Christine Michael: The Return of the 2,000 Yard Man

It was finally the Seahawks turn to pick. They had traded away their first round selection to acquire a dynamic receiver in Percy Harvin, and fans had patiently waited to hear who the next great Seahawks draft choice was going to be. Predictions flew. It could be a young offensive lineman, or maybe that big receiver Seattle lacked. The selection was announced…The Seattle Seahawks, with the 62nd pick in the 2013 draft, select Christine Michael, running back, Texas A&M. What? Wait…what? Marshawn Lynch just ran for nearly 1,600 yards, and the team drafted Robert Turbin at running back in the fourth round the year before. It was another John Schneider stunner. The Seahawks front office had just used a second round pick on a running back, which could mean only one thing: they saw him as the heir apparent. That got my attention.

The build up

Seattle often trots out their area scouts who were primarily responsible for scouting the player who was just selected to provide additional color to the media. The scout who spoke about Christine Michael spoke glowingly of his athletic measurables. He compared his profile to that of one Adrian Peterson. It sounded a bit crazy, but Zach Whitman, of Field Gulls, did his usual SPARQ research that backed up what the scout had said.

Source: Seahawks Reddit Post

His college highlights seemed to reinforce the point. Michael was explosive at the line of scrimmage, and physical down the field. He had a nifty spin move that he used extensively after breaking through the first line of defenders which often got him another chunk of yardage. Given what the front office had done in the 2010, 2011, and 2012 drafts, and what the numbers and highlights showed, there was reason to be excited.

Training camp rolled around and Michael was a standout. He was everything Turbin was not. The explosive speed and power were obvious. He was quick and fast and strong. Seeing him break through a hole and take it the distance was common. I noted that he did seem to be a little loose with the football, fumbling it occasionally when teammates chased him down, but that seemed like an easy enough problem for coaches to fix.

It was easy to see what the front office was thinking when they drafted him. Lynch, for all his greatness, was a power back who was more equipped to turn a 2 yard gain into a 8-12 yard gain than to break a long run. He was a career 4.2 yards per carry back, even after a 5.0 YPC season in 2012. Michael might not get the power yards Lynch famously gained, but he would surely turn some of those 5 or 10 yard runs into 40 or 60 yards runs. Give Michael the 300+ carries Lynch had been getting, and multiply that by a 5.5 YPC average, who could pop for a 6.0+ YPC season, and the math started speaking for itself.

I tweeted out and wrote that Michael could go for 2,000 yards in this offense. I believed it. I even bet KJR Radio host Dave “Softy” Mahler that Michael would eclipse Lynch’s best season with Seattle (1,590 yards) the first time he spent the year as the Seahawks feature back.

I was not alone. Louis Riddick, of ESPN, raved about Michael. The Texas A&M strength coach insisted Michael was comparable to Peterson athletically, as he had trained them both. Everything pointed to a new explosive weapon for a young and growing Seahawks offense.

The waiting game

Michael joined a Seahawks team in 2013 that was poised to have the best season in franchise history. They would win 13 games, and eventually trounce the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. For all the greatness of that season, there were also a few trouble signs that were obscured by the revelry. 
That Harvin trade was a bust before the season even began. He had surgery in the preseason and only really contributed to one game, which thankfully was the Super Bowl. Even with that, the amount of money and draft picks committed for that move were in serious question. 
Michael was an even lesser known story. Most people would never question why a rookie running back, playing behind Lynch on a championship team, would only get 18 carries on the season. Those people had not watched Pete Carroll and the Seahawks closely. 
There is no rookie rule in Seattle. Carroll wants young players on the field as soon as possible, contributing in whatever way possible. Kam Chancellor played behind Lawyer Milloy as a rookie. He was not ready to take on that full responsibility, but Carroll and staff fashioned a role on short yardage and goal line that got Chancellor on the field to show what he could do and gain experience. 
Seventh round pick, Michael Bowie, played a major role in that 2013 season at right tackle and at guard. Alvin Bailey, an undrafted free agent, was used cleverly as an extra tight end in heavy packages that proved pivotal in the NFC Championship game against the 49ers. Rookies who have skill and potential find their way onto the field for the Seahawks. Michael was not.
It was not for lack of need. Turbin was plodding his way to 264 yards on 77 carries for a paltry 3.4 yard average per carry. Something beyond talent and potential was holding Michael back. Questions were occasionally asked that year, but they were easily brushed aside for more important discussions. 
Those questions grew louder when Darrell Bevell hyped Michael headed into training camp the next year, saying “We are going to be running back by committee. We really like what Christine Michael is doing right now,” and then barely used him during the year. Michael had just 34 carries, but had a 5.0 yard average that made his spot in the doghouse even more curious.

