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Curt Warner and Thomas Rawls: An encouraging and cautionary tale

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The Seahawks' second-year star will try to meet expectations while dodging the fragile history of NFL running backs

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The other day I got a chance to watch the Seattle Seahawks’ 1983 divisional playoff win over the Miami Dolphins. There are a couple reasons I was interested in this game: One was to get (even more) stoked for this year’s season opener against Miami, and also I was disappointed the broadcast had not been selected when the NFL gave the public a chance to vote for classic games appearing in full on YouTube. So I decided to seek it out on my own.

Plus it’s a fantastic game—with a crazy back-and-forth finish, which is unfortunately all the footage you can find on the internet right now (beginning quite rudely when a sloppy mistake by Dave Krieg necessitates a miraculous comeback drive featuring two long Steve Largent catches).

But the most fun parts for me were observing Curt Warner in the second and third quarters, when Seattle, a 9-7 wild card, grinded out a lead over the heavily favored 12-4 Dolphins, playing at home under Don Shula and with a rookie Dan Marino brightening into the form that saw him throw for 48 touchdowns and 5,084 yards the following year.

Seattle overcomes 95 yards on seven catches in the first half for Mark "Super" Duper (bless the ’80s) to take control of the game on the strength of the running by Warner, its own meteoric rookie. I was captivated. As a Seahawks fan who prides myself on awareness about the franchise’s early success and history, I have to admit I had never properly witnessed Warner run.

I mean I had seen highlights. I had read the stats. I would have already happily placed Warner third on my list of all-time Seattle backs (behind Chris Warren, who had the greatest degree of difficulty; ahead of Shaun Alexander, who did not). But you’re missing a runner’s down-after-down proficiency and style when all you see are slow-motion close ups and long dashes in the open field, no matter how your heart pounds from the NFL Films orchestra or, as the case may be, apocalyptic trance music.

No, you can’t see the actual running lanes well but the good old-fashioned sideline view is still probably the best perspective to gauge a running back’s approach to a line of scrimmage and his acceleration or power through the hole, because from that angle you can most clearly see his motion compared to the original spot and changes of speed relative to any push attained by the blocking up front. And in the flow of a game you can tell the regularity and persistence of these efforts rather than just the isolated outliers that show up on sizzle reels.

So it was refreshing to watch Warner so electric in his natural context, but there was something even more eerily familiar about it.

Somewhere after the third or fourth time he bounced between guard and tackle and materialized drilling a defender 11 yards downfield in the right curl area, the pattern-recognition software in my brain clicked that familiarity into focus. Holy shit! This dude runs like Rawls.

You know how Thomas Rawls moves past the line of scrimmage like a stick going over a waterfall? Like, compared to Marshawn Lynch who always sort of broke down crabwise right in the scrum. I don’t mean he collapsed, I mean Lynch often bent his knees and halted his motion like Barry Sanders Lite before picking his crease and exploding into it. Well Rawls approaches with all the run of the river behind him and only the slightest variation of speed as when the stick hesitates while water buffers at the lip edge and then before the second thought Rawls has already poured himself through the hole.

Everything about the transition remains fluid. That exactly was what I was watching with the rookie version of Warner. And the same initiation of contact afterward too, the way Rawls plows downhill into tacklers like a Phillips screwdriver being used to strip paint.

The only visible difference in fact was Warner’s bread-loaf manner of carrying the ball in his forearm far away from his body in the open field. But—take note Christine Michael—even he pulled it in close whenever defenders neared.

You have to understand my excitement.

Warner that year was a total revelation for the Seahawks, rushing for 1,449 yards and powering the franchise to the brink of the Super Bowl in its first-ever playoff appearance. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com only 13 running backs have ever gone over 1,400 yards as rookies, and five of those are Hall of Famers. Rawls in 2015 had almost 180 fewer carries than Warner’s 1983, and there are plenty of other variables beside, but it was easy to see in the similarity in their games the same all-world promise that lifts Rawls into glory in our imaginations.

