What can Mike Shanahan tell us about Marshawn Lynch?

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In the comments on yesterday’s "Seahawks Sign Kevin Williams and Demitrius Bronson" story, a mini-debate has arisen over what Mike Shanahan’s experience with the zone blocking system in Denver might tell us about the importance of Marshawn Lynch to today’s Seahawks. What follows was originally intended as a comment on that thread, but it grew so long (once I began incorporating some stats) that it seemed to me to fit better as a separate fanpost.

One way to frame the question is to ask whether Shanahan’s years in Denver show us that the ZBS is something of a "plug and play" system, which doesn’t really need a top-flight running back to succeed? (If so, maybe there’s hope that we in Seattle can still enjoy life after Marshawn.) Or was much of Shanahan’s success due to the fact that he HAD a top-flight running back in Terrell Davis, and maybe in Clinton Portis afterwards? (If that’s the lesson, then maybe we’d better hang onto Marshawn as long as we possibly can.)

Granted, I’m oversimplifying this drastically, since any discussion about the value of Marshawn Lynch has to take account of a lot of factors, both on the field and off. However, this isn’t a post about Marshawn’s importance in general. It’s just a post supplying some of the stats about the Denver-Shanahan experience. (And if any Denver fans are visiting, welcome, and feel free to jump in to correct my account. Naturally, we look forward to seeing you again in Super Bowl XLIX!)

Anyway, here’s the story as I understand it. Mike Shanahan coached the Broncos from 1995 to 2008. In his first four years (1995-98), Denver’s leading rusher was Terrell Davis, who made all-pro in three of those years. Davis also stood out in the Broncos’ two Super Bowl victories during that period, winning MVP in one of them (and possibly deserving it in the other). Of course, there’s no single stat that can encapsule accomplishments like these, but yards per carry (YPC) has the advantage of being easily obtainable from Pro Football Reference. Using that measure, Davis’s YPC from 1995 to 1998 were (respectively) 4.7, 4.5, 4.7, and 5.1. That’s impressive by anybody’s standard.

In 1999, though, Davis went down with a torn ACL and MCL. It was a blow to Denver, of course; but for purposes of the present discussion, this is when things begin to get interesting. Here is the succession of guys who led the Broncos in rushing yards, beginning in 1999 and ending in 2008 (Shanahan’s last year as head coach). Since I can’t get this dratted table to format nicely, I’ve just listed each back’s YPC for that year in parentheses.

Leading Denver rushers, by total yards, 1999-2008:

1999 Olandis Gary (4.2)
2000 Mike Anderson (5.0)
2001 Terrell Davis (trying to return from injury) (4.2)
2002 Clinton Portis (5.5)
2003 Clinton Portis (5.5)
2004 Reuben Droughns (4.5)
2005 Mike Anderson (4.2)
2006 Tatum Bell (4.4)
2007 Selvin Young (5.2)
2008 Peyton Hillis (5.0)

Well. As I’ve said, there’s no question that Terrell Davis was a great back, and many would include Clinton Portis as also being in or near the top tier. But Reuben Droughns? Tatum Bell? Selvin Young??

By the way, it’s also interesting to note the draft pedigree of Denver’s running backs during this period. During the four years BEFORE Shanahan arrived, the Broncos' leaders in rushing yards were all former first-round draft picks: Leonard Russell, Rod Bernstine, and Gaston Green, who led them in rushing yards twice. But here are the rounds in which each of Denver’s leading rushers under Mike Shanahan was drafted (with, again, my apologies for the formatting). As you can see, none was drafted in the first round, or even in the top forty picks, while five were drafted in the sixth round or later:

Leading Denver rushers, by total yards, 1995-2008:

1995 to 1998 Terrell Davis (6th round; 196th pick overall)
1999 Olandis Gary (4th round; 127th overall)
2000 Mike Anderson (6; 189)
2001 Terrell Davis (6; 196)
2002 Clinton Portis (2; 51)
2003 Clinton Portis (2; 51)
2004 Reuben Droughns (3; 81)
2005 Mike Anderson (6; 189)
2006 Tatum Bell (2; 41)
2007 Selvin Young (undrafted?)
2008 Peyton Hillis (7; 227)

Finally, I’ll close by repeating the disclaimer I gave at the outset. This does NOT tell us (or Pete Carroll and John Schneider) what to do about Marshawn Lynch at present. Marshawn is a wonderfully idiosyncratic and complicated person, who I hope will remain a Seahawk until the day he retires; and I fervently hope that day doesn’t come any time soon. It’s just that, when Father Time finally does figure out how to tackle Marshawn, I don’t think we’ll find the cupboard as bare as some might fear.

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