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If Chris Carson becomes another Thomas Rawls for the Seahawks, what will that make Thomas Rawls?

Listening to the third-year running back speak tells how he has developed a leadership role that means more in the Seattle locker room than a grip on a roster spot or a place in the starting lineup

NFL: Seattle Seahawks-Minicamp Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 2015 I wasn’t involved with Field Gulls yet and I had been at a writer’s residency in New York for the summer, then spent all of August in Pittsburgh helping my friend build an old Elk’s Lodge into a new bar/music venue/pizza place/event space. (Before you trash Pittsburgh—Pittsburgh?!—you should know that yes the Steelers fans are incorrigible but Pittsburgh, surrounded by mountains and with elegant waterways joining to create wildly varying elevations and intercept every view, is actually very pretty and rather a lot like Seattle—at least during the summertime.) That month I worked nonstop, caught poison ivy, got my heart broken again and rode a bicycle home through a huge gothic graveyard every night—typically after five in the morning. Point being: I hadn’t really been paying attention to Seattle Seahawks training camp.

So imagine my surprise when at the start of September the Seahawks traded Christine Michael to the Dallas Cowboys for pogs and then released Robert Turbin after what seemed like just a banged up ankle. On the brink of the new season, the imagined successor to Marshawn Lynch and the change of pace who had reliably contributed to three of the most productive rushing offenses in Seattle memory—both gone. What in the world was happening in the Seahawks backfield?

That’s when I started hearing the murmurs: There’s this undrafted guy the coaches really like. ... He’s rawer even than Michael, but they say he’s a punisher. ... He just got better and better in the preseason. ... Came out of nowhere but they say his name is ...

Thomas Rawls.

Even the name sounded imposing. It’s a throwback name, like Earl Campbell. And as 2015 unfolded Rawls drew comparisons to Campbell from the head coach. By now of course we are all familiar with Rawls’s breakout rookie year, how he took over for a battered Lynch and immediately started posting 100-yard games, 150-yards, 200 yards! How in just eight starts he led the NFL in DYAR, how he likewise led the league in yards after contact and yards above expectation, gaining more yards per carry by far against base defenses (in non-passing situations) than any other tailback.

Marshawn Lynch is one of my favorite athletes ever, and few people were as enthusiastic about a prospective Christine Michael era as I was, but I immediately fell so in love with Rawls that I straight did not mind when Lynch “retired”. The undrafted Rawls was so reminiscent of Lynch at his best, and so much younger and cheaper he seemed a dream solution to Seattle’s contract quagmire. Even after his season-ending ankle injury, Rawls looked like the ultimate keeper.

But we also remember how Rawls mostly struggled following up that superb performance in 2016. Yes it was a terrible offensive line and Rawls was coming off surgery, and this too shall pass—even Lynch is back in the league—but what doesn’t alter with the changing season is how precious little margin any player holds over the next man up. The Seahawks spent a goodly chunk of their free agent budget on a starter-quality running back, Eddie Lacy. Their third-round pick in 2016, C.J. Prosise, looks like he could be one of the more dynamic backfield players in the NFL if he stays healthy. And now there’s another out-of-nowhere rookie training camp darling sending ultrasonic rumbles from Seattle’s practice reports: Chris Carson.

As Kenneth Arthur put it Sunday morning, there’s still a long way to go in the preseason before we start locking up roster spots for seventh round picks like Carson but his two goal-line touchdowns in the preseason debut against the Los Angeles Chargers should surely add to Carson’s growing folklore. Danny O’Neil called Carson a “stud hoss of a running back” twice in the same gushing article. Already famously, Doug Baldwin pronounced Carson the “most polished rookie running back” he’s ever seen in a training camp. And Pro Football Focus analyst Scott Barrett helpfully points out, that list of players Baldwin has witnessed includes Turbin, Michael, Prosise and Alex Collins—and yes Rawls.

So much of the Carson narrative sounds familiar to the buzz I arrived at late around Rawls’s rookie camp—how powerful Carson looks, how he finishes runs, how he physically matches up with veterans—that it seems fair to ask if he continues his trajectory if he might similarly climb up the depth chart.