But the key is I’m only comparing Rawls’s style to Warner as a rookie. In 1984 Warner ruptured his ACL in the very first game. Seattle went 12-4 without him but lost to the Dolphins in the divisional round, changing the course of Seahawks history and stranding the previous year’s playoff upset as the club’s most significant win for more than 20 years.

Warner returned to post three more 1,000-yard seasons in Seattle, yet reportedly the injury sapped him of his dynamic speed. He peaked again in 1986 but Warner was done playing before he turned 30. "He had an unusually short career," said John Morgan in his book about the Seahawks, "short even for a short-lived position." It may be too much to hang the various disappointments of the late-’80s Seahawks on Curt Warner. Still his tale is as much a reminder about unrealized potential and the real challenge of playing running back in the NFL as it is the compliment I intend toward Rawls.

And please don’t get me wrong: I think Thomas Rawls is going to lead the NFL in rushing in 2016.

I don’t believe Rawls’s ankle should be an issue. It’s not the same injury that felled Warner, and anyway sports medical science has advanced marvelously in the last 30 years. There’s nothing that says because they resemble one another running on a field they share some curse or any propensity to injury.

But there is a difference between belief and expectation, and I also think the evidence shows it is impossible to know what to count on from Rawls for now.

There are plenty of examples of players who as rookies generated the excitement and statistical profile Rawls did in 2015 (830 yards on 5.6 yards per attempt) who derailed or otherwise never again matched their performance:

In 2011 Ben Tate delivered 942 yards at a 5.4 yards per rush pace in relief of Arian Foster. For several years this glimpsed aptitude fueled a hope that Tate could command his own backfield, but he issued 4.3 ypa on 244 carries during his next two years in Houston and when he moved out from under Foster’s shadow in 2014 Tate produced a dismal 3.1-yard average combined for the Browns, Vikings and Steelers, then couldn’t find a job in 2015. The Texans’ previous bright star, Steve Slaton, ran for 1,282 on 4.8 ypa in 2008 but fell to 3.3 yards per rush and struggled with fumbles in 2009 and in three more years added only 614 yards to his career total before departing the league.

Kevin Jones is a name you probably don’t remember. In 2004 he totaled 1,133 yards for the Detroit Lions averaging 4.7 yards per attempt, but Jones settled for 3.7 yards per rush ever afterward and his carries declined until he was out of the league four years later. More famously Mike Anderson posted 1,487 yards (5.0 ypa) in 2000 as Terrell Davis’s heir in Denver, but he contributed only 2,580 yards in six years (4.1 ypa) after that and only ever reached 1,000 yards again once more, in 2005.

Not to mention even a monster like Davis had only four meaningful seasons as a starting pro because injuries are real. It’s just football. It’s not a knock on Thomas Rawls or his durability to say he may get hurt again at any time, possibly more seriously.

In 2012 David Wilson worked his way off the New York Giants’ bench to average 5.0 yards per rush. It was on only 71 carries, but entering 2013 Wilson seemed like New York’s new running back of the future. However five games in, and after averaging 3.3 yards per attempt, Wilson suffered a compressed spinal cord and has never played football since.

The above examples are anecdotal and don’t prove Rawls can’t be good. Rawls’s career will be his own. But they’re also not names picked out of a helmet. All of them were rookies who averaged around five yards a carry and (apart from Wilson) gained at least as many yards as Rawls did.

Of course you can name counterexamples of excellent rookies who became excellent and reliable professionals: Corey Dillon, Clinton Portis, Adrian Peterson; yet there are reasons the average NFL career lasts less than four years—and for running backs it’s only two and a half years. For every Maurice Jones-Drew (941 yards, 5.7 ypa in 2006) or Steven Jackson (673 yards, 5.0 ypa in 2004) who break out as rookies there’s an Andre Ellington (652 yards, 5.5 ypa in 2013) or Selvin Young (729 yards, 5.2 ypa in 2007). The point is we don’t know. In some cases the problem is injury; in some cases mentality, some cases opportunity.

