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Seahawks’ usage of Thomas Rawls will determine his future for 2017 and beyond

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Third-year tailback has been better deeper in games in 2017, but Seattle neglected to feature Rawls at all against the 49ers

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The photograph at the top of this page is an illusion. The picture is from the Seattle Seahawks’ victory over the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, not a historical image, but Thomas Rawls never touched the ball in Sunday’s game—never received a rushing carry nor any targets for a pass (the photo is from pregame warmups). Instead, Rawls got two first half snaps but otherwise did not play, by decision of the coaches, even though Seattle led throughout the second half, including possessing the ball on two drives in the fourth quarter while up by 15 points.

The Seahawks instead gave their rushing attempts to Eddie Lacy, who had 17 carries for 46 yards, and J.D. McKissic (four for 22), plus six more emergency runs by Russell Wilson (Wilson had at least one read-option keeper too) and two wide receiver rushes that combined for minus-three yards. Seattle ran 11 times with running backs after halftime, out of 30 offensive plays in the final two quarters.

I was joking about keeping Rawls on ice, as if he were a secret weapon, when pretty clearly the third year tailback has fallen out of the coaches’ favor. It was curious, though, that Pete Carroll and Tom Cable spent much of the week talking like Rawls would get a genuine opportunity to be a featured back again, or at minimum a contributor, after newly-promoted Mike Davis suffered a pulled groin while Rawls was a healthy inactive against the Atlanta Falcons.

"I’m hoping he will be a big factor in the game this week," Carroll said.

"We are going to give them all a chance," claimed Cable, while offering some third person advice for how Rawls should handle that renewed shot. But Sunday the chance didn’t materialize.

As Mookie Alexander points out, Rawls hasn’t overall been any better than Lacy when he has gotten the opportunity—Rawls averages just 2.6 yards per attempt in 2017 and has the worst DVOA among runners with at least 17 carries, two slots lower than Lacy. I would counter that Rawls has been better later in games, and more significantly has had most success when given greater frequency of carries: Rawls’s best game of the year came when he had nine rushes for 39 yards against the Washington Redskins, all in the second and third quarters. Indeed, When Rawls has nine or more carries in 2017 he has averaged 3.4 yards—better than 1.2 with eight or fewer—and 3.0 yards per rush after the first quarter, a period when Rawls’s rate is only 1.5 (Lacy too has superior splits with a larger sample of rushes, 3.2 ypc compared to 1.6, but actually gets worse as the game wears on: 2.4 ypc after the first quarter following 2.9 to start games).

Not that those splits are perfectly representative—Rawls had nine carries for four yards aside from one 23-yard sprint in the last game he saw any touches, at the Arizona Cardinals—and none of these numbers are spectacular, but whether because of rhythm or confidence, or softened defense, Rawls generally looks more effective the deeper and more often he plays. Yet it is impossible to know if he could have done well later versus the Cardinals because he got only two runs after that long gain, just one of them in the second half. Cable may say Rawls needs to run with more patience, and perhaps withholding carries is indeed the best way to condition Rawls to be more disciplined. But an extremely cheap player who was once good for 830 yards on just 147 rushes has only five more regular season games under contract and the Flint, Michigan, kid has shown in the past that establishing trust—rather than lording authority over him—has been the way to get the most production out of him.

Or maybe the Seahawks are better off giving up being a balanced offense and rather continuing to let Wilson’s arm determine their destiny—I don’t want to get too carried away in my wishes for Rawls that I don’t see the truth. But if that’s the case what’s the point of Thomas Rawls at all?

If Seattle is just going to ignore Rawls it might as well release him and either use the roster spot on another position group or find a running back Cable likes better. Darren McFadden is available, who played with Cable in Oakland from 2008-2010, although I tend to suspect the Dallas Cowboys wouldn’t let go of a player at the same position where their star is suspended if McFadden was at all useful right now. Since I don’t expect the Seahawks to make a move like that, the finish for Rawls’s 2017 appears headed to break one of three ways: 1) Rawls is a non-entity, continuing to wallow in the shadow of mediocre backs and an unpopular line coach, 2) he emerges for one or two big games down the stretch but remains inconsistent as ever and fails to demonstrably seize the job, or 3) Rawls retakes his place as leader and closer of the Seattle backfield while powering a reliable complementary attack into the playoffs.

Perhaps theres room for less dramatic results in between those options, and certainly the quality of Rawls’s performance will have most to do with his future, but for now that outlook seems entirely too dependent on usage rather than ability.

Poll

What outcome is most probable for Thomas Rawls in 2017?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    0-20 carries (Rawls fades away without meaningful influence on the rest of the season)
    (543 votes)
  • 35%
    21-59 carries (Rawls struggles somewhat but rides high for one more 125+ yard effort in a key contest or playoff game)
    (374 votes)
  • 12%
    60+ carries (Rawls asserts control over the backfield and establishes himself again as a top NFL runner)
    (135 votes)
1052 votes total Vote Now