The goodbye

There was a fairly strong feeling heading into training camp this year that it was going to be Lynch’s final season. Seattle needed to find who would take over for him when he left. Turbin had proven to be a fine backup runner, who was conscientious, but did not have any attribute that rose to starter quality. Michael had all the talent, but his ascension had been stunted by some sort of mysterious challenges behind the scenes that only coaches knew. Then there were newcomers Thomas Rawls and Rod Smith, both undrafted free agents.
Carroll spoke about how important of a preseason this was for Michael, and that he would be given every chance to stand out. He got a starters workload in the first few preseason games, but fumbled in his first two games, and ran the wrong play at least once. It was the kind of careless mental mistakes that signaled to coaches that he had not learned what was required to be a professional. 
Tom Cable wants runners to run a specific way. He does not want to hear about their style. He does not want them to freelance. He wants it run exactly the way he draws it up, at exactly the pace he draws it up. Once the runner crosses the line of scrimmage, all bets are off, and personal style and talent can take over. He owns your first five steps. 
Rawls got that. Smith got that. That, more than anything else, led to Michael being shown the exit at the end of the preseason.
Carroll tried to revise history a bit yesterday by saying that Rawls bowled them over in the preseason, but that was not the case. Carroll admitted after Rawls first big regular season game against Chicago that he had hoped to see Rawls’ powerful and explosive style that had shown up on college tapes, but that they did not see it in the preseason. He even said in a preseason press conference that Rawls and Smith were not really competing with Michael because there was a pretty big separation there. 
They were fed up with the lack of discipline, attention to detail, and consistency from Michael. Rawls may not have looked dynamic in the preseason, but they could count on him to run the play as it was drawn up and to hit the hole aggressively. That was all Cable really cared about.
Michael was shown the door, taking the unenviable trophy for being the most talented Seahawks draft choice to wash out. There had been other misses, but never with a player who so obviously had Pro Bowl potential. It was a defeat for the player, but also for the coaching staff who was never able to unlock his talent.

The return

Rawls proved the theory that a high yards per carry back could give this offense a turbo boost and even outstrip Lynch’s rushing totals. He was on his way to well over 1,000 yards in about half a season of starting. His vision and lateral agility has proven to be elite, and his physical style has endeared him to Seahawks fans.
Seattle now has a viable replacement for Lynch should he retire as expected next year. The problem is they need someone now. 
Fred Jackson has not looked right since he sprained his ankle early in the year, and is not capable of taking over the starting spot. DeJuan Harris was definitely not the right fit, seeing as he was not fast or powerful or decisive. Seattle brought in Bryce Brown, whom they had signed and released earlier in the season. Then, in a bit of a surprise, they opened the door again for Michael, who had been on the Redskins practice squad.


Redskins GM Scot McCloughan worked with Schneider and the Seahawks back in that 2013 draft. It was a bit of coincidence that Michael was released from the practice squad the same day the Seahawks created an open roster spot. Seattle could have signed Michael off the Redskins practice squad, but they would have been required to keep him on the active roster for a minimum of three weeks. By releasing him, Seattle was free to sign Michael without any roster guarantees. It may just be a coincidence. It may have been two old friends doing business. Should Seattle wind up playing the Redskins in the first round of the playoffs, and Michael plays some sort of meaningful role, Washington fans may not be so happy with the generosity of their GM. If Michael is cut before three weeks passes, the NFL Players Association may not be so happy with what could be considered collusion. Probably nothing, but something to be aware of.
The most likely scenario is that Derrick Coleman will get the first chance as starter this week as he has experience in the system and will run the way Cable wants it done. Brown will get some carries this week as well. He has talent and is just 24 years old, but has had a fumbling problem that has contributed to his lack of spot on a roster. 
Then there is Michael. He has the most experience of the three at being a running back on this team, but ironically may be the farthest from knowing how to get on the field. His talent is still there. The question is whether his shortcomings are as well. Recent history with the Cowboys and now the Redskins would suggest they are. 
It is part of what makes sports so fascinating. The same way money alone cannot make you happy, talent is not enough to make a player into a professional. 
Michael has the situation he may have dreamed about for years. No Lynch. No Turbin. Except he is probably still third on the depth chart behind a fullback and a street free agent. It should be humbling. He has said the experience has been humbling. The true sign of being humbled is revisiting the behavior and decisions that led you to being in that situation in the first place. The odds seem long that Michael has had that epiphany. 
It would be a terrific story if he has.

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