Much like Wile E. Coyote lighting off a bundle of TNT, the ascension of Thomas Rawls last year was a slow burn followed by a massive explosion except in this case it didn't blow up in his face. Instead, Rawls, an undrafted free agent rookie who nobody expected would end up beating out Christine Michael and Robert Turbin for a roster spot, ended up leading the NFL in yards per carry.
If only we weren't robbed of the opportunity to see more of those carries down the stretch, but a broken ankle in Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens ended his season and has put his availability for Week 1 in doubt. Hopefully those doubts are erased by September, because Rawls was more than just lucky or opportunistic as a rookie, he was just flat-out amazing.
Rawls rushed for 830 yards on 147 carries to go along with five total touchdowns. His 5.65 YPC is the second-highest ever for a rookie running back with at least 100 carries in the modern era, behind only Maurice Jones-Drew, who had 5.67 YPC for the Jacksonville Jaguars on 161 carries in 2006. Adrian Peterson had 5.63 YPC as a rookie and Hall of Famer Franco Harris had 5.61 YPC. That's good company.
Let's not forget too that Rawls played in the same offense, behind the same offensive line, same everything last season, as Marshawn Lynch (3.8 YPC in 2015), Michael (4.9 YPC), and Fred Jackson (3.8 YPC), while DuJuan Harris and Bryce Brown were both under 3.0 YPC on minimal attempts. Rawls gave the Seattle Seahawks a spark in the backfield unlike anyone else they've had since Lynch finally began to find his footing with the team in 2011. And when it comes to Lynch, Rawls wasted no time in putting to shame some of his personal bests.
In his second game as a starter, Rawls rushed for 169 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals in that disappointing 27-24 loss. It was more yards in a single game than Lynch had ever rushed for in his career, and he did it on just 23 carries. In fact, the only time in Seahawks history that a rookie rushed for more than 150 yards in a game was Curt Warner in 1983, when he rushed for 207 yards in a 51-48 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Maybe Rawls would never top a franchise rookie record like that one, but it took him only two weeks as a starter before he had one of the best games by a running back in the history of the team.
Of course, Warner's records weren't safe either.
Going into Week 11, Seattle was a sad 4-5 and coming off of a loss to the Arizona Cardinals. In that game, Rawls was limited to just two carries (a sad reminder that when Lynch returned to the lineup, Rawls was limited to 13 carries in four games) and he rushed for 19 yards. But Lynch hit the bench again with an injury and Rawls regained his job as a starter going against the San Francisco 49ers in a must-win game.
He carried it 30 times and gained 209 yards with one touchdown, breaking Warner's single-game rookie franchise record, and becoming just the 13th rookie in NFL history to rush for 200 yards in a game. Rawls also caught three passes for a season-high 46 yards, including another touchdown. The Seahawks won the game 29-13 and set themselves back on a path to return to the playoffs, but unfortunately Rawls would not be joining them.
Still, as easy as it is to simply call his debut "surprising" and leave it at that, Rawls' rookie campaign was more than just a shocker due to the fact that he wasn't drafted; No matter how you measure your expectations of him, Thomas Rawls was simply phenomenal. There is still a lot of skepticism by people who think that there are a lot of one-year wonders at running back because the position is heavily dependent on blocking and scheme and opportunity. And while that is true to an extent, nobody who actually watched Rawls play every week, who saw his ability for elite vision and finding the perfect lanes to run through, would expect him to "fall back to Earth" this season unless he's just not healing right.
Statistically, there really aren't that many cautionary tales to compare him to either.
Let's talk about a few of those supposed cautionary tales:
- Mike Anderson, Denver Broncos
Rushed for 1,487 yards and 15 touchdowns as a rookie in 2000 but struggled over the remainder of his career. Anderson was also 27 when started his NFL career and was mostly derailed by injuries, missing all of 2004 and still returning to rush for 1,012 yards and 12 touchdowns the next season. He really wasn't a bad player and his 4.1 YPC after his rookie season was decent, he just got hurt too much to take advantage of that opportunity. The Broncos zone blocking scheme helped propel their running backs to more success, same for Seattle to a degree, but you still had to be a good player to make it work.
- Ickey Woods, Cincinnati Bengals
Woods famously shuffled his way to leading the NFL in YPC as a rookie in 1988 as the Bengals went to the Super Bowl, but tore his ACL in '89 and that essentially ended his career. Today, Woods would probably be able to return and have a career after tearing his ACL multiple times if he wanted to... Though I don't know why you'd want to tear your ACL a bunch.
- LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Blount was an UDFA for personality reasons and off-field red flags, but averaged 5.0 YPC with the Bucs in 2010. He's managed to stick around and play decently, even averaging 5.0 YPC again with the New England Patriots 2013, but he hasn't developed like you would have hoped after his rookie season. It may not be the most scientific answer, but I just think Rawls is clearly a better player than Blount, in every respect.
Others may include Ryan Grant, Ben Tate, or Selvin Young, but overall I don't know how many of these guys really had the consistent impact per game as rookies that Rawls had. In the six games in which he got at least 16 carries and was a real part of the offense (he didn't get more than six carries in any other game), the Seahawks went 5-1 and he averaged 118.6 yards per game. It's within the realm of reasonable to expect that if Rawls is healthy this year and starts all 16 games that 1,400 yards is well within his abilities, especially in Seattle's offense.
Maybe he'll never rush for 200 yards in a game again like he did against the 49ers last season in just the fourth start of his career -- only a few months after every NFL team decided he wasn't worth using a draft pick on -- but I think you can count on Rawls having a very long (for a RB) and productive career. Then again, maybe he will rush for 200 yards again. Maybe a few times.
He's just full of surprises.