Take the curious case of Jerious Norwood, who managed to sustain a per-play average above 5.0 for three straight seasons from 2006-08 but never topped 633 yards because he got squeezed between the Warrick Dunn and Michael Turner eras in Atlanta. In 2010 Norwood tore up his knee and it basically ended his career.

With Lynch’s retirement, Rawls does not lack opportunity. Right now his commitment and even leadership do not appear to be challenges.

Rawls also has the advantage of superior advanced metrics. Rawls was second in running back DVOA in 2015 (26.4 percent), just shades under Le’Veon Bell, and had the best success rate (62 percent) among qualifying runners (at least 100 carries, according to Football Outsiders). Rawls led all backs in total DYAR—which is even more incredible because that’s a cumulative stat and Rawls was a regular starter for less than half the year. In 2004, Shaun Alexander compiled about the same DYAR as Rawls, but it took Alexander more than 200 extra carries to match him.

Of the 32 rookies who ran for at least 600 yards and 4.5 yards per attempt since 1990, the earliest data that Football Outsiders considers, Rawls’s rate performances are overall the best measured. What makes FO’s numbers "advanced" isn’t just that they come from a more complicated formula than ordinary figures; they are specifically engineered to be more predictive. None of the backs who flashed in first years and then regressed had numbers anything close to Rawls’s.

The nearest statistical profile is Portis’s in 2002: 25.5 percent DVOA and 61 percent success rate. In fact, the only players in the group whose DVOA reached within eight percentage points of Rawls’s were Ricky Watters, Jerome Bettis, Dillon, Portis and Jones-Drew.

There are technically some cases of rookies with better DVOA who didn’t have enough rushes to qualify. One was Norwood, whose ridiculous 34.6 percent DVOA on 99 carries probably should get attention. Norwood averaged a full 6.4 yards per attempt in 2006 as the Falcons with Dunn and Michael Vick (and line coach Tom Cable!) posted the most efficient running attack in modern NFL history. Also, as Chase Stuart points out, (freshly suspended) Bills rookie Karlos Williams had basically the same rate numbers as Rawls on 93 carries in 2015. Everyone compares Rawls to Todd Gurley, but Williams’s 30.4 percent DVOA dwarfs Gurley’s 10 percent last year—and beats Rawls too, however on a slightly smaller sample.

Ahmad Bradshaw’s outrageous 50.8 percent DVOA in 2007 is on just 23 regular season attempts—way too few to consider, even if you ignore Football Outsiders’ artificial cutoff. But if you add to that Bradshaw’s four playoff games from that year and his 2008 totals you get a sample that looks a lot like Rawls’s: 138 carries, 753 yards, 5.5 ypa. At the end of 2008 Bradshaw was even the same age Rawls is now. Bradshaw developed enough to drop 1,000-yard seasons in 2010 and 2012 but at this point a lot of Seahawks fans would be severely disappointed if Rawls ended up with Bradshaw’s career.

Indeed they’d probably prefer Curt Warner’s.

When you interpret them critically, the signs indicate Thomas Rawls has a good chance at an illustrious future. Remembering Warner both serves a worthwhile caveat that no future is guaranteed in a league where the initials get so playfully repurposed Not For Long and, since he's one of my favorite Seahawks ever, also accentuates how brilliant Rawls can be. Here’s hoping for the best from Seattle’s young running back, and gratitude that with Alex Collins, Christine Michael and C.J. Prosise, the Seahawks have a bounty of talent to hedge their fortunes in case Rawls doesn’t meet his projection for 2016 and beyond.

"After Lynch, after maybe Christine Michael," as John Morgan put it, "some great running back no one yet knows of will don the blue. He will be fast. He will be powerful. He will make jaw-dropping cuts, hurdle defenders, bust through tackles, and take it to the house."