safe. Michael responded.
A source in the front office told me to keep an eye on him come training camp because he had been having a spectacular offseason training with the team. He came to camp focused and performed well. All his athletic ability was still there for all to see, but now it appeared he was putting together the other parts needed to unlock his potential as a frontline running back.
Due to injury, he got a chance to hold onto the starting running back role. Wilson was hurt as well, so logic would indicate the team should at least try to lean on Michael a bit more as Wilson healed. That happened the following week when he got 20 carries and produced 106 yards and 2 touchdowns against the 49ers. That was after averaging 6.0 yards per carry on 10 tries against the vaunted Rams defense. Everything seemed to be falling in place. He would never see 20 carries again.
The next two weeks he got 18 carries, then 16, then 10, then 5 the following two weeks. It was another mystery. What happened?
My best guess is that Michael lost the coaches trust again along the way. He was not running the plays the way Tom Cable wanted him too. He was not hitting the right hole at the right time. He was unwilling to get the hard yards in the middle of the field, and chose to freelance outside where he was more comfortable. There were a few moments where he chose to run out of bounds instead of taking a hit. If he had been a rookie, they likely would have tolerated it and kept coaching him up. Been there. Done that.
Add to that the emergence of C.J. Prosise, the return to health of Thomas Rawls, and the availability of Troymaine Pope, and there was little reason to grin and bear it with Michael. Guys like Rawls and Pope are the antithesis of Michael. Neither are the athlete that Michael is, but both hit the right holes and do it with vigor. They do not freelance.
When you have a young offensive line that is clearly still learning to play together, having an unpredictable runner behind them makes life more difficult. Cable needs to be able to show his linemen the fruits of their labor when they actually block the play correctly. When they get it right three out of ten tries, and the running back hits the wrong hole in two of those three chances, the whole offense sags.
Before all this happened, I saw the running back position as one that was 70% about explosiveness and elusiveness, 20% about vision, and 10% intangibles. That perspective is more refined now. While athletic ability is still the biggest factor in determining a runner’s ceiling, their discipline within the system and willingness to learn goes a long way in determining whether they ever reach their potential. A guy like Turbin hit the right holes and knew the playbook inside and out, but lacked the explosiveness and elusiveness to be anything more than an average backup. Still, he may wind up having a longer career in the NFL than Michael because teams know they can count on him.
The fun running back room
Fans should be excited at the prospect of Rawls, Prosise, and Pope. Alex Collins is there as well, but his role may diminish further to the point of being inactive on Sundays. Rawls will be the hammer. Even if the team is not gaining big chunks of yards, they will be more willing to call running plays because the know Rawls will get whatever there is to get.
Prosise will need to prove he can stay healthy. As thrilling as it was to see him play with such a physical edge against the Patriots, I would hate to see him sidelined again. He will be the flash to Rawls’ dash. Expect more outside zones and runs that take advantage of his speed to the corner. More importantly, he gives the team an ideal weapon in the empty sets as he forces defenses to play him like a receiver. He can run all the routes, and has already proven he can stretch the field.
Pope may only see a few carries per game, similar to what Collins has received so far. He is arguably the most elusive of the three, and could earn more carries as the season wears on.
The diversity of the group is rare, and should be a lot of fun to watch the rest of the way.
Damontre Moore has my attention
My son is sick of hearing me talk about Damontre Moore. He is the defensive lineman the Seahawks picked up off the street a couple of weeks ago. All he has done in limited snaps is register two tackles for loss and a half-sack of Tom Brady. He has been a disruptive force every time he is on the field. My head tells me this is a guy nobody wanted for a reason. My eyes tell me the Seahawks may have another Michael Bennett.
Now, before you think I have lost my mind, let me explain. I am not really thinking Moore is as good as Bennett. It is simply the closest comparison I can come up with for his style and the amount of havoc he causes off the snap. I am seeing him run free or confuse linemen on nearly every snap. He is not always making the tackle, but he is effecting the play.
Carroll is not always open to players freelancing, as we discussed earlier. T.Y. McGill was a monster in the middle a couple of preseasons ago, but Carroll cut him and openly talked about his tendency to be in the wrong gap. McGill has played pretty well for the Colts, but Carroll wants guys who are dependable in the run game. He makes an exception for Bennett because he is so smart that his risks usually pay off and he understands his responsibility within the system.
Moore may get fewer reps in run situations because of this issue, but who cares? He is already earning pass rush snaps, and when Bennett comes back in a few weeks…oh my. If the team can find a way to get Bennett, Moore, Frank Clark and Cliff Avril all on the field at the same time, I’d expect very, very good things to happen. More likely, they will rotate Moore in occasionally. My hope is we get to see at least a few snaps with Bennett and Moore in at the same time. Something great could be right around the corner.