The Seahawks averaged 3.7 yards per carry in 2010 - 31st in the league. Some people in the national media, and even some here in Seattle, have pinned this on Marshawn Lynch, and pegged him as a bust trade, a non-factor, and a guy that is not the answer for the Hawks at running back. This is an argument that can be made based on the fact the Hawks lack any semblance of a running game, and could be made about a number of poorly running teams; but as most fans know, no matter how great a running back is, the running game starts with the offensive line. No back in the NFL can consistently run through or around 3 or 4 defenders (Barry Sanders retired). It simply doesn't happen. He will need an effective line to create holes that he can run through, and that is not something that the Hawks have had much success with. Lynch, Justin Forsett, and Leon Washington relied on shiftiness and brute strength to gain yardage on the ground in 2010 and now there are some statistics available to further back up what I had already believed - that Marshawn Lynch is very solid, if not elite running back, and that the running back position is not one of need for the Hawks. Let me explain:
The statistic I'm talking about is Pro Football Focus' annual Elusive rating. As they so aptly put it,
One of the hardest things in football to achieve is an evaluation of a running back’s performance independent of the blocking in front of him. Filtering out the play of the other ten guys on offense – as well as the coaching and playcalling – is incredibly difficult to do.
Nonetheless, they have endeavored to do so and have come up with a rating system that attempts to rank players purely as running backs without taking into account their offensive lines.
Now, it's a good idea to take quasi-convoluted statistics of any kind with a grain of salt, but at the same time these are not numbers that can be ignored. Based on the overall "Elusive Rating," Marshawn Lynch comes in as the sixth ranked running back in the league - ahead of that one guy Adrian Peterson and WAY above that other guy Chris Johnson - with a rating of 53.7. LaGarette Blount ranked highest with a rating of 89.8, but below him the next closest players were Fred Jackson with a rating of 58.5 and Ryan Torain with a 58.0. The next two below them are Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson, statistically only marginally better than Lynch. The rating is formulated as such:
They start by 'combining carries and receptions to give a ‘ball-handling opportunities’ figure.' They 'then combine forced missed tackles in both the run and pass game to find a total number for forced missed tackles, which is then divided by the ball-handling opportunities. This number is then multiplied by a player’s yards per carry after first contact figure (x100) to get our final number.' Essentially, it's derived by taking the number of missed tackles per touch, then multiplying it by yards after contact on those touches. In other words, how much the running back can create for himself.
To give you the numbers, Lynch gained 440 of his 573 yards after contact and forced 37 missed tackles on 186 touches (both running and receiving, with the Hawks only).
As you can see and probably know already if you watch the Hawks or saw the Beastquake, Marshawn Lynch creates a lot of yardage for himself, and is very difficult to bring down. The fact that his total yardage numbers were low is less an indictment on his ability as a runner and more so on the team's ability to create any consistency with run blocking. The Hawks were a pass-happy team in 2010, and inevitably ended up 31st in rushing. Let's look a little deeper: 76.8% of Marshawn Lynch's total yards gained in 2010 were after first contact. I repeat - over 3 out of every 4 yards Lynch ran were after he had already broken a tackle. This percentage was third in the league - which tells you a little bit about the Hawks' run blocking. On 19.9% on Lynch's touches, he forced a missed tackle, which was also third among all running backs in the NFL.
Of course, there's more to rushing than just being difficult to bring down. A lot of it involves picking the right lanes and holding on to the football. Lynch didn't help himself with 3 lost fumbles, 2 coming in the loss to New Orleans in week 11. He sometimes seems to run with reckless abandon, devoid of any fluidity or purpose other than hitting his opponents in the mouth. To me, I'm ok with this as this is sort of his role: Carroll's teams almost always feature a big back for up the gut power runs and a shifty one for everything else. Lynch's top speed isn't elite, but it's pretty damn good for a guy his size and for how difficult he is to bring down. The Hawks actually had a measure of success when rushing up the middle - they only lost yardage on up-the-gut runs 8 times, which was 13th best in the league. They had 10 runs of 10+ yards up the middle as well - good for 14th in the league. They rushed for 29 first downs up the middle, 13th in the league. Obviously, rushing to the outside was more problematic (VERY problematic), but their 'success' between the tackles is at least partly due to Lynch's knack for turning potential 3 -4 yard losses into no-gains - something we saw over and over throughout the year.
Now, I'm not saying that Lynch will be a Pro-Bowler in 2011 - for that to happen the line will need to improve significantly. This is not out of the question with Tom Cable now in town, but I won't be holding my breath for immediate results. What I am saying though is that Lynch is a good, - maybe really good - running back. If he is the 'beast' in Carroll's two-back system, then Justin Forsett is the 'beauty'. Some of you may have forgotten, but in 2009, Forsett LED the league in the Elusive rating with a 70.19, so he's no slouch either. Oh, and then there's Leon Washington who, - the last time he was given a significant chance to play out of the backfield with consistency in 2008 -, averaged 5.9 yards per carry with 6 TDs on 76 carries and caught 47 balls for 355 yards and 2 TDs. This trifecta in the backfield puts the Hawks in a great position to realize the type of offense Pete Carroll envisions for them - one predicated on an aggressive and smash-mouth run game used to set up the passing game and stretch the field.
In part two of this piece, I'll take a look at some game tape for Lynch and break down some plays.