The bulk of that discussion focuses on the competition for the last tailback slot, with Carson presumably battling Collins and Mike Davis. Kenny wrote Monday that “[Rawls and Lacy] seem guaranteed to make the roster, as does ... Prosise,” but if Rawls’s ascendance in 2015 so disrupted the Seahawks depth chart that it meant the shocking dismissal of second string and third string backs, and if (per Baldwin) Carson continues to look better than even Rawls did back then, well who’s to say any running back is safe in 2017? Two years ago, at least Seattle had the established starter in Lynch. Rawls is now the only back offering more than one season’s continuity in Seattle, but given the investment most analysts consider Lacy the likelier bet to take the greater load of carries in 2017, and anyway Rawls hardly has the protected alpha status Marshawn held to begin Rawls’s rookie year. A backfield of Lacy as the veteran battering ram, Prosise in the Fred Jackson role and Carson as the rated rookie in the wings looks an awful lot like how the Seahawks handled the position approaching 2015, after Rawls made his first impression. Is there any chance Chris Carson could do a Thomas Rawls ... to Thomas Rawls?

On one face that seems ludicrous. There’s room for four backs and no reason to discard Rawls when he’s at least clearly ahead of Collins, right? But when you consider it in contract terms, Rawls is at the end of his three-year deal already, while Collins is under club control until 2019. They cost almost the same amount for 2017, but Rawls could be cut with only $5,000 in dead money against the cap because his undrafted signing bonus was so small. If they want to try a trade, Rawls probably would bring more back than Collins too given his track record. Eddie Lacy is too expensive to cut now unless for absolutely egregious performance and likely couldn’t be traded. Conceivably, with Rawls scheduled to become a restricted free agent, if the team has any intention to ride with Lacy in the future it might be already planning to let Rawls test the offer sheets at that time. Keep in mind they’ll have to consider Prosise’s future as well, and balancing so many talented backs becomes a financial game as much as a limit of roster holds and usage rate. It sounds silly but is actually reasonable that if John Schneider feels the difference between Rawls and Collins is at all slim and wants to make room for Carson, then Rawls could really be the one to go.

Despite reports of improved conditioning Collins didn’t look any swifter Sunday than he did most of 2016 and Rawls was way way better as a rookie than Collins was, yes, but as I wrote last summer (even as I optimistically forecast Rawls to lead the NFL in rushing in 2016) many analytics show running backs with similar short-term profiles regressing to basically replacement-level performance afterward. I’m sure the front office is also aware of these trends, and however much they like Rawls they may not view him as particularly likely to outperform Collins in years to come. Pete Carroll obviously loves running the football and values the physicality Rawls brings to it—but with three other potential bruisers in Lacy, Collins and now Carson, what makes Rawls to the Seahawks anything other than another young body in a league full of interchangeable young bodies?

Well, fortunately for my and your crush on Rawls, Seattle may have an answer to that question. First of all, notwithstanding the emergence of Carson and regardless of the potential wisdom of heavily grinding the costly Lacy in one workhorse year with the squad, during the week the pool consensus was that Rawls took the lead in the overall scramble for top back.

Indeed, he only got two carries but Rawls came out with the first unit in the preseason game, and the P-I’s Michael-Shawn Dugar elaborated on Rawls’s apparent triumph over the depth chart, hinting that the shift occurred ever since Seattle’s team scrimmage last Monday. But in that piece Dugar calls back to an interview Rawls gave two months ago, when he described his mentality concerning the crowded Seahawks backfield: “I look at it as Thomas Rawls, Thomas Rawls and Thomas Rawls. I've always been in competition with myself.”

It’s a colorful quote but otherwise the words are not too different from what you typically hear from players at this level. They are all full of confidence from a lifetime of being successful at sports and they all want to direct focus toward the only aspect of competition they can control—themselves. But Rawls’s answer originally came in the context of a longer speech that’s worth listening to as a fuller cut.

Rawls’s uncontainable manner of speaking, his unusual vocabulary and presentation of combined joy and gravitas, has made these interviews something of a sensation on the internet, as our friend Ben B alludes in that tweet. Since at least the beginning of the playoffs last year, every time Thomas Rawls gets in front of a microphone has been received with the anticipation of like a joint panel featuring Allen Iverson, Ben Grimm, Danielle Bregoli, Winston Churchill and Cam’ron. He’s incredible.

I would say the feeling Rawls engenders in these talks is infectious, but he says it best himself:

VIBES ARE REAL!!! #grindwithpride

Yes, Thomas Rawls. Continue to be you, always.

Now, I’m not so naïve as to believe the things people say at press conferences determines the Seahawks roster, no matter how entertaining or inspiring. If Rawls wasn’t also performing on the field at practice, he wouldn’t get to be the lead running back. But we also know how important creating culture is to Carroll, and there’s also something in Rawls’s podium presence that reminds me of the attributes that made it clear Russell Wilson was going to seize the starting quarterback job before most people realized that was even a possibility.

In fact, go back to that first video, with the quote about Rawls’s competition in the backfield and really listen to his words. The reason Rawls is comfortable envisioning a depth chart with himself in every slot is because, he says, “I feel like I'm an uncommon person, an uncommon man. I feel that way just because of my mindset. My mindset is different from a lot of people, and I think that's what separates the good players from the average players.”

Sound familiar?

Yes it’s just a jeans commercial but even if he’s speaking from a script you can tell Wilson is describing a viewpoint, a mindset like Rawls says, central to his character and key to his achievement: “I try to do everything that I can to be uncommon, and do something different that nobody else has done before.” When Rawls says, “Staying true means staying true to myself. My morals, my values,” it sounds a lot like Wilson saying, “Be yourself: You have to trust in what you believe and trust in who you are.” When Rawls says staying true means “understanding who I am, where I come from and everything that it took to get to this point,” it echos Wilson saying, “The biggest thing is just doing what I do best, and that’s working hard.”

Rawls doesn’t have Wilson’s dead eyes, robotic calm or precise enunciation when he talks so the effect is different. But it’s fitting. Rawls brings a running back’s tenacity and spring-loaded energy to his speech style, whereas Wilson has a quarterback’s calculating vision and rehearsed acumen. But the message is generally the same. And whether he comes by it naturally or it has rubbed off from being teammates with Wilson for more than two years now—or if it trickles all the way from Carroll—that message meshes perfectly with the coach’s own teachings and helps explains Rawls’s resiliency at a moment when his perch on the roster could be fraught, challenged by the newcomers.

In a sense it’s the best of both worlds: Rawls’s “I woke up in Beast Mode” mentality helps him inhabit the role that Marshawn Lynch did powering the Seattle offense, but his team-friendly philosophy acquiesces to Carroll and Wilson in a way that Lynch’s own particular skew of “be uncommon” never did. It’s “be yourself” but still consistent with Rule No. 1.

What you can hear listening to Rawls talk is not just his enthusiasm or drive, or simply professional programming by the coaches: It’s genuine leadership. If you need more evidence just look at Rawls managing one of the sides in Richard Sherman’s celebrity softball game:

Note that this video is from the game last year. They say rookies aren’t rookies by the end of their first pro season, but consider how comfortable Rawls is encouraging and even bossing around superstar millionaires when the kid was an undrafted nobody less than a year prior. He looks born for this. I think he has the opportunity in 2017 to be for the offense what Kam Chancellor has become as the so-called soul of the defense. And these locker room qualities at once demonstrate how Rawls has been mentally equipped to handle the fierce tailback competition on the practice field, and I think explain why his role on the team and in the lineup should be unshakeable (excluding, as always, more injuries). I fully expect the team to do all it can to build its future relationship with Rawls just as it did for Chancellor.

The sudden development of Chris Carson is an exciting hedge for that worst case health scenario, and a good sign that the scouting department might continue to find precious stones in the tall grass of the draft process. Judging by Carson’s selection of the classic Big Boi and T.I. roller skating club masterpiece ATL as his favorite film, he too has a personality that may help him become a loveable star with his helmet off, like Rawls. But however physically gifted and charming Carson proves to be, or how any of the competitors within that position group ball out over the rest of this preseason, Rawls with his growing influence on the Seahawks culture won’t be anywhere as disposable as the running backs he replaced back in 2015.