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The Room Where It (Maybe) Happens: Running Backs

They’re going to touch the ball a lot, like it or not

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys
this ought be good for at least, or at most, two yards
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Wonder how 2019 will play out?

Why not just select your favorite route:

Choose hope or despair or fate, to be precise —

All of it hanging on C.J. Prosise.

Nobody runs more than the Seattle Seahawks, whose running backs can be poetry in motion. Chris Carson’s a beast in the mold of past blue-green beasts; Rashaad Penny is the Northwest’s latest man of mystery; Travis Homer has the freshest legs; and then there’s Prosise, who thrashes defenses when he plays, but unfortunately does not, actually, play.

So, an altogether too early glance into the RB room lends itself to three outlooks on the season. Find yourself in one of the following options. Or more than one.

The Pessimism Route

[Caution: author may not believe all statements]

Carson isn’t a reliable running back who’ll suit up for 16 games. Those don’t exist much any more as it is, but since he’s only appeared in 18 games over two seasons (4 in ‘17, 14 in ‘18) it’s not realistic to project last year’s performance forward without a track record.

When he’s available, he’s what the Seahawks have needed since Marshawn Lynch departed: someone like Lynch. I mean, Carson did nothing less than lead the NFL in broken tackles last season. You may have heard of the two guys he tied at the top.

While it’s entirely possible Carson will continue to grow (see the upcoming optimism section of this post!), it’s also entirely possible he’s peaked, given the short shelf life of running backs and the injurious hand of Fate.

Penny, a wasted pick, has shown little beyond the ability to improvise and explode within a broken play. He’s not a between-the-tackles runner, he’s not great with the playbook, and he’s lived up to zero of the special teams hype that accompanied his selection. His 419 yards, two touchdowns and 4.9 yards per carry, in very limited duty, combine to hint at greatness. But as Shawn-Michael Dugar related this week in The Athletic:

“To play faster, Penny needs to improve his understanding of what’s happening before the snap. The better he is at the mental part of the game, the more likely he is to execute properly.”

The pessimism outlook demands this judgment, specifically: Penny’s another Christine Michael, full of unrealized potential, tantalizing enough to keep on the roster until the pro game clicks, but it must click eventually. If you’re going to pick an RB in the first round, he should probably be able to learn the playbook too, and not rely solely on his athletic gifts.

Who knows what Seattle has in Homer? Stud out of Miami who also caught 37 passes for a 10.9 average, so probably an immediate weapon in the short passing game. Beyond that, he’s like every other rookie, subject to adjustments and busting out of the league.

And then there’s Prosise. Every Seahawks fan who’s watched him the last three years knows what’s inside the package, when healthy: an explosive weapon who’ll hurt you on the ground and through the air, a Darren Sproles with more size but absolutely none of the durability. Fun fact! We’ve been underrating Sproles.

Throwing the ball to Sproles, and by extension Prosise, is a great idea. Teams should do it even more. (RIP Doug Baldwin. But that’s another post, or two.)

Beyond the main four names, there’s J.D. McKissic — who touched the ball all of three times last year, so who knows what value the coaches place on him — and a lot of replacement-level talent waiting for a chance to see the field. Of course, that also sums up the end of the 2015 season, when DuJuan Harris got 18 carries in Week 14 and Bryce Brown got nine totes in Week 17 of a playoff season.

Summarizing, there’s little reason to fully trust Seattle’s ball carriers can adequately — excuse me — carry the load in 2019 as well as they did a season ago.

The Optimism Route

[Caution 2: everything below is factual, which doesn’t make it predictive]

Mike Solari. He isn’t Tom Cable, which has endeared him to a few fans. His work with the offensive line makes them look crisper, more organized, more competent in the run game. The mix of zone and power schemes has done wonders for Chris and the Carsonettes. Anyway, Solari’s back for a second year with a lot of returners, plus Mike Iupati, a reliable veteran. For the first time in the Pete Carroll-Russell Wilson era, there’s continuity and coaching you can trust on the OL, at the same time.

Onto the playmakers. Carson is just as prone to blossoming into a superstar as stumbling into a bout of regression. Since he’s a 2017 draftee with only 18 games of wear, there’s no reason to fear the end of the line is anywhere near. He also hurdles people for fun.

Penny’s no longer a rookie. Not very many NFL players would turn this play into 17 yards:

To follow up on the quote from Dugar earlier, a scene from training camp:

“Penny paused for a moment, then Wilson motioned a few more signals... The running back jogged outside the numbers, where linebacker Shaquem Griffin awaited just a few yards across from him, both feet planted in the end zone. With Penny correctly in position, Wilson was ready to run the play.

Penny slanted inside, shielded Griffin off and caught a dart for a touchdown.”

He’s teachable and talented. That’s the right combo, yes?

Homer, meanwhile, gives the Seahawks real depth; he could be an RB1 elsewhere even, or the RB1 in another, different Seattle season. There’s also a decent chance he’s Prosise, only available.

Speaking of... everything you get from Prosise in 2019 is a bonus, and bonuses are nice, and this is the year he finally squashes the injury bug, because we’re talking optimistically. For old times’ sake:

If he can take this hit and pop up, he’s not fragile. Right?

The Nihilism Route

[Caution 3: may contain analytics. Ask your doctor if advanced statistics are right for you]

Easy to not get worked up about rushing the football — since it doesn’t matter on a W-L level.

Runs don’t add points, overall. They’re great for when you need a couple yards to score or move the chains in short yardage, but when you take all of them and put them in a giant basket, they don’t do for your offense what passing does. PETE Ratings from 2015 give you a nice representation. Notice the lack of upward slope in the rushing graph —

— as opposed to the definite upward slope in the passing data.

(Read more here!)

Ben Baldwin has illustrated it on an individual level. Here’s a chart in which you want to see your RB in the upper right-hand corner, as far high up and as far to the right as possible.

Most running backs spent 2018 costing their team points and living on the wrong side of success rate. Yes, even the good ones.

So what are we to say of supreme individual efforts? “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” — Soren Kierkegaard

If you can’t get around obstacles at first, perhaps the words of Blaise Pascal will ring true: “Nature is an infinite sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere.”

So what future hath the run, and by extension the running back? To quote Lao Tzu, since that’s what we’re up to today: “Do the difficult things while they are easy and the great things while they are small.” So yes, run less often, into less stacked boxes, and use play-action, is what he meant.

Because no matter how good the run game is — how much talent fills the room, how many tackles they break, how well they learn the offense — the Seahawks’ playoff-making or non-playoff-making will be driven by the on-field performance of one Russell C. Wilson, quarterback. Specifically, it’ll be driven by his performance on the too-few downs he is permitted to utilize the forward pass.

To win, you don’t need a strong ground game, although it doesn’t hurt. You need a good quarterback, or a good enough defense to turn the opposing quarterback bad, thus offsetting the inadequacies of your own guy under center. Seattle already has the good quarterback, the most valuable asset in all of American professional sports. (Besides, maybe, a wealthy and humble owner, which, we miss you terribly, Paul.)

So maybe there’s no reason to be optimistic, pessimistic or nihilistic about the RB room. Maybe put your trust in Russell Wilson instead, who has only proven for seven seasons that he is deserving of it.