Goodbye Marshawn Lynch, Hello Better Running Game?

The most ferocious runner in Seahawks history retired after last season. Russell Wilson finished on a historic tear passing the ball. Most NFL fans will assume the Seahawks will see their running game decline and their passing game pick up. They will be half-right. Unpredictable injuries aside, the Seahawks are poised to run the ball more often and more productively than they did when Marshawn Lynch was in the backfield, while also passing the ball more. NFL games are still 60 minutes long, so where are these extra plays coming from? Take a look.

Better situational football increases play count

Seattle’s struggles out of the gate last season were well documented. Everyone knows about the offensive line failing to protect Wilson. Some remember that Lynch was injured. The Seahawks were converting 3rd downs at 34.5% through nine games, which put them right around the middle of the league. After switching up their approach and incorporating more of the short passing game, their offense took off.

Wilson threw a dizzying number of touchdowns, most of which were caught by Doug Baldwin. They went from averaging 22 ppg to 32 ppg. Hidden in that surge was a major improvement in 3rd down conversions. That middling 34.5% rose to a league-best 59.4% over the final seven games. That short passing game was a huge factor in the rise, but many misunderstood the impact it had on the Seahawks running game.

Seattle actually ran more without Lynch last year
Seattle actually ran more without Lynch last year

Before you statistical fiends throw these numbers out the window due to the fact that teams run the ball more when they are ahead, consider that the Seahawks averaged 16.4 rushing attempts in the first half of their final seven games compared to just 13.0 attempts in the first half of their first nine games. This was not about a team running more because they were ahead. It was about a team running more because their offense was converting more third downs and getting more plays. How many more?

The Seahawks averaged 59 offensive plays per game in their first nine games and 66 offensive plays in their final seven. That was evenly distributed across the run and the pass. They ran more, and they passed more.

This occurred even though Thomas Rawls was lost to injury during this stretch and the likes of Bryce Brown, Derrick Coleman and Christine Michael were manning the backfield. Even with a white hot Wilson throwing dimes around the field and their top two runners out, Pete Carroll stayed committed to the run. There is little reason to expect that to change this year.

Projecting Seahawks rushing totals for 2016

What made Lynch a one-of-a-kind runner was his tenacity and lateral agility between the tackles. Nobody could make a three yard gain look more inspiring. His role on the team will not be replaced any time soon. His production, however, very well may be eclipsed this year.

There is quality and high yards per carry throughout the Seahawks 2016 running game
There is quality and high yards per carry throughout the Seahawks 2016 running game

The top two runners for the Seahawks this year, Rawls and Michael, boast a higher yards per carry average than Lynch. In fact, Lynch only had one season in his career where he registered a higher YPC than Michael’s 4.7 career average, and has never had a season close to Rawls’ league-leading 5.6 YPC from his rookie year. Small sample size? Sure. That does not mean we should ignore what these two backs have done thus far.

These projections start with expected number of carries per game as a team. They finished last season averaging 34 rushing attempts over their final seven games. I am dialing that back a full carry to 33 carries per game for 2016. That gives us 528 carries over the course of the season. Wilson has accounted for a large portion of those carries each year, and I have him at 20% for the upcoming year, and am pegging his YPC at his 5.9 career average. Let’s see how the rest of this breaks out.

Thomas Rawls

Rawls was outperforming Todd Gurley in every major statistical category as a starter.

Rawls suffered a serious injury, so I have projected a significant drop in his YPC from 5.6 as a rookie to 4.7 this year. He has looked terrific in practice so far, and shows no signs of having lost anything. Consider this a conservative estimate. I expect the team will want to lighten his load and utilize the array of talent they have in the backfield, so I also am projecting he will get roughly 40% of the carries this year. It would not shock me at all to see him over 5.0 yards per carry and over 1,000 yards for the season.

Christine Michael

He spent the 2015 season on the scrap heap before returning to Seattle has having a relatively productive end of the season. He had 84 and 102 yards rushing in two of his three starts, and was over 5.3 YPC in both of those games. It would be silly to project a massive breakout season for Michael on such little evidence, but there is good reason to expect his best year as a pro. The team raves about his wake-up call as a professional, and his first preseason game was promising on a number of fronts.

He can run inside with speed, and turn the corner outside like no Seahawks running back has been able to since Ahman Green. His career high YPC was 5.1 in 2014 when he saw his most extensive action. I am projecting 5.0 YPC this year, and 30% of the team carries.

C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins

These two young runners are significantly more talented than the likes of Robert Turbin or an over-the-hill Fred Jackson. I have them getting 10% of the carries between the two of them. Both players were high YPC guys in college. Prosise averaged a whopping 6.6 YPC last season. I am being conservative in putting their combined YPC at 4.9 for the year.

New stable of stars

This young group of stud runners will have the bonus of also running behind what could be the best offensive line the Seahawks have had in years. There are signs the interior linemen could become a dominant force. Lynch had an All-Pro center in Max Unger for one year, but generally had middling linemen to run behind.

Put it all together and this Seahawks team could break the franchise record for rushing yards they set just a couple years